I (mis-)spent a pretty big chunk of my youth playing actual, proper pool, and have also had a videogame version of it on almost every console I’ve ever owned. Back in the days of the original PlayStation, my housemate and I used to play pool on it to determine anything from who’d be making the tea to who’d be giving the bathroom its annual clean. Which is all to say that Pool, both real and pixelated, is one of the few things about which I can speak with some degree of authority (there are, admittedly, better things to be an expert on, but there you go). Consequently, I can be a fairly harsh critic of errors, and almost nothing in the gaming world gets me as riled up as missing a shot in a digital version of pool that I know, for a fact, would have worked in the real-life version of it. That said, I also appreciate that most people are probably more tolerant than I am, so I’m going to try and reign in my personal crazy for the purposes of this review, and approach the game from more of a ‘have a bit of fun playing a game’ perspective, rather than a ‘YOU FOOLS, ANGLE OF INCIDENCE EQUALS ANGLE OF REFLECTION…’ type one.
In fairness, even though you’d think that pool games would be pretty easy to make (it’s basically just a more advanced version of ‘Pong’, right!?), it’s actually surprising just how tricky it is to create a genuine simulation of what is, in fact, a fairly complex game. There are a lot of elements involved in actual pool, from geometry to physics, and including a fairly big chunk of probability and randomness, and this means that a game made badly (or by someone who doesn’t fully understand the real game) can be obviously, painfully bad!
Pure Pool, from VooFoo Studios (the team behind Hustle Kings) does not fall into that camp, and it’s enjoyable enough to play. The controls are fairly intuitive and simple to pick-up. Using the right joystick to play your shot for example (by pulling back and pushing forward), is something I wasn’t immediately keen on, but actually ended up liking quite quickly, as it allowed me to play “by feel”, or muscle memory, in much the same way I would playing the real thing. Likewise, lining up shots, adjusting the cue angle, and adding spin to the cue ball are all simple enough to figure out, and if you do get confused, there’s always a handy little instructions bar on-screen anyways. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the impact each of these things has on your shot isn’t, in my opinion, quite as consistent with the real life equivalent as it could be (at least not all of the time) and a couple of times that brought the shouty ‘YOU FOOLS….’ type reviewer in me out (much to the surprise of my neighbour’s cat, who probably won’t be hanging around in my garden again anytime soon). The biggest offender is, by far, the spin elements, and I learned reasonably quickly that I’d have to “forget” the real-life mechanics of it, and instead learn the game’s version of it from scratch (pun *totally* intended). To give an example, in the (literally) thousands of games of pool I’ve played in reality, I’ve seen the cue ball leave the table only a handful of times, yet in Pure Pool, any time I added more than the tiniest bit of spin, my ball leapt into orbit faster than an Apollo rocket. In fairness, this could be because I was doing something else wrong (particularly with the right stick), but it was nevertheless frustrating expecting the cue ball to screw back nicely to be in perfect position for the black, only to see it kill some guy innocently standing by the bar instead.
Speaking of which, the graphics and ambience of Pure Pool are genuinely well done. The tables are excellently rendered (when you’re down taking a shot, you can see the fibres of the baize), and the balls are all but photo-realistic. The pool hall is mostly just background, but the noise, decor, and soundtrack give it a definite air (of at least the classier versions) of the real thing, and at times I was pleasantly reminded of that misspent youth of mine. I became addicted quite quickly again too, greatly helped by the fairly well thought-out gameplay options.
Whilst you’re getting used to the game, you can just ‘free practice’, or enter the career mode, which introduces you to the fundamentals of the game gently, as well as the various types of pool you’ll be encountering (speed potting, killer, checkpoint etc). Gaining XP to level up is easy enough, particularly thanks to a generous “accolades” system, giving you bonuses for various feats and achievements (plus a generous amount of trophies too). Unlocking extra tables/competitions requires gaining stars on/in preceding ones, which means at some point you’ll have to master, say, Killer in order to progress. Depending on how you play, this might turn out to be frustrating. I, for example, breezed through the pot-x-number-of-balls-in-a-row-without-missing type ones, but struggled a bit more with the speed-based ones.
I wasn’t helped, it has to be said, by the “viewing” mechanics in Pure Pool, which was my other main gripe with the game. Most pool/snooker games will give you the option of using an ‘above the table’ view to line-up/check the shot you’re about to play, but Pure Pool forgoes this option. Now, there is a fairly valid argument that this option is “cheating” and therefore shouldn’t be included in genuine pool simulations (and VooFoo themselves have stated that they’re of the opinion that it has no place in a pool simulation), BUT, if you’re going that route, you need to have some of the alternatives/options that are available in the real game, and make sure they work well.
