If ever a game series has gone unchallenged for supremacy in its genre, it's got to be Virtual Pool. Since it first appeared five years ago, we haven't seen any other pool simulations of much consequence. It can