Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Developer: Conspiracy Entertainment
Release Date: April 18, 2007
It's easy to assume the moral high ground about scantily clad, superficially attractive girls in video games, either because it serves some affected, above-it-all sense of self or because one truly invests in a conservative morality. But the fact is that lots of young men like scantily clad girls, and lots of young men play video games. Publishers in pursuit of sales will, from time to time, put these two interests together and hope for the best.
(I should note here that by "young men," I mean ages 18 and up. The ESRB designation for Pocket Pool is M, Mature, rated for ages 17 and up, measuring by what I'd call a fair yardstick, since some of the materials in the unlockable content are indeed, thus quoth the ESRB, "prolonged scenes of graphic sexual content." It's nothing obscene, per se, by any reasonable standard, but if you ask me and I must act in loco parentis on a grand scale, this should have been an AO, Adults Only, title, and Pocket Pool is not for gamers who are not old enough to sue or be sued.)
The first such console title acquiring a particular infamy — although certainly not the first video game of its kind — was BMX XXX, known more as a bad game than a bad influence, rather not being as nasty as it wanted to be. The extreme sports game featured in-game graphics of women in various risqué attire and unlockable video content of real girls in similar circumstances. So goes Pocket Pool, marrying a sport, loosely defined, with girls in various states of undress, and unlockable content at a more or less soft-pornography level.
My chief complaint with Pocket Pool is that its presentation confuses me. If the game is intended as a parody of stereotypical ultra-low-budget porn videos, it's a smashing success. The whole package smacks of cut-rate production, replete with a dime-store synthesizer looping soundtrack, hideous menu interface graphics, board-stiff in-game graphics, poorly realized environments, horribly edited static graphics and egregious voice acting. If you've ever been to the wilder flavor of bachelor party, you've seen this before. The problem is, I don't think the developers are kidding around. Slipshod, talentless hacks, sure. Certainly a joke, but not intentionally so. I think they were aiming for as much context-specific protocol as they could muster. Please, if they were kidding, someone let me know, and I'll apologize, but I believe they were serious — as serious as these things get — and if so … well, don't quit your day jobs. (My stars, these are their day jobs.)
The physics of pool are rather elementary. It's perhaps not so easy to master with tangible objects at hand, but the task of coding a decent simulation of pool is strictly low-level, undergrad computer-programming course fodder. Yet, like most simple things, this is easy to screw up just by virtue of its obvious simplicity. However, the developers did just fine here. The physics are fully believable. Spin or English works as it should, and caroms end up where you'd expect them to go. Really, save the particularly ghastly presentation, Pocket Pool is a nice little pool simulation for the PSP. Included are, of course, a couple of 8-ball variety games, 9-ball for the purists, with some variations, and such extravagances as snooker and oddities like "killer," an elimination-based game. Frankly, it's much more than you'd expect from a budget title that, due to its salacious bonus content, would sell near as well with a mere 8-ball variation and those slinky videos. In fact, the general quality of the pool games themselves makes me wish the developers had excised the hot-mama gimmick and instead concentrated on improving the in-game graphics, audio and CPU-controlled opponents. The opposing AI is a 10-year-old boy gouging the felt on Dad's basement table: that is, all shots are executed at maximum power regardless of the clear argument for a deftly placed, gentle transfer of motion from cue ball to target.
Pocket Pool's control system works well. Little use is made of the single analog stick, but the button-based shot meter, cue placement and the like are more than acceptable in a handheld title. The pool table is viewable from almost every imaginable angle, a distinct boon, and all the difference, in sinking a difficult shot in a game of 8-ball or avoiding a foul by properly striking the next ball in sequence in a 9-ball round. Again, here's another place the developers could have easily shorted us, but they didn't. There are unlockable tables and cues — as well as halls and rooms, and those all-important still images and videos — but they make no apparent difference on play. You're also required to select a character, a pool-shark persona, to play. There's no notable variation in skill or specific talent between characters; they exist only to pop off stupefyingly dull wisecracks at their opponents between turns at the table. Each of them has a brief backstory, if you can believe it. There's also an ad hoc Wi-Fi competitive mode for two players, if you can talk someone else into buying the game. Good luck with that.
As mentioned, the graphics are generally horrible. The PSP is a handheld system, but as you'd interpret from the console's specifications and a spate of recent, really nice-looking titles, it's quite capable of some graphical enchantment. Pocket Pool delivers cut-out environments, cardboard pool tables and felt sans any texture. The ball sets are the highlight, but I definitely damn with faint praise.
Audio and music is unmentionable. If it weren't somewhat worth, even almost necessary, hearing the balls striking one another for something approaching the full pool effect, I'd recommend playing with the volume turned all the way down.
Because the core pool game and its attendant physics are sound, and there are numerous game types included, I can't write off Pocket Pool altogether, especially if you like pool in the first place. As it's presented, it's an utter piece of garbage, except for, curiously enough, the pool part of it. For the developers, here's how I'd go at it next time (have your girl call my girl, we'll talk): Nix the ridiculous pun title and call it PSP Pool instead; drop the unnecessary, embarrassing characters altogether; hire some decent illustrators, texture designers and a musician who can manage just one listenable full-length number for the soundtrack; expunge the girl gimmick and instead provide as unlockable items things like quality pool cues that actually have an effect on shot accuracy or power and for bonus content, license some video of the masters — Efren Reyes or wunderkind Wu Chia-ching, for example — holding court over the felt. In that, you'd have a good handheld pool simulation.
Ignoring all else in favor of the pool games themselves, Pocket Pool is a fun, pick-up-and-play pool title with more features and better controls than you'd expect, accessible to both pool fans and casual gamers alike. If you're looking for a parlor game simulation or a pool title in particular, I'd even say give it a go. Just don't play it on the train to work, pervert.
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