Pool Nation made its Steam debut on October 18th, completing its 3-pronged attack by releasing on Xbox, Playstation and PC, and the PC version even has an extra trick up its sleeve... but unfortunately, it's still up there. Once it's done being developed, the Box of Tricks will be a free update that lets players use the Steam Workshop to construct their own trick shots for other players to enjoy. But for the time being, the Steam version of Pool Nation is largely similar to its console counterparts.
Pool Nation is one of the most polished indie games of 2013- the animations are shiny and smooth, the gameplay is responsive and the physics are realistic. You won't find yourself screaming at this game for bouncing your balls in the wrong direction, or glitching out and dropping your cue ball through the table. With eleven game modes including tournaments, online play, and single-player endurance mode; as well as a slew of collectables to unlock, Pool Nation has no shortage of goodies to keep gameplay fresh.
There are four venues to play pool in, each with three versions- a bright daytime, a somber sunset, and a neon-soaked nightlife version. Before each match you get long, sweeping, Forza-like shots of the pool halls, showing off the chic modernist furniture and high vaulted ceilings before skipping to the table where all the action happens. Visually, the gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from a pool sim- a floating cue taking aim at a cue ball, with halos pointing out exactly where the ball your aiming at will roll. What's interesting about Pool Nation though, is that there is no traditional difficulty settings. Instead of making the AI better, the difficulty is completely up to the player by adjusting their aim assistance. Novice players can have the computer point out pretty much the entire path of their shot, experienced players can reign it in to a mere hint, and the hardcore vets can turn the assistance completely off for a more realistic experience. Putting the difficulty in the hands of the player is a great design choice, it makes the game feel custom-tailored to the player- letting newcomers feel at home without dumbing it down for them or blandly explaining how the game is played. The control scheme is fairly in-depth so it's a little intimidating at first, but thankfully there's a quick-reference button and in-depth tutorials on how to play the game and pull off advanced skill shots and combos. I'll be honest, when I'm actually playing pool, I'm flying by the seat of my pants and relying on luck more than my skill or coordination. Thankfully, in Pool Nation, patience and strategy are the keys to sweeping the table.
The default controls for the PC version is obviously the mouse and keyboard, but you'll want to use a controller if you have one. This game just feels more at home on a controller than with a mouse and keyboard- it's not unplayable by any stretch of the imagination, but it's markedly less intuitive and often over-sensitive. Once you get used to juggling left and right mouse for the different types of aiming, and toggling the O and / keys to switch your view and reset your shot it's not as bad; but once you get your hands on a controller, you won't want to go back.
The single player tournament mode is a series of traditional 8 and 9-ball games broken up by bonus matches where you play one of the more exotic modes to unlock ball sets, pool cues or table decals. Each tournament match you win also unlocks the character you were playing against. The characters amount to little more than pictures that fill space next to your scorebox, but I have to admit I prefer that to having someone lurk behind the table while you line up your shots. Each character also comes with a short bio that adds a bit of humor to the game, like Vlad Molotov who's vaguely reminiscent of Roy Munson from Kingpin. Although some of the bios don't really make sense- like Fronk L'emur, the guy who thinks he's a lemur.
If you get bored of standard tournament play, there's several other game types with alternative objectives like clearing the table the fastest, potting higher-point balls than your opponent, or potting a ball in all six pockets. The non-traditional game modes are just as solid as the standard tournament play, and they show you that Pool Nation has more to offer than most pool games. The endurance mode was definitely my favorite, since it's basically a mash-up of Tetris and billiards. The objective is to pot balls as fast as possible to prevent the table from overflowing, and every minute the balls change color and are added at a faster pace. When the table is reaching its capacity you get this 'low life' warning sound until you either clear enough balls or succumb to the onslaught. The only slump to the game is that there isn't much of a online presence yet. But there are a few new additions to the online multiplayer. In addition to a few basic things like in-game text chat; after you create a match and wait for other players, you can mess around the table in free play rather than just staring at your screen waiting for someone to come along.
The only real complaint I have about Pool Nation is how inconsistent the AI can be. I had one match where I didn't even have a turn after breaking because the computer sank every single shot. And when I did a rematch, the computer missed more than half of their shots while I kept potting ball after ball. More often than not the matches are fairly close, but every once in a while you get those fluke games that make you wonder if the AI is broken
When the computer is really 'on', a single shot can cost you the entire match. I like high-stakes games, but I was still grateful for the Flashback mechanic that essentially gives you two mulligans per match. The beauty of the Flashback is that while it can save an entire match, you don't have to use it if you think it's a cheap cop-out. In fact, you're often rewarded with Challenge Stars for not using them- which unlock bonus levels that award you new decals and ball sets.
Pool Nation is a beautiful game that plays great and has a long shelf life. Because it puts so much in the hands of the player, it hits a really nice balance between accessibility and challenge. Hopefully once the Box of Tricks is released, there'll be more interest in the online play so finding matches is faster and easier. Or at the very least make for some good Little Big Planet-style Rube Goldberg levels.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.