When you get right down to it, you're looking for four things in a pool simulation: realistic physics, a good tutorial, control that feels right, and the look of the real thing. Does THQ's foray into the world of billiards make the shot, or does it scratch on the break? A little of both.
The first thing you notice about Ultimate 8 Ball is its realism. From the balls to the halls to the way your 3D opponents complacently chalk up, it's all there. Watching the complex gyroscopic pattern of the number on a ball as it spins to a stop is pretty convincing. While the sound is good, offering the satisfying crunch of a break and the warm, woody resonance of the felt on a bank shot, there really isn't much going on - certainly no more than you'd expect from a game of pool. The theme music for each of the game's 15 distinct halls lends everything from backwoods boogie to futuristic techno to enhance the mood or dampen it, depending on your taste.
Most importantly, the physics are highly realistic. Fine-tuning allows for minute variance in cue stick angle, butt angle, English, and stick speed, all with clockwork accuracy. Of course, this is a simulation, and that level of detail doesn't come without a price. In the real world, you could adjust these parameters simultaneously, in an instant. When you break a shot out into its multiple variables, as you would need to in any simulation, some time is involved and some interface issues arise as you adjust each one.
The gamepad or keyboard controls are probably your best bet with Ultimate 8 Ball. Individual parameters are adjusted with the D-pad (or arrows if using a keyboard), while the parameter itself is selected by holding its designated key. The default shot-tweaking speed is incredibly fast, so it's impossible to adjust most parameters without also holding the fine-tuning button, making each adjustment essentially a three-button operation. Unfortunately, when you are lining up your actual shot (where you want the cue ball to go), control is extremely sluggish - it takes forever to rotate the entire table 360-degrees. Though you can switch to an overhead view to speed up the process of finding your shot, there's no way to speed the actual rotation. This makes using a keyboard or gamepad quite frustrating.
The mouse doesn't have this problem, as its analog nature lets you rotate your shot 360-degrees in an instant. The rest of the mouse interface is more unwieldy, though. Mouse control is accomplished using an awkward system of clicking and holding icons that live at the bottom of the screen (representing the various control parameters) while using the mouse to move an independent cursor on the ball. It's disorienting and feels less natural than the gamepad's more intuitive control. With any controller, you're stuck holding down the fine-tuning key if you want anything that approximates accuracy. Though the mouse does allow for analog control of cue stick speed when it's time to shoot, it's not worth the hassle of grappling with all those icons.
The game has its own strange logic when it comes to its many options. Many of them are earned rather than given. Of the 16 opponents and ten environments, only four of each are available initially. You have to beat the weaker opponents in hustle mode to unlock the real sharks. Winning will also unlock hexagonal tables, tables with dog legs, and more. Fourteen different pool variations are there right from the start though, including eight ball, nine ball, and straight pool, plus some weird ones like tenpin, where each rack of balls is scored like a single frame of bowling.
Any pool game worth its felt is going to have some instructional component. Ultimate 8 Ball has a solid one, rendered using the game's own graphics engine rather than pawning it off to FMV. The tutorial offers a linear series of shots, which can be played in any sequence. Shots range from the basics to some real geometrical mind benders. Here the game's interface works well. For each shot you're given a choice of reading a description, watching a 3D-rendered instructor take the shot, or taking the shot yourself. You may do any of these as many times as you like. Gradually, concepts like English, positional cutting, and draw shots are introduced. The only real drawback to the tutorial is that, when watching the instructor shoot, everything happens so fast that it's difficult to absorb the interplay of angles, especially when dealing with complex shots involving multiple banks.
Ultimate 8 Ball offers most everything you could want in a pool game. Sure, Minnesota Fats doesn't host its tutorial, but there's something refreshing about keeping it all on the same engine. Load times are minimal. Its only real shortcoming is the one you may be familiar with from any game requiring you to control complex three-dimensional geometry in the two-dimensional world of the computer monitor. Unless someone develops an actual cue stick controller peripheral, pool control is going to remain a little dicey.