Every game in the Virtual Pool series has come with a money-back guarantee - you get the purchase price refunded if your real-life billiards skills don't improve after you put the game through its paces. We don't know how many people have asked for their cash back in the past, but one thing's for sure: Interplay's investment in the Virtual Pool series has never been safer than with this latest installment. If your real-life play doesn't show any advances after you spend some time with this outstanding pool simulation, you're left with only two possibilities - you're so good that there's no way you can get better, or you don't have any arms.
Thanks to last year's Virtual Pool Hall - a game that offered very few enhancements over its predecessor, Virtual Pool 2 - there are sure to be some Virtual Pool veterans who'll be wary about picking up Virtual Pool 3. But this time around, Interplay and developer Celeris have really improved the game in several key categories - the most important of which are the vastly improved multiplayer support, as well as a career mode that'll help you get ready to tackle the sharks waiting for you online.
You couldn't ask for a sport more suited for online play than billiards; low ping times aren't a prerequisite for satisfying play, and pool is by itself a social sport. But for some reason, previous Virtual Pool games haven't made online play a high priority. For instance, in the case of Virtual Pool 2, Interplay suggested that owners use the third-party program Kali to find opponents. That's changed with Virtual Pool 3, because Interplay has bundled GameSpy Arcade with the game, and finding a game couldn't be much simpler.
Some players might regret the game's lack of support for direct TCP/IP connections, but the bottom line is that GameSpy Arcade works just fine - save for the fact you can't tell how far into a match two players are unless you join the room and wait as Virtual Pool 3 loads. The game has a couple of other shortcomings in the multiplayer mode, to be sure. The documentation is very thin (the manual refers you to three different sources of info for specifics of online play, all of which are woefully inadequate), and conniving players can inflate their ratings by starting a game and refusing to break. If you choose "quit game," you'll see their ratings go up and yours go down. But with online tournaments already being scheduled and plenty of casual games to join, it's easy to overlook these issues.
The star of the game is famous pool player Jeanette Lee, known as the "Black Widow." Lee has probably done more to grow interest in pool than any other player over the last decade, and the instructional videos in which she's featured give Virtual Pool 3 a much more personal feel than you'd get from a more straightforward pool tutorial. Longtime pool players probably won't pick up a lot from those videos, but beginners are sure to find them useful. In addition, if you order the game directly from the publisher, you'll get a free copy of The Black Widow's Guide To Killer Pool, a sizable paperback book that covers everything from pool fundamentals to match preparation, pool etiquette, and tips on how to develop a winning attitude.
Sixteen pool variations are featured in the game, and while most players will stick to favorites such as 9-ball, 8-ball, and straight pool, the inclusion of strange variations such as Bowliards and Honolulu is still worthwhile. Three preset table configurations are available for all games, but any table can be customized for table speed, roll speed, pocket size, and pocket cut. After a few quick play sessions, you'll probably be ready to jump into the new career mode, which starts you out in a basement with 50 bucks in hand. Even relatively inexperienced pool players will stomp on the jokers who play here and at the Hawg Pen (a holdover from Virtual Pool Hall) - but the competition starts to pick up as you advance to larger tables at better venues.
You can use your winnings to buy better cue sticks and cases in which to carry them from manufacturers such as Joss and Viking, but you can go a long way with the basic stick you start out with. It's a little odd that you have to be well into a match before you can check out your career statistics, but one glance at your wallet gives you a pretty good idea of how you're doing. (There is a bug that makes your rating drop even when you win, but this occurs only when you play 8-ball, and as of this writing, Celeris has already announced that the problem will be fixed in a patch.)
It's a bit disappointing that, as in previous Virtual Pool games, you'll still be stuck looking at 3D floating cue sticks during the game, since the players themselves are invisible - but Celeris apparently concentrated more on ball physics and game options than on 3D-rendered characters. The ball physics are even better than in previous versions - balls fly off the table at a prodigious rate when you're playing against low-rated computer opponents, and making shots when you're forced to severely elevate the cue stick feels as difficult in Virtual Pool 3 as it does in real life.
The eight venues featured in the game don't have a lot of ambience - for example, you might hear a beer bottle being smashed, a Harley being revved at the Hawg Pen, the beep of a cell phone, or the meow of a cat in the basement - but there's no denying they look gorgeous, especially at higher resolutions. The difference between the graphics in Virtual Pool 3 and in Virtual Pool Hall is like night and day: The ugly, flat polygons used to render the surroundings of the various locales in the previous game have been replaced with crisp, sharp images of restaurant booths, bar stools, and even a gorgeous view from Jeanette Lee's beach house.
Better graphics, better ball physics, better online support, better single-player action - about the only thing left that you could hope for is for Virtual Pool 3 to be compatible with earlier versions in the series. But because the physics engine has indeed been ramped up, that's unfortunately not the case: While you can load saved games and trick shots from earlier games, you can forget about using Virtual Pool 3 to compete against owners of Virtual Pool Hall or Virtual Pool 2. But that's OK - once those who own the previous games see how much better Virtual Pool 3 looks and plays, they'll be glad to pony up the game's modest asking price. Bottom line: You can't find a pool sim that looks and plays as much like the real thing as Virtual Pool 3 does.