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Real Pool (PS2) Review

Background Info

Known as EX Billiards in Japan, Real Pool is one of two pool games available for the PS2. Japanese developer Takara (of Toshinden fame) developed this one, which accurately simulates several billiard games. In addition, Real Pool contains an offbeat Puzzle mode that helps separate it from the competition. Unfortunately, an uninspired control system, low difficulty level, and sub-par presentation mar what is otherwise a decent game.

Presentation/Graphics : 72
Real Pool's graphics are quite bland, and they hardly take advantage of the PS2's advanced hardware. Still, the game does have some graphically pleasing aspects, but nothing that screams 128-bit.

Unlike most games, Real Pool does not have an opening sequence. Instead, the game's title screen appears immediately after the developer's and publisher's logo screens. The title screen, which uses the in-game graphics engine instead of a static screen, exposes Real Pool's first major graphical flaw: jaggies! Unfortunately, the graphics suffer from numerous jagged edges, which not only stress the eyes, but also interfere with gameplay. Billiards, after all, is a complex game of angles; how can you possibly line up the perfect shot with distracting jaggies getting in the way of things? To be fair, you will notice the jaggies more if you are using an S-Video cable, particularly the high-quality Monster brand.

While jaggies hamper the look of the tables and cue sticks, the balls have a smooth, shiny appearance that is easy on the eyes. Realistic ball physics add additional visual attractiveness to what is otherwise a graphically unexciting game, since the boring backgrounds are not much to look at. (Some backgrounds are completely empty, while others have objects like chairs and pictures.) Fortunately, the Puzzle mode's wacky table designs bring some much-needed graphical variety. Different felt color, varied floor textures, and decent lighting also help spice up the action. Most of the animation is good, and there is even a goofy "chalk" animation each time you chalk your cue. Apart from some minor slowdown during multiple-ball pockets, the game remains smooth.

Sadly, Real Pool's eight AI opponents are nothing more than static drawings. While the anime-style character design is unique for a pool game, most of the designs are quite stale. And do not expect to see any onlookers eyeing your game -- there aren't any. This, coupled with the bland backgrounds, gives each game an empty, lifeless feel. Adding greater insult is the lack of replays, effectively nullifying the great shots you make. Overall, Real Pool may look impressive in screenshots, but it is not quite the looker it appears to be.

Presentation/Audio : 65
Real Pool's audio presentation fares worse than its visual presentation, as the game lacks sound effects and has cheesy music. Beyond the realistic ball sounds, there is very little in the way of sound effects; i.e., there is no background chatter, clapping/cheering, or tournament announcer. The lack of ambient sound effects really hurts the game, too, because most gamers will want to disable the annoying jazz music. As a result, Real Pool offers little in the way of aural stimulation -- although the variations and subtleties in sound each time the balls hit one another may be enough to please some.

Interface/Options : 70
With long load times and an options menu that can only be accessed during gameplay, Real Pool does not offer much convenience. In fact, just selecting a song from the in-game jukebox can be an exercise in patience while you wait for the selection to load. This leads to another problem: Each time you pause the game, the song will restart from the beginning, which eventually grates on the nerves. Furthermore, you cannot adjust the control layout, but you can view the instructions and each game's rules from the pause menu.

Other in-game options let you toggle the music and vibration on/off. During regular games, you can set the overall difficulty level of the AI opponent, or adjust six unique categories: Individually, Skill, Intelligence, Challenge, Concentration, and Luck. To aid beginners, the manual offers some interesting background information on billiards, as well as a "Mechanics of Pool" section that features a mini-glossary of common terms.

Regarding the interface, the basic control scheme looks like this: the right analog stick controls cue movement, cue ball placement, and shot calling; the left analog stick moves the shot point (i.e., adjusts English and top/down spin); and the X button makes the shot. Other functions include shot-power adjustment (R1/R2), zoom control (L1/L2), a chalk button (Select), and extensive camera control via the D-pad (tilts/rotates the camera) and Circle button (switches between several camera angles). If the HUD gets in your way during gameplay, you can press the Square button to remove it. This is the only control setting in the game, and you cannot customize any of the controls. Sadly, Takara did not take full advantage of the Dual Shock 2's analog capabilities; the analog sticks are not put to good use, and the game does not support the analog buttons.

