Back in 2012, a game by the name of Pool Nation launched on Xbox 360. Pretty much overlooked by everyone other than hardcore fans of cue and ball action, it was a surprisingly good take on the sport, featuring a ludicrously addictive Endurance mode, great visuals, and smooth gameplay.
Fast forward to 2015, and Pool Nation FX has been released on Xbox One as part of the Games With Gold program. Quite what happened in the three years between the two games is anybody's guess, as Pool Nation FX isn't half the game that its predecessor was.
The first thing you'll notice is that from the time you press the A button to launch Pool Nation FX, it takes one minute and forty seconds to load. Quite a bit of that time is spent looking at a pure black screen. Not only that, but once the loading bar does appear and is finally filled, a developer's logo shows, then the game loads for another thirty seconds. All in all, you're waiting for about two-and-a-half minutes for things to get started. If that doesn't sound like much, sit and watch a clock for that long and see how bored you get.
Once you're finally into the FIFA-style (but not anywhere near as clear or usable) menu system, you've got the choice of playing straight up pool in 8-ball US, 8-ball UK, or 9-ball formats, building your own trickshots, playing online, or taking part in a career mode in either the 8 or 9-ball disciplines. You can even play a few frames of snooker, if the mood takes you. Of course, the aforementioned Endurance mode is back again too. Head into this mode and you'll find that a lot has changed. New balls are added to the table at increasingly regular intervals, and your job is to keep potting them away in order to avoid reaching the table limit of 24. Play skilful shots and you'll unlock a temporary period of amnesty – which lasts barely any time at all - so that you can clear balls away without new ones being added. It sounds good and fun and it is, until you've got 21 balls on the table, pot one, and then randomly lose for what seems to be no reason at all.
No matter which mode you play, you'll notice during your first match that there are problems with both visuals and physics. On the graphical side, the game doesn't run quickly enough to catch the most powerful shots. Smash the cue ball off the table at full power as a test, and you'll see that the cue moves, then the ball is gone. You've no idea where, but it's gone. In terms of the physics issues, every table appears to alternate between having both the slowest and fastest baize you've ever seen. You'll play a beautiful long pot into the top corner from behind the baulk line and judge it perfectly, with the cue ball rolling exactly into line with the next object ball. Lovely. Then you pot that object ball and watch as the cue ball hits a cushion and then stops far more quickly than it would in real life, leaving you snookered.
You can work around this to an extent, but when you combine the issue with an aiming system that is so twitchy that you'll need to turn the aim sensitivity down to ZERO in order for the game to even be playable, you may not want to. You can press LB to enter "fine tune" mode in order to slow things up, but this takes things too far in the other direction to be usable on every shot. Of course, turning the aim sensitivity down so much means that Endurance mode is out of the window too, since you can't zip around the table with any sort of speed.
While you're in the options menu adjusting that sensitivity setting, you might want to turn the game's music off, too. Put frankly, the tunes on offer here are pretty much unbearable. In our first match, we were listening to what appeared to be a musician hammering a snare drum every four seconds with the back end of a didgeridoo whilst Dame Shirley Bassey stood in the corner picking biscuits from a tin, occasionally making satisfied "Mmmmm" sounds whenever she found one of her favourites. You'd have to bet that Bassey is a fan of Jammie Dodgers.
Of course, this could well have been a bug, given that at other times in matches against the AI, the sound effects started playing in reverse.
Yes. In reverse.
If those were the only bugs, you could probably say that Pool Nation FX is a flawed title that provides a fair bit of gameplay. After all, the career mode requires you to play no less than six must-win qualifying matches to even get into the first round of each of the tournaments. However, you quickly realise that the game's AI is so ludicrously random that you pretty much have whatever chance it decides to give you of actually winning a match. You'll play a level 40 "prodigy" in a best-of-5 frames match and win after a couple of tries. Then you'll play a level 1 "trainee" in a best-of-7 frames match and get to one frame apiece as he botches a few shots to give you an opening. Then you get to watch has he suddenly goes into overdrive mode and clears the table off the break three frames in a row, making swerve shots, jump shots, pots off five cushions, and all manner of other shots that even flamboyant pool legend Earl "The Pearl" Strickland wouldn't even consider taking on.
Not that you'll see a lot of them, since every time your shot is over, the camera doesn't refocus on the table and you have to move it around manually to be able to see what's going on. That's just a basic error, right there.
It's around the seventh or eighth time that you get beaten by the AI randomness that you decide to take a look at the achievements menu. No harm in racking up a few extra Gamerscore points, right? Sadly, yet another bug means that around half of the achievements don't actually unlock. They're not even complex ones, either. "Play a game of Endurance without any aiming aids on" should be relatively easy to detect, but somehow, Pool Nation FX fails to realise that you've done it.
When all is said and done, you might want to try out some multiplayer matches. You know, just to be sure that you aren't missing out on some hidden pot of gameplay gold. Sadly, there's an issue where if a player disconnects, the entire game freezes and throws you to the dashboard. Guess what happens more often than not when you're aiming at a simple shot on the final ball and your opponent knows that they're going to lose the frame? Fun. If that doesn't float your boat, how about two players seeing two completely different table layouts? We were potting the 12-ball, while our online opponent was telling us that we were aiming at the 5. A bit of back and forth determined that both screens were showing our aim correctly, but that his had the 5 over the bottom corner pocket, and ours had the 12. We potted the 12 and understandably, he's sat there calling out that it should be a foul shot - as on his screen it genuinely was - but to us, it was a perfectly legal shot. Insanity.
All of this comes together to make us feel like Pool Nation FX is nothing but a massive shame. The visuals are absolutely beautiful at times, and there is definitely a bit of the old "I'll just give it one more try" about the game. But at every turn, a dumb design decision or a bug shows up that will just make you want to turn it off and never come back. You probably will, though. Like we say, you'll give it more chances than such a shoddily-finished product really deserves. That's more of a testament to the sport itself though, rather than the game. The more you play, the more bugs you'll notice. The "next match" sign which tells you an event is over one frame, when it's actually over seven. The way the game just freezes for a couple of seconds to indicate that the game is over in Endurance mode. The way that in the same mode, you can get to the point that a warning sound is playing to inform you that you're close to losing, clear five balls off the table and get back to a safe spot, and then listen as the warning sound continues to pierce your eardrums for the entirety of the remainder of the game.
It all adds up, and eventually, you'll stop giving the game more chances. Then you'll wonder why you wasted so much time trying to fall in love with a game that has so many breaks. Ha! We like puns.
We're sure that a patch will fix a lot of the issues - we know that one must be in the works, since the official website confirms that online leagues and other features that really should have been present at launch are coming soon - but that's hardly the point. We can only review what we've got in front of us, and Pool Nation FX is a massive letdown.
Pool Nation FX is hugely disappointing. While the trickshot creator is impressive, allowing you to use apparatus and make trickshots that defy the laws of gravity, the game fails to get the basics right and is absolutely littered with bugs. After the generally high-quality action of Pool Nation on Xbox 360, we expected an enjoyable game with addictive game modes and beautiful visuals. The visuals are generally up there - there really are some stellar scenes and outstanding lighting effects to gaze upon - but when you can't exert any real degree of reliable control in a pool game because the cloth randomly turns to sand between shots and the cue ball rolls differently to the other balls on the table, there's a problem. When games from 15 years ago managed to master the basics of the sport better than your brand new game, there's a problem. Not only that, but when a game is free and yet isn't even worth your time to play it, there's a problem.