Though it's been more than two years since Interplay released Virtual Pool 2, there's no question that it's still the best pool simulator. Of course, some might say it's merely a case of a big fish in a little pond - you can count the number of Virtual Pool competitors on one hand. But that doesn't change the fact that just about everyone from casual pool enthusiasts to hard-core billiards fans agrees that 1997's Virtual Pool 2 delivered an experience as close to the real thing as you could hope to see on a PC monitor. Interplay even backed the game up with an impressive guarantee: You would get a full refund if you didn't see improvements in your real pool game after applying the techniques and strategies featured in Virtual Pool 2.
Virtual Pool Hall carries the same guarantee as Virtual Pool 2, which isn't surprising since a closer inspection of the box copy reveals that it's basically just Virtual Pool 2 with a handful of enhancements. Arguably, Celeris achieved such high standards with Virtual Pool 2 that there was no way to raise the bar much higher in Virtual Pool Hall. Then again, after two years it's certainly reasonable to expect more than a few new modes of play, a new table, and slightly improved physics and artificial intelligence.
Each game in the Virtual Pool series had great graphics for its time, and Virtual Pool Hall is no exception. Even in software rendering mode, the balls and table look top-notch - you really couldn't ask for much more. There's actually very little difference in detail between the software-rendered and 3D-accelerated graphics; you have to squint to tell them apart. You can make the game run more smoothly by switching resolutions, although I experienced several game crashes while trying to switch between software rendering, my primary 3D accelerator, and my Voodoo2 card.
But while Virtual Pool Hall scores high marks for its table graphics, it doesn't handle other visual elements as well, such as the playing environments and opponents. Psygnosis' Expert Pool at least made an effort to bring some variety to the pool-playing experience; on the other hand, Virtual Pool Hall hardly tries at all. There are apparently only four available venues in the game, which are assigned automatically based on the type of table you select. For instance, choosing a barroom table takes you to The Hawg Pen. In fact, the barroom table is one of the few additions to the game. You'll also find the traditional championship table, as well as tables for snooker and billiards. Otherwise, the game's minimalist background scenery isn't the sort of shortcoming that'll stop you from playing, but you'd think a little more effort would have been invested in lending the simulation a more realistic appearance.Virtual Pool Hall features 128 computer opponents, and you'll have to take Interplay for its word when it says these opponents have enhanced artificial intelligence, mainly because there's no good way to tell. It's not like you actually speak to the opponents; just as in Virtual Pool 2, you compete against invisible players whose shot-making abilities run the gamut from awful to astounding based on easily understandable numerical rankings. At first I was a little disappointed that Virtual Pool Hall lacked rendered opponents - all you see is your invisible opponent's cue stick taking the shot - but then again, rendered opponents didn't actually succeed in making Expert Pool more immersive. The bottom line is that Virtual Pool Hall's gameplay is as fast and enjoyable as ever, rendered opponents or no.
Virtual Pool Hall doesn't have many other features besides the improved graphics and computer players. Some new game modes have been added, including 15-ball, cribbage (sinking two consecutive balls whose total face value equals 15), cowboy (a combination of carom and billiards), Honolulu (no straight-in shots), and bowlliards (run a rack of ten balls for a strike!). You also get snooker, which may or not be appealing to you, and two types of billiards (one- and three-cushion) - but for some reason you can't play either billiards variation against the computer.
Which brings us to the biggest problem in Virtual Pool Hall: lackluster multiplayer support. Playing against 128 computer opponents is great practice and a real blast for a while, but even average players will be itching to take on human opponents before long. But all you get from Interplay is a section in the manual that suggests you use Kali, a third-party software package, to find opponents for online play. Kali was great back when it was the cheapest way to play multiplayer games over the Internet. But because Virtual Pool Hall features DirectPlay support, you don't actually need Kali to play online; it only serves as a clearinghouse for meeting potential opponents. At any rate, there's little competition to be found on Kali, so you'd be better off heading to the Celeris web site instead and using its links to various Virtual Pool sites to find live opponents.
If you're looking to buy your first pool simulation, Virtual Pool Hall should be a no-brainer: It has incredibly accurate physics and a wide and satisfying array of pool variations that make it the most realistic and addictive pool sim you can buy. However, it's the best simulation on the market by default, rather than because it couldn't have been better.