Like most niche sports games, the latest in Blade Interactive's officially licensed World Snooker Championship series hides the alluring curves of its deep gameplay under an off-putting baggy jumper of basic presentation and clunky interfaces.
One of the problems is that cue-based videogames pretty much hit an evolutionary ceiling after Archer Maclean created his Jimmy White series in the early 1990s. Although things have been refined since then, there's clearly a limit to how much more realistic the physics behind each click-clack shot can be, which doesn't leave a lot of room for new titles such as this to distinguish themselves.
Suffice to say that the green baize action is where WSC 09 is at its strongest. The game engine is capable of delivering nuanced control, enabling skilled players to pull off swerves, safeties and even jump shots with millimetre precision. Assuming you line your shot up correctly, there's tangible pleasure in seeing the white shave past a rogue red to sink the black, just as you envisioned.
No, where the game stumbles is in the other details, the connective tissue that takes a solid ball-physics model and turns it into an appealing game. At the most basic level, the game is drab and even ugly, with bland menus, rigid character models and sluggish loading times. Interstitial animations of players entering and leaving rooms soon become irritatingly repetitive, as does the twangy Dire Straits funk-rock soundtrack. The commentary by John Virgo, with predictably dull interjections from Steve Davis and John Parrot, is even more distracting, full of bad jokes that you have to listen to every match.
Burrow past this less than enticing shell, however, and there's plenty for dedicated snooker fans to get their teeth into. All the major tournaments are available in sequence in the career mode, while both pool and billiards are also on offer should you fancy a minor change of pace and dignity. It's a long-term investment for those serious about the game, with all the qualifying stages included and additional tournaments, like Pot Black, only available to players who can drag themselves up from the middle of the world rankings.
The career mode even makes a decent stab at presenting something beyond a series of frames played in samey locations, with news clippings unlocked in your dressing room for hitting certain milestones (often the same as the Achievements) and sponsorship deals for improved performance. You can also earn a nickname, depending on how you play. There's no real gameplay value to this peripheral stuff, however, and since it can only be accessed through dry menus the attempt to add a splash of glamour falls rather flat.
As mentioned earlier, the gameplay engine is only engaging if you're able to line the shot up correctly, and if the game has one persistent obstacle, it's aiming. There are two control types available - Classic and Real - but both are slippery beasts, different only in cosmetic ways and requiring lots of painstaking left and right tweaking on the analogue sticks to get the angle you need. Each nudge sends the shot further askew than you wanted, and given that snooker is all about the angles, anything that leaves the player feeling out of control at this vital juncture can be a serious barrier to enjoyment. Classic controls alleviate this grievance slightly, with a slower targeting speed available by holding the left trigger, but even then gauging a seemingly simple straight line can be a dark art.
This problem is exacerbated by the steep difficulty curve, which can make early progress in the career a real grind, and dropping a break because of wonky aiming is even more annoying when you know the game itself was tripping you up. There are playing guides, however, including indicators to show which way both the target ball and the white will go, and even where the white will end up. These do a good job of teaching you not only how to pot, but how to set up the next shot or play for a safety, and go some way to balancing things out.
Indeed, there's no doubt that snooker enthusiasts will be able to get past the bland presentation and learn to accommodate the somewhat slippery aiming. Neither are these the sort of issues that do long term harm to a game's potential. But they are irritating enough to deter casual fans, and even for the hardcore, there's not much here to justify ditching last year's edition if all you want is the core snooker experience.