Pool is one of the most universally accessible and rewarding sports known to man. As long as you can reach the bar, you can play pool, and if you can buy and quaff a pint then you can probably play it pretty well. Enhanced self confidence and lowered inhibitions means that you can waltz up to a table in any establishment, blearily slide the cue behind your back, play the ball off four cushions and still pot something useful to a shower of congratulations. It's just fab. The best. Carlsberg invented it. Probably.
However, our early forays into the world of Archer Maclean's 3D Pool under the influence of Speckled Hen and Beck's were not the most productive gaming sessions we've managed. (Which is just as well really, because we've heard more stories about GBAs lost on ill-advised benders than we've heard Microsoft deny rumours.) After staring blankly at the interface for a while, we simply gave up, went to bed, and came back to it lucid the following morning. At which point we worked out how to play a shot. From then on, it was smoother than a John Virgo waistcoat. Or an aspirin milkshake - something we could've done with.
As you might imagine, pool is a difficult sport to get right on such limited hardware. Although the GBA can handle the odd polygon here and there, you aren't going to see chalk marks climbing up and down the rolling balls, glossy 3D backgrounds or masses of detail - the CPU is best saved for the difficult calculations involved in potting the black and then screwing the cue ball back the length of the table to face the nine-ball. And, trust Archer, that's what developer Ignition has done.
So to those of you expecting some sort of 2D, top-down air hockey with pixellated sticks, we're sorry to disappoint you. 3D Pool is, as the title suggests, pool done in 3D, albeit without the frills of its big-screen brethren. You spend most of the game lining up shots, adjusting for spin, tilting the camera for the best view, and working out how best to exploit One Eyed Jack, or another comically named opponent, who just potted the cue ball and left the nine-ball sitting innocently next to the centre pocket. It may not have the shiny outfits, but everything on the table is rendered with a surprising amount of detail, and the flat shaded polygons (ala the 16-bit Star Foxs/Stunt Races of old, or the GBA's own Star X) work really well here.
In fact, 3D Pool is worthy of that wretched PR cliché that we really must put a lid on: it's "fully featured". When you step up to take a shot, you can change the strength of the shot by dragging a cue graphic up or down the side of the screen (the more of it disappearing off the bottom, the stronger the shot); you can add spin on four axes, and the game shows you where the cue will strike the ball; you can add a Virtual Pool-style aiming line to the screen to show you where the cue ball will go; you can rotate the camera any which way (with left and right rotations bound to the shoulder buttons); and you can place balls on the table or centre the camera on the cue ball again. You can even chalk your blimmin' cue.
All of this functionality is available to you because instead of just mapping options to the controller buttons, the game gives you a PC-style cursor and lets you click on the various icons on a HUD (which can be positioned along the top of the screen or down the left hand side, the latter using extra space to give you little descriptions of each button's function). Although this means there's no Virtual Pool-style physical cue control (Has this ever been done? Is there a console pool/snooker game with Tiger Woods-style analogue "True Control"?), the wealth of options means you still retain precise control over the angles, spin and strength of your stroke. Much better than a strike-it-lucky power meter, we're sure you'll agree.
With 8 ball UK/USA and 9 ball USA options, support for single/two player games (and even a multiplayer tournament) for those of you willing to pass the console around (or play it on a Game Boy Player), surely the only thing missing is a trick shot option! And, er, it isn't missing. In fact there's a pretty slick Trick Shot Editor mode. Gotta love trick shots...
Listen up, class
Fully-featured indeed, then. (Dammit!) However we do have a few pointers (and we understand that Ignition is listening, so we're going to be particularly honest). Right now, actually playing 3D Pool is a bit less than fluid until you learn all the options instinctively. For a good hour or so, we found ourselves having to continually rack our brains with each new shot, because with so many options it's difficult to get into a rhythm. What we'd like to see is a tutorial mode that introduces players to each feature one by one, letting you try things out every step of the way. If we'd had that, we might have spent less time fumbling. The same goes for trick shots - don't just dump us next to the ball!
Also, we're not the biggest fans of the camera. Unlike one of our favourite ball-clacking PC pool titles, Arcade Pool 2, there is no top-down view from which to observe your shots in motion. What the camera does is stick with the cue ball, capturing its movements, but often missing out on some of the best pots. What we'd like to see is a top-down or at least a stationary camera that captures more of the action and doesn't throw the perspective around a bit willy-nilly. Far from marginalising all the effort that went into doing pool in proper 3D on the handheld, this sort of option would actually complement existing options.
Furthermore, although we appreciate being able to rotate the camera round the cue ball using the shoulder buttons, the camera currently moves slowly in order to allow you the maximum subtlety in your adjustments. We'd like to be able to hold down a button (perhaps the oft-neglected Select - he needs a champion) and see that rotation speeded up, allowing us to choose between sweeping round and fine-tuning as we see fit.
And the thing we want more than anything? First, a bit of background: 3D Pool doesn't have all the frames in the world to play with, so when a ball heads of into the distance, it visibly shrinks a bit more at intervals. This is fine in the course of normal play, with balls speeding around, but when we're being precise, it would be nice to know whether the cue ball is likely to have shrunk enough to fit past the green and hit the red as required. The good news is that with a line to show you how the cue ball will rebound off cushions already an option, all we need is to see it reflect the direction the ball will go when it strikes its first ball. How's about it, fellas? It's not cheating, there's no need to plot an entire shot with white lines ala Virtual Pool, it's just a way to avoid unnecessary fouls.
Go on, take a dip!
All said and done though, we really like 3D Pool. Ignition hasn't just ransacked a cupboard-worth of old PC pool titles for inspiration, but has instead tailored the game remarkably well to the handheld. It's a simulation with proper physics and rules, which exorcises its "wacky" demons on balls that occasionally make faces at you when you put the pad down, rather than time limits, crazy power-ups and other dumbed down console options. We understand that the game is in a fairly volatile state, with many of its options still not finalised and lots of tweakage underway at Ignition, and it'll be interesting to see the formula that the developer finally settles on. Rest assured though, we'll be standing by to see how they've done when the game pitches up at retail, which should be around December 19th. In off the red, eh?