As far as sports games go, pool has been seriously underrepresented on the Xbox 360 in North America. Players have generally been limited to Bankshot Billiards 2 and Inferno Pool on Xbox Live Arcade. The first game launched alongside the Xbox 360 in 2005 (so it's a tad dated), and the second is no longer available on XBLA. In short, there's a void to be filled, and Pool Nation looks to be more than capable of doing so.
The first thing you notice about Pool Nation is the extreme level of shiny present throughout. The developers over at Mastertronic have obviously put a lot of effort into the visual presentation. Pretty much everything except the felt on the pool table is a reflective surface. Colored lights abound, with soft glows emanating from lamps, chairs and wall decorations. There's even a slow-motion action cam that activates when you get a close shot. It's all far from realistic (and a bit over-the-top), but it establishes a consistent look that sets the game apart from the rather bland, top-down only affair that is Bankshot Billiards 2.
Where Pool Nation focuses its realism is in the physics engine. The balls and the table appear with a high degree of accuracy, so shots generally play out as you would expect. If you can set up a shot in real life, you can set up the same shot in Pool Nation. However, this doesn't mean every game is 100% repeatable. Just as there are small variations in how balls are racked in real life, there are small variations here. Breaks can be similar, but you're not going to see the exact same roll just because you used the same amount of power. Instead, each game is modeled by the physics system as it happens.
Various levels of training aids are available, allowing for players of different skill levels to customize the level of challenge. At the most basic level, the game shows you the path of the cue ball as well as the expected path of the first ball that you're going to hit. While this level of detail makes the game easier than expected, it can be a great way for a beginner to learn the intricacies of pool. Once you have a feel for how the balls ricochet around the table, you can turn down the assist level.
When it comes to actually taking a shot, Pool Nation provides a wide range of options. You can adjust aim as well as the angle of your cue stick. This is useful if you're trying to jump the ball. Spin can be applied by selecting where to hit the ball. Power is adjusted by moving the right analog stick. The farther back you pull, the stronger your shot. You flick the stick forward to actually take the shot. A power lock button allows you to set a specific power level and then fine-tune your aim before taking the shot. It's sort of like a cruise control option on a car.
Oddly, the default sensitivity setting in Pool Nation is almost unusably high. Trying to aim with the game as shipped requires extreme levels of precision. Thankfully, this is quickly remedied in the options menu. What's not quickly remedied is the AI. In Pool Nation, the AI is either really good or really bad. If it's not missing every other shot, it's running the table and playing a perfect game. With no real middle ground, playing some of the higher-level tournament games can feel like a crapshoot.
Playing against a human player is much more satisfying than going at it with the AI, but don't plan on too many random pick-up games. Pretty much all of your versus play is going to be with a local friend or via a pre-scheduled Xbox Live meet-up because the online Pool Nation lobbies are bare. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a large number of billiards enthusiasts on Xbox Live.
Two minor issues involve the game's color palette. The first has to do with the power gauge. Rather than use a single color, it starts out green and then gradually turns orange before turning to red as you increase your shot power. This sounds great on paper, but in practice, it stumbles as it can be difficult to see the green power meter when you're playing on a green table in an overhead view. Since a light touch is key to many close shots, having any sort of confusion here is not a good thing. The second time the color issue comes up is when you're playing on a blue table. Again, with the overhead view, it can be nearly impossible to see the number 2 ball (solid blue) on the table, as the color is virtually identical.
Game-wise, Pool Nation offers up eight variants in addition to its touted Endurance mode. The regular eight include 8-ball and 9-ball (the two American pool mainstays) as well as golf, killer, rotation, speed, straight and 3-ball. Golf requires you to make a shot in each pocket, in order. Killer gives you three lives; if you miss a shot, you lose a life. Rotation assigns points based on the ball number, and the first to 61 wins. Speed is all about clearing the table faster than your opponent. Straight scores one point for any shot made, and the first to 30 wins. To win in 3-ball, you must drop all three balls in fewer shots than your opponent.
The variety in game modes is much appreciated, but it's also here that Pool Nation misses what could have been a golden opportunity: custom rule sets. When it comes to pool, variations on rules are as American as apple pie. In some places, you have to call your shots. In others, slop is allowed. Some folks play with the rule that you can hit any ball, so long as it's one of yours that goes in. Others require you to hit only your balls. Here in Pool Nation, it's their way or the highway. There doesn't appear to be any way to customize the basic rules.
Endurance is an interesting mode. The goal is to last as long as possible. New balls are constantly added to the table, and once the total reaches 24, the game is over. Successfully dropping your shots adds power to a time meter. When full, this meter can be used to temporarily pause the addition of new balls. The catch with Endurance mode is the controls. With the default sensitivity, trying to quickly line up your shots is an exercise in frustration. Once you find the sensitivity sweet spot, the Endurance mode is a lot more fun.
Pool Nation isn't a perfect pool game, but it's a huge step up from what's come before. If you're not already a billiards fan, Pool Nation won't make you one. Conversely, for those dying to scratch the billiards itch, Pool Nation is sure to satisfy. It is the best pool game currently available on Xbox Live Arcade.
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