If you ever watch a real player take a bank/double shot, or pot into a “blind pocket”, for example, you’ll see them constantly moving their eyes between the cue ball, object ball, cushion (bank/double) and/or the intended pocket, to check everything’s aligned. The only way you can do that in Pure Pool is to use the touch pad thingy, which is a bit tricky to use, either not looking far enough, or whipping around too far like you’re an owl on PCP. It’s better than nothing, definitely, and is a great idea in theory, it was just so fiddly that I didn’t use it as much as I would’ve if it was less so.
Aside from that, there’s also a ‘stand up and move around the table’ option which does allow you to check, say, balls that are close together at the other end of the table, but not much else, particularly as there’s no way (at least that I can figure out) to “lock” the shot you want to play before standing. Therefore, every time you move around the table, you lose the lining up you’ve already done. As it stands, doubles, blind pockets, cut shots, plants can be extremely frustrating, particularly in the games where you’re up against the clock. Again though, this could be something that just irks me, and I appreciate that the more casual gamer would have little-to-no issue with it.
What Pure Pool does get right though, and commendably so, are ball physics, cushion behaviour, and cloth/baize performance, and these are the very best I’ve yet come across. Potting balls works exactly as it would in the real game – and that means you can utilise cushions, shot power etc. to pot a ball that doesn’t have a straight potting angle. The absence of this is something that has frustrated me immeasurably in most of the Pool games I’ve played before, and it was genuinely refreshing to be able to squeeze a ball past another because the cushion, or ‘camber’ of the table, or cloth speed worked exactly like they would in real-life. Likewise, hitting balls into each other didn’t have them all pinging off one another at ridiculous speeds, meaning that plants were not only possible, but performed exactly like they would in real life too. Finally, ‘middle-pocket’ performance is a great test of a pool simulation (you can, out here in reality land, pot a ball in the middle pocket by playing across it in a particular way, essentially allowing gravity to take over, and “pull” the ball in) and I tried this in Pure Pool and genuinely got quite excited when it worked perfectly – every time.
Anyways (geeking-out over), once you’ve got to grips with the single player/career options, you’ll likely be ready to jump into the more competitive online/multiplayer stuff, and this is an area where I expect most people will spend most of their time in Pure Pool. In general, it’s done reasonably well (although, at present, there seems to be some issues with the servers – which one hopes are just teething problems, and will be sorted shortly), and thanks to the DNA thing, it gets positively futuristic on our assess.
I’ll come to the DNA thing in a minute, but in terms of regular online matches, you can play against an online opponent at any time by clicking on the option in the menu. When the servers did connect me to an opponent, and one who stayed for the duration of the game, I had a lot of fun (being unbeaten helped, admittedly), and I found it an entirely different kind of challenge to playing the game’s AI opponents. The reason I mention the ‘staying for the duration of the game’ thing, is because Pure Pool seems to have an option that you’ll either love, or hate, depending on your patience levels. Like in the old school days when you could play Chess (or somesuch) with somebody by mail, in Pure Pool you can have games running over days, with each player just taking their shot whenever they’re ready. In practice, this means that you’ll have to constantly keep track of the games you’re involved in which, again, you’ll either love, or hate, depending on your point of view (I took to pretending I was a seasoned Pro visiting a pool hall, flitting from table to table and single-handedly schooling everyone in turn, so, you know, I quite enjoyed it).
As of yet, I’m not quite sure how this plays out over time though, so if, for example, I lose games because I don’t take my next shot within x amount of time, I can imagine I’ll be less keen.
Now, the DNA thing. When I initially read that the game would be storing my “DNA” I admit to (stupidly) looking at my controller somewhat suspiciously, but fear not fellow libertarians, it’s not real DNA. What Pure Pool does (or claims to do) is create an accurate profile of how you play the game. Do you, for example, tend to play with power, rely on spin rather than pure geometry, utilise snookers when in a tight spot etc, etc?? All of this is stored so, should a friend want to challenge you when you’re not physically online, they can play an AI version of you which will approach that game in accordance with your playing profile. If that does work, and particularly if it continues to store information over a large period of time, it’s pretty freakin’ cool. And clever.
All in all, Pure Pool is a valiant effort, and the casual gamer in me had almost no complaints, and even the ‘YOU FOOLS…’ one was impressed with way more things than he was irked by, including some genuine ‘Fiiiinallly – someone’s figured that out‘ moments. I frequently found myself losing a couple of hours at a time to Pure Pool, and the old “I’ll just play one more game….” but still being sat there 2 hours later thing quickly became more of an issue than the shot viewing ones. Which I guess is a fairly significant sign of approval given that’s exactly how real life pool got me as a young ‘un.
Currently available in the PS Store for £7.99/€9.99/$14.95 (less with PS Plus) it’s certainly not bad value for money. Whether you really enjoy real-life actual pool, or just want a next-gen virtual version of it to play with friends, Pure Pool is worth the price of admission, and, for me at least, has already provided me with many (many) hours of enjoyment and entertainment.