Imagine Thunderbirds crossed with The Thing. Or, buy World Championship Snooker 2003 and see it for yourselves! Honestly, we're not sure why the player animations are so hideous and why their faces look like paper plates with photographs Blu-Tacked on top, but if you're anything like us, first of all God help you, and second of all you'll probably spend a good few minutes staring open-mouthed in disgust at the game's least favourable aspect.
Clack! Bom bom bom...
And yet once you get past the Gerry Anderson sideshow and lose interest in holding the fast-forward button to make the spectators clap like demented seals, WCS2003 turns out to be one of the better console waistcoat sims doing the rounds.
However, it has to be said that falling in love with it was an uphill struggle. Having spent the best part of twenty-seven minutes playing Virtual Pool 3 in preparation for our first snooker outing since that Jimmy White game on the Dreamcast (of which we were sent about seventeen copies), we had high hopes. Perhaps someone had finally come up with a pad-based control system to rival the magnificent mouse-cue system that gave Celeris' poke 'em up such distinction?
Any Virtual Pool fan without a Thunderbirds fetish coming to WCS2003 is bound to find themselves put off to begin with. Prodding the ball pocket-wards is a simple matter of lining it up with the left stick, hitting X, using a slider bar to choose the correct strength and then hitting X again to play the shot. Hardly a revolution in control. If you're not laughing at John Carpenter's The Hendry initially, then you'll be snorting in derision at the control scheme - Monkey Billiards isn't much simpler.
Ł1 a go? Yes, if you only play it 40 times.
Yet a few hours later, we still found ourselves playing it. And, well, enjoying it. It may be called World Championship Snooker, but you can play 8 and 9-ball pool, you can choose your own waistcoat and toothy Michael Eavis visage, and there's even a handy trick shot mode to impress your friends. There are subtleties to the control that aren't immediately obvious, too, like being able to add spin or come in from above to jump other balls, and the physics are more or less perfect.
Once you get the hang of the power bar, there's almost no stopping you, and it's perfectly possible to put together impressive breaks, plants, cannon shots and even fire off the sort of snookers that would mean a pint glass through the chops in our local. The only thing missing is a drunken haze filter and the ability to go for the cheeky behind the back shot. And if you really want that, then perhaps you ought to be at the pub and not stinking up your living room in a heap playing on your PS2.
There are certainly some things that don't stack up so favourably, like the commentary, which is more akin to your best mate belching tips into your ear between shots, and the musical accompaniment, which consists of that parpy tune the BBC sticks in front of World Embassy Snooker coverage, and only seems to play alongside the introductory movie. We had to sit and do terrifying impressions of it on the office kazoo.
And although the character animations are unintentionally comical, they do go on for a while, and turning them off doesn't seem to speed things up much, and actually gets rid of the cues! Holding circle to fast-forward the bits between shots just has the now invisible competitors waddle faster.
Look the other way
But there is tons to be said for the game of pool - sorry, snooker - and the three-tier difficulty system means that as you play it more and more, you can receive decreasingly viable suggestions from the on-screen 'ball lines', which show you roughly in which direction the cue ball and its target should roll, until eventually the game is entirely in your own hands. Although you're bound to find these guidelines a bit too helpful to begin with, potting a red and lining up a decent shot on the black is still a matter of some skill.
Ya see, the Codies have actually made a game which lets you play snooker in a fairly realistic manner, starting off crap and gradually getting further and further into the season's many tournaments as you get your eye in, and given how hard it actually is to pot more than a couple of balls in sequence on a real snooker table, that deserves some applause. It's rewarding, without being stupidly simplistic. Good.
In fact, after a few hours there's only one niggle that continues to grate - the rest that we've mentioned just blend into obscurity and don't cause too much bother. That problem, patient reader, is the camera. A lot of the time, you'll want to pop round to the other side of the table and have a gander at the lay of the two reds by the cushion, or maybe to zoom in a bit and examine a snooker opportunity, but you're actually limited to perching above and behind the cue, and either turning your head from side to side or rotating the camera round the ball. You know, like when Stephen Hendry secretly levitates through the auditorium with his nose attached to the cue ball while everybody in the stand is glaring at the bloke whose mobile phone just went off.
The camera's behaviour elsewhere is a bit suspect too. We're not sure why it feels the need to cut away to different angles the instant you hit the ball, when all you really want is to watch it like you would at the pub: from behind the cue. Mercifully, you can hold triangle to switch to a top-down view, which doesn't wrench your eyes all over the place, but it's difficult to see why we should have to rely on this.
Say goodnight JV
It was doubtless the developer's intention to make a decent simulation of playing snooker like a pro, without demanding the years of hard graft and thorough appreciation of angles, and to a large extent they've managed this. WCS2003 may not look as good as it could do, or top Virtual Pool's still unbeaten control scheme for sheer genius, but it's got lots to do, an unlockable John Virgo trickshot challenge (which is ace), and you can play it sitting down and without being laughed at from behind sexy ladies' glasses of Vodka and Lemonade. That's got to be worth a shot.