When it comes to sports simulations, snooker and pool have a rich and varied history. From the simple Trick Shot for the Atari 2600, via Side Pocket on the NES, Archer Maclean’s Pool for the Amiga and Atari ST, Virtua Pool for DOS, Pool Paradise on PlayStation 2 and Hustle Kings for the PlayStation 3, we’ve reached our current point in the timeline. That point sees us playing Pure Pool, developed by the same team that were responsible for Hustle Kings, VooFoo Studios.
Hustle Kings was a glorious looking game and with Pure Pool, the developers have outdone themselves in the graphics department. The table and pool balls themselves are a feast for the eyes, with some high-quality reflections making everything look absolutely stellar. They’ve even managed to capture the effect of the glaze blur on the edges of the paint on the spots and stripes. Make no mistake, this is a fine, fine looking piece of software. It controls well, too. Everything you need to play is available without needing to use submenus or overly-complex combinations. Aim with the left stick, take your shot with the right, apply spin or English with the B button, and use precision aiming by holding down A. You can hold X and use the left stick to get up and take a better look at the table, too. It all works really nicely, and becomes second nature within the space of a single frame.
Also nice, is the lack of delay. You boot up into the game’s main table view, and press the menu button to bring up match choices. Once you’ve selected what you want to do, you’re right into the action within a second, with no loading. Anyone that’s played Hustle Kings knows that we don’t need to go into detail about the game’s physics either. The developers have got the physics of pool down beautifully here, just as they did a few years ago on PS3. The on-table action is generally of a really high quality throughout. In fact, the only real criticism we'd have is that it can be quite tricky to play slower shots. There's a "fine aim" control in place for aiming, but no "fine power" control that slows down the cue. You generally either get full power or a shade below full power, and if you want anything less, that's left in the hands of the gods. You might get the shot you want, but you just as easily might just stub the cue ball and come up short.
What’s not so great, is pretty much everything else. A very lazy user interface design is in place, with some very amateurish flaws. A “Pure Pool” notification bar lives across the top of the screen at all times during play, for example, showing you bits of information about the match. We’re not sure why it needed to take the full width of the screen, occassionally getting in the way of things, but there you go. Information boxes that usually feature full sentences of text are so small that the text has to scroll back and forth, when there’s plenty of space to display a bigger box and subsequently, the whole string of text. Other design issues come in for criticism, too. On initially loading the game up, we found that within about ten minutes we had turned off the background music (which is a series of very, very repetitive smooth jazz tracks with names such as "Sarah's Hat") and the ambience of the room (which is just people talking) as both were driving us crazy. With the BGM off, we still got information telling us which track had just started playing silently, such is the lack of polish. Also, the game starts with an inverted X-axis, so left is right and right is left. This will be down to personal preference, but we’re not sure why that would be the default setting. In the same options menu, we found that turning off “shot cinematics” made for a more exciting game, too. With shot cinematics turned on, the game cuts to a beautiful slow-motion shot of the cue hitting the cue ball when you make a winning shot on the final ball. They're nice, but the second the camera cuts to the cinematic view, you know that you’ve won before you see the shot play out.
We should also point out that the game’s career mode is nothing but a lazy afterthought. You can only play Amateur US 8-ball to begin with in your career, and find that you have to play five tournaments of this (along with the odd distraction such as games of Killer, or potting against the clock) before you can even unlock the Pro US 8-ball mode. Another bunch of tournaments gets you to the Master US 8-ball level, and once you’ve completed those tournaments, you finally get to play 9-ball in a similar format. It's literally 8-ball against personality-free opponents that are just names and faces for hour after hour. In the majority of these matches, you also can’t turn off the aiming aids which show where the cue ball will go and where the object ball will go. This means that about 80% of the career mode is pretty much a cakewalk. You can, however, accelerate your progress through career mode by completing objectives in-game. Unfortunately, these can be somewhat down to random chance. Getting a career progression star for potting five balls in the corner pockets consecutively in a specific match for example, is somewhat ridiculous given that the chance to do that may not actually ever come about. Of course, you can plan your shots more proactively and try to get all the stars, but that's about the best you can do since your skill won't necessarily guarantee that you can actually get them. "Pot two balls off the break" is another objective which will earn you a star. If it was possible to definitely do that every single time with practice, why wouldn't all professional pool players do it every time they approached the table to break off?
There's also not much in the way of variation. You have your straight US 8-ball and 9-ball, and can play a round of Killer or the score-based Accumulator mode. Every other variation on the sport is an "against the clock"-style challenge with minor changes to the rules.
Fortunately, online multiplayer is well catered for, with leagues and downloadable “DNA Profiles” available so that you can play against representations of real life human players when they aren’t online. This is a good feature, especially when you consider that it’s unlikely that Pure Pool will have the massive online community that will allow you to always be able to find a live opponent. It's also good, given the somewhat random nature of the opponent AI. AI opponents of all levels will scratch the cue ball twice in the row by applying too much English, and then somehow turn into Earl 'The Pearl' Strickland and pot the black with a sidespin shot off four cushions. Failing that, they'll make six or seven relatively difficult shots in a row and then fluff a straightforward pot that the most drunken of British pub players could have managed with their eyes closed. It makes little sense a times, although we suppose that it stops things from becoming too predictable.
But one of the most unfortunate things about Pure Pool, is the fact that it lacks the updates that the PlayStation 4 version has already received. That format saw the game release back in July, and got a post-patch release that added UK 8-ball to the mix and fixed the issue where all AI opponents could work their way out of a snooker, no matter how badly in trouble they are and no matter their skill level. They still do that here on Xbox One, working their way out of a tough snooker using every cushion on the table if needsbe, only to completely miss a straight pot on their next shot. UK 8-ball or even just a representation of UK 8-ball rules aren't included here, either.
In short, Pure Pool is an excellent simulation of the sport of pool, but everything outside of the cue-to-ball action itself is lazily done. It lacks any sort of conviction or way of convincing you to come back and play repeatedly. A poor UI and an even poorer career system means that unless you really get into an online league or find that a locally-situated friend enjoys playing as “Player 2” (no, the game doesn’t recognise a second local player’s username even if they’re signed in – lazy) then this one won’t have much of a shelf life. A passable game that can be good for a couple hours of play, sure, but that’s about the best of it.