Dynamix's 3D Ultra Group clearly set out to make Maximum Pool a fast, friendly, and inviting pool simulation, and if it had kept those goals at the forefront when designing the interface, that's probably what you would have got. Instead, Maximum Pool often runs the risk of turning a leisurely pastime into a frustrating clickfest.
Rather than trying to match the multitude of pool varieties in games like Virtual Pool Hall and Expert Pool, Maximum Pool sticks to tried-and-true favorites: eight ball, nine ball, rotation, cutthroat, pocket and carom billiards, and snooker. The snooker and carom billiards tables are different because of the nature of those games, but the same blue table is used for the five other classic games. While table color shouldn't be a crucial factor in deciding whether to buy a pool sim, it's still odd that you're not give a selection of other common colors such as red, beige, and green. A bigger shortcoming is that all the tables are apparently the same size, and anyone who's played real-life pool knows tables come in different sizes to accommodate different settings.
Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of Maximum Pool is its "cool games," which can be played on standard or "cool" tables and feature unique rules and often-unorthodox ball physics. In the mad-bomber mode, balls hit by the cue ball decrease from a maximum point value of three until they're worth only one. When you hit a ball worth one, it becomes a time bomb that must end up in a pocket within five seconds (in which case it's worth five points) or else it explodes and the game spots a ball worth one, two, or three points randomly someplace on the table. In the 24-cent mode, balls are worth various coin denominations; you earn the coin value for each ball you sink, but you must strike a ball of the lowest value on the table.
The chameleon-ball game works as its name implies: Balls change colors when struck by the cue ball, and the goal is to sink balls of your color - but you must hit a ball of an opponent's color twice in order to strip away the opponent's color and change it to your own. The challenge in poker mode is to build the best poker hand by sinking balls with card values on them, thus effectively discarding balls of your choice as necessary. And rocket ball puts several turbo-injected balls on the table that start zooming around the table when struck by the cue ball. Any balls they knock in are worth one point, but if the rocket ball drops, you lose your turn and your opponents earn double point values for any balls they sink on the subsequent shot.
These quirky diversions potentially serve to give Maximum Pool a long life on your hard drive, but they are somewhat undermined by the game's bizarre interface that tends to make shot setups more of a chore than an interesting challenge. Instead of mimicking the highly intuitive interface of Virtual Pool and other such games by allowing you to rotate, zoom, and pan the entire view, Maximum Pool forces you to first rotate the stick and then click on a button to access an additional behind-the-cue perspective. Naturally, it's almost impossible to line up a shot correctly in one attempt from either an overhead or angled perspective, which are otherwise your only two options when an opponent's finished shooting.
So to take a shot you first grab and rotate the stick, click on the first-person view to check the new angle, click and drag the stick again, click the first-person button again, click and drag... and you get the idea. All of this could have been avoided if the developers had let you simply rotate the table as you adjusted the angle. Another problem with the shot setup is that you can't lower the view to simulate leaning down close to the top of the table for precision aiming. This option is vital for making shots where there's a lot of green (or in this case blue) between the cue ball and the target, but it's simply not available in Maximum Pool.
You see and hear the game's five computer opponents - two ladies, two guys, and a cute little doggy - in video clips that play in circular windows. Though each opponent has a default expertise level, you can adjust it from novice to expert - but expect to witness some serious runs even if you set the skill to medium. There's also an option to see video clips at various points during play, which give the game more personality than you get from the invisible opponents of Virtual Pool Hall, even though the opponents in Maximum Pool are also invisible when taking shots. Letting the computer opponents make comments during play can lengthen the time between their shots a little bit, but the banter is worth it.
Luckily, Maximum Pool does just about everything right with its multiplayer options. The matchup screen is a seamless part of the interface, and it provides you with all the info you need to decide which Maximum Pool server to join. If you're losing to the computer opponents, it's refreshing to know that you can always take on human opponents instead.
Maximum Pool carries a modest $19.99 price tag, and its smooth multiplayer support could provide plenty of exciting competition. Nevertheless, the gameplay interface can prove to be very cumbersome, but if you can learn to tolerate how it plays, Maximum Pool is a great deal.