I played a fair bit of pool in my college years. I was never any good but always had a good time. Playing pool is a uniquely fantastic social event that captures the perfect balance between having enough things to do to keep you distracted and entertained and providing just enough pauses in between to keep things social and conversations flowing. I understand the attraction pool has as a real life activity. I'm not, however, sold at all on it as a virtual experience. And I think that's why I actually really enjoyed Pool Nation FX.
I've heard this game take a few knocks for not being as realistic as some if its competition. To be fair, I've not actually played that competition and don't plan on doing so. Because it is in deviating from the hyper-realism where I derived the most pleasure. It's like the putting greens in an old Tiger Woods golf game. It's nothing like really playing golf but that's precisely why it was so much fun. I'm not trying to say that Pool Nation FX is to pool what Mario Kart is to racing. Far from it. There is a very good, polished sim under the hood that combines some solid ball physics powered by the Unreal engine behind a very slick presentation. This game can and does pass as a proper pool simulator, but that's not where I found it to be the most fun. The joy came from cranking down the shot difficulty and smashing through games, tournaments, even a career at breakneck speed. When you absolve yourself of the minutiae of eyeing up there perfect angle unassisted and just let the virtual guidelines of the easier shot difficulties take that burden, there is a super fun time waster that lets you blaze through one game after another, and leaves you thinking "hmm, well maybe there's time for just one more." And that's every bit a hallmark of a good game as is super-realism, if not more.
And then building off that, as your talents progress and the time-wasting becomes too easy, you can take those training wheels off by tweaking that shot difficulty back up. So out of the box it provides an easy joy of burning through games but also has the room to grow with you as you want to challenge yourself that little bit more and more.
A bit about the nuts and bolts of the game: the graphics are excellent. Everything seems to be lying under bright lights with a fresh coat of wax. The balls and cue positively shine in these condition and the gleam is striking. There is a lot of detail but some of it crosses over into the unnecessary. There is a wide range of decals you purchase to customize the felt of your table, but they do little more than become a distraction. Also each pool hall gets a nice, sweeping flyby before each match showing off the detail of the locales. But why? As soon as you rack up the balls there is never a reason to wander an eye past the edges of the table itself. A lot of detail ends up going into a background that only really comes into play as eye candy for those few seconds as the match loads. Better than nothing though, right?
There is also a good suite of options for skins for your balls and cues. You can use your career mode earnings to upgrade one at a time, or purchase the whole lot with a micro transaction, but there isn't a proper gallery to show them off, or even one to get a solid look as you browse the catalogue. I'm pretty sure that one cue is a light saber and man, do want; but from the photo description it's not actually all that clear.
The music is there, but it's pretty meh. There's no reason not to turn it off in the options and just kick your own tunes in the background. Which actually makes a lot of sense when you think of how pivotal a jukebox can be to a real pool hall experience anyway.
There are enough game modes to keep things interesting. 8 ball, 9 ball and snooker are all represented as games and you can play online, quick matches, or that career mode where you wander the globe and take those virtual flybys of pool halls working your way through the brackets. There are also daily challenges for extra loot and an endurance mode that adds balls to the table at regular intervals and becomes a frantic race against an ever increasingly crowded bit of felt real estate.
On PC you can use mouse and keyboard or there is controller support. Both are a bit of a mixed bag. I found the controller was much easier to fly around the table and change viewing angles but wasn't crazy about the shot and power mechanics up pulling pack on the sticks. Switching to the mouse was the sweet spot for me. It became more cumbersome to sweep around the alternate table views, but the shot mechanics were bang on and using the left click to shoot and the right click to skip though the resulting animations (and especially when my opponent was shooting) created the bliss of blazing through matches and trying to squeeze in that one more.
There is some missing middle ground in the options. All the balls are gorgeous, but you know what I'd really like as well? One set of 15 chipped and mangy looking ones as well, a scuffed skin for a table, and maybe one seedy locale where you swear you could smell the stale beer and cigarettes through the monitor. Everything is beautiful in the world of Pool Nation FX but that beauty only comes in one flavor. There is beauty in those salt of the earth type of establishments as well.
There is also this option to get a slo-mo close up when you're about to pocket a ball. I don't mind the pocket close up so much but as the motion slows down it breaks the 4th wall of being immersed in a game of pool. Especially when I just hit a harder shot than I am expecting to watch in slo mo, and then get jolted back to reality as the rest of the motions jump back to speed in real time. I guess there a reason why slo mo is best utilized on replay, because it is a bit jarring shoehorned into the flow of action. Now this can be turned off and I was glad to do it, but at the same time when you sink that final ball it would be really nice to have that slo mo back in the endgame. So while I appreciate the option to turn slo mo on/off, I wish there was a 3rd choice for only on final balls.
All in all there is a good variety of gameplay, a very nice presentation of that gameplay, the ability to have a lot of fun clicking away at matches that don't bog down when you're not in control, mechanics in place to grow the experience as your skills grow with it, and enough options to change things up. It's a great little package, and comes in at an even better price, available now on Steam Early Access for just $12.99. This is not a game that could carry a Triple-A price tag, but for under 15 bucks I think it's a great value.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...