Pool Nation – PS3
Publisher: Cherry Pop Games
Developer: Cherry Pop Games
Release Date: June 25, 2013
Genre: Sports, Puzzle, Simulation
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 4 of 5

When it comes to pool and video games you won’t find a more brutal critic than me. I grew up shooting pool from the age of seven. I had a pool table in my basement for 18+ years, I shot pool at the American Legion with my dad, and I even hustled a bit of pool at my apartment clubhouse. In the 90’s I even helped develop and write a pool game for the PC, complete with awesome 16-color EGA graphics…HEY…it was cool back then.

I’m always eager to check out new pool games and see how technology is helping to bridge the gap between a sport that is all about geometry, instinct, and finesse and then trying to translate that to precise digital inputs. Last October I reviewed Cherry Pop Games’ Pool Nation on the Xbox 360, and while it was a fairly competent and mildly entertaining billiards game it had a few areas in need of improvement. Now, Pool Nation is back; this time on the PS3 with some much needed and much appreciated enhancements. In fact, if you were to break down my list of complaints with last year’s edition, nearly each and every one has been addressed and resolved for the PS3.

Pool Nation offers all of the expected content including a lengthy 9-ball and 8-ball tournament through multiple venues. Along the structured tournament tree you’ll have periodic bonus games like Rotation, or variations of straight pool. Each game in the tournament has three goals, each worth a star, and these stars are used to unlock new events and venues. Stars are earned for anything from winning the game to performing a swerve, jump, or bank shot, or doing a run of anywhere from 4-7 balls just to name a few.

My biggest complaint about any computer pool game is playing the computer opponent. Pool is a precise game of angles and power; all calculations that the computer will NEVER miss, so anytime the computer does miss I feel it’s “letting me win” based on some arbitrary skill setting. Of course in some of the higher ranked games, if the computer does get a chance to shoot it will likely run the table. Then again, given the level of control and pre-shot setup, you only have yourself to blame if you miss a shot in Pool Nation.

My other complaint about any pool game really, and something I learned developing my own, is that there is no way to realistically capture the intuition of setting up your shot and the finesse of actually taking it with anything other than a cue stick and a real pool table. Pool Nation easily has one of the best and most accessible interfaces for setting up your shot, but in doing so takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the game. On the default skill mode your indicator lines will show you the force and direction of travel for the cue ball and the target ball including the cue ball ricochet all but ensuring you’ll make your shot and setup your next.

I can’t believe I’m about to type this but I “really wish they had included optional support for the PS Move.” That would have added just the right amount of randomness and real-world physicality required to turn this from a puzzle game to a pool simulator. Still, as long as you play from the 3D view – none of that top-down view…that’s for cheaters – and crank every setting to its highest level of difficulty and challenge, you’ll still have one of the finest pool games out there for the PS3 or any other system.

Cherry Pop has included several new features, modes, and options that help to make Pool Nation more realistic, challenging, and sustainable for the long haul. First is the ability to toggle the aiming aid completely off and play by instinct alone and we finally have the ability to actually call your shots – no more “slop pool”! The new Speed Pool Online is a fantastic addition to the game, but all of these new features pale in comparison to the new Trick Shot editor that not only allows you to setup and attempt realistic feats of geometric prowess, but also explore outside the world of reality with cool modifiers like speed-up strips, ghost balls, and other clever gadgets to create the shot of your dreams. I dare say you will end up spending far more time exploring this new mode than you will playing the main game.

Graphically, Pool Nation gets the job done with great emphasis on the balls and table graphics. My only quibbles on the PS3 are that the game only runs in 720p and there are some aliasing issues that present themselves in the form of jagged edges; especially on the cushions when viewed at any angle in 3D mode. Even the balls have some rough edges at various levels of magnification. Perhaps the most obvious graphical issue is the horrible banding of solid colors on the table surface. If you look at the table from the top-down perspective you see all these radiant shades of green (or whatever color felt you have) moving out from the center.

Thankfully, Cherry Pop has a fantastic assortment of felt decals that can be unlocked as you explore the various tournament trees and bonus rounds not to mention a bevy of new ball graphics, cue stick designs, and character unlocks. Speaking of characters, the rogues’ gallery from the Xbox 360 version has been completely revamped with new character art – not a huge deal since you only see them in the pre-game setup screen, but still much appreciated.

Pool Nation lacks any hushed ESPN-style commentary or opponent smack talk. There are a handful of musical tracks; mostly light contemporary and jazzy stuff you might hear in a hotel lounge or elevator; all fairly soothing and easy to listen to even after the 100th loop. You’ll probably want to play your own music or adjust your music mix levels if you decide to play this game to its completion, as you are looking at an 8-10 hour career and endless hours tinkering in the Trick Shot mode.

Pool Nation is a fun and challenging pool game than blurs the lines of simulation and puzzle. Once you learn to look past the pre-shot setups and just start playing by instinct with all the aids turned off (and in 3D view) you won’t find a more realistic pool game out there. I’d love to see a PS Move patch just to see if it works as well as I think it would. But the main area of improvement and Pool Nation’s most appreciated new feature is the Trick Shot editor – a mode that will keep you glued to your PS3 for countless hours.

While I will continue to socialize around the “real” pool table at my local pub, when I want to sit back and relax for a casual impromptu game of pool or try out some clever new Trick Shot without risking a rip in the fabric, Pool Nation on the PS3 is where I will be going…plus the beer is cheaper.