In brief, you can probably play two games of actual pool in the time it takes to play one game of Real Pool owing to the game's long load times, haphazard controls, and awkward -- albeit adjustable -- camera angles.

Gameplay : 75
In Real Pool, you can sink shots like a pro, regardless of whether or not you are the neighborhood pool shark. This is mostly due to the white line the game displays, which shows where the cue ball will travel. Although you will still need to factor in other elements, such as velocity and the position of other balls, the white line definitely makes things easier for beginners. Unfortunately, you cannot disable the white line, so those looking for more challenge -- and total realism -- may be disappointed. (The only other major oversight is the lack of a bridge to aid in making ill-placed shots.)

Flawed camera control and touchy shot control detract from Real Pool's gameplay. Concerning the in-game camera, the six camera angles do not offer adequate views of the action. Therefore, you must use the D-pad and zoom buttons to adjust the view further. This makes each shot take longer than it should, resulting in long games as you struggle to line up your shot and adjust the view. The uninspired control scheme only makes things worse, since you must use several buttons to do a basic shot. (Why didn't the developer use the analog sticks more innovatively?) Positioning the cue is frustratingly slow and awkward, and the analog sticks, ironically, fail to offer precise control.

Modes of play include several carom and pocket games, and a Tournament and Puzzle mode. Carom games, of which there are five, are played on a table without any pockets, requiring finesse and familiarity with angles. Those who enjoy playing traditional pocket games like 8-ball and 9-ball can choose from eight different games, including the pool-bowling hybrid Bowliards. You can play the carom and pocket games alone (against the computer) or with a friend. Although it is fun using massť and jump shots to show up a friend, Real Pool is not a very exciting two-player game in the end.

The Tournament mode features eight computerized opponents, whom you compete against in matches ranging from basic pool to challenging 9-ball. While each opponent has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, most gamers should not have too much trouble winning games. In fact, the first several opponents offer little challenge. With its low difficulty level (unadjustable) and snail-like pace, there is little reason to replay this mode after you beat it, especially since the progression of opponents and games is always the same.

Real Pool's Puzzle mode is more innovative and fun than the Tournament mode. Playing on 25 odd-shaped tables, you must pocket all solid-colored balls while avoid pocketing any stripe-colored ones. To make things more challenging, you only have a set number of tries to complete each puzzle (40 puzzles in all). The number of tries is equal to or higher than the number of solid-colored balls on the table, so there is room for mistakes. Unfortunately, like the Tournament mode, this mode suffers from low difficulty. All 40 puzzles are immediately playable, and the game does not force you to clear them in any particular order. Granted, several puzzles will require precision and planning, but most of them are fairly simple.

Replay Value : 67
While it offers a variety of carom and pocket games, as well as a Tournament and Puzzle mode, Real Pool becomes stale rather quickly. Moreover, this type of game does not make a very exciting two-player game, especially since a virtual pool match does not compare favorably with a real one. Worsening things are the simple Tournament and Puzzle modes, neither of which require very much skill to complete. Still, you can adjust AI difficulty level for the individual carom and pocket games, but this does not forgive the easy Tournament and Puzzle modes. So, unless you have an extreme love for billiards, boredom will settle in quickly.

Overall : 70
Real Pool is not a terrible game -- you certainly could do worse -- but it is not exactly a next-generation billiards simulator. The presentation and gameplay are lacking, and an awkward camera system makes lining up shots more tedious than it should be, which is a definite no-no for this type of game. Although it provides a few hours of entertainment, the light challenge and questionable replay value limit long-term enjoyment. On the positive side, billiard enthusiasts will appreciate the realistic aspects, while casual gamers will have some fun with the Puzzle mode.

In closing, Real Pool, like most pool games, cannot compete with the real thing, as nothing beats gripping a smooth cue while lining up for the perfect shot. If you must have a pool game for your new PS2, I recommend renting both Real Pool and Q-Ball: Billiards Master to see which you enjoy more.

By: Cliff O'Neill 12/18/00

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