Billiards is one of the few sports that's as taxing on a computer screen as it is in real life. It's played in pubs, after all, and its legendary star was named "Fats."
Unfortunately, most virtual billiard games are behind the 8-ball in terms of quality, with poor physics and convoluted controls. What's so hard about replicating a stick hitting a damned ball? Dunno, but the latest attempt, Pool Party for the Wii, chalks up and breaks, but mostly just scratches.
The Wii's motion controls and cue-like appearance lend themselves to pool -- no wonder there's a billiards mini-game packaged with Wii Play. But that bare-bones 9-Ball match left pool fanatics craving more, like Wii Sports golf compared to Tiger Woods.
Happily, Pool Party offers 13 game variations, from Straight Pool to 9-Ball to 8-Ball, as well as novel games like Snooker and a timed race to clear the table. Unfortunately, the hustle is on all too soon: Rather than being able to create an avatar of yourself, you must choose a goofy-looking hunk or babe, each with a dumb backstory that has no bearing on anything. Ronald, for instance, is a "So-Cal surfer who knows his way in the waves and on the felt."
Perhaps you'd give two craps about Ronald if each match weren't a one-off affair, but Pool Party offers no career mode or achievement records. Additionally, the "extras" -- like new tables and racks -- are worthlessly cosmetic and have no impact on play.
Even worse, Pool Party makes disappointing use of the Wii's controller. Hitting a ball in Wii Play meant pulling back the remote and thrusting it forward with as little or as much force as you'd like. Simply setting up a shot in Pool Party, by comparison, takes longer than a match with Stevie Wonder.
The motion controls are way too touchy to line up tricky angles, forcing players to use a cumbersome (though more effective) combination of the analog stick, traditional direction pad, and buttons. A wrist flick to hit the cue ball is the extent of the motion ability, with the joystick (instead of a good ol' arm thrust) used to fill a "power gauge."
The mechanics of actual billiards feel spot-on, but overcoming obstacles -- say, your character's giant head, which crowds the left side of the screen -- to plan each shot becomes maddening. For a game designed for parties, Pool Party all but ensures that your gathering will consist solely of extremely patient billiard junkies. And with no online-play option, you'll be squaring off against Ronald the Surfer more times than you'd like to imagine.
But if you like to win, you're in luck: The computer, it turns out, is a moron. After computing every possible angle and option, your auto-opponent invariably will smack the ball seemingly at random around the table. It's like watching a chess player consider his move for 15 minutes -- and then he chooses to eat one of his bishops.
(Note to the wizard who designed the game's sound effects: If we ever meet, I will use my cue stick on you Sopranos-style. The teeth-grinding tunes are appalling, as is the jarring clang of a fight bell, which lets you know when your turn is up. Every time.)
If you love billiards, Pool Party's variety of games and accurate table physics are good for the occasional lazy afternoon alone. Then again, so is the pub.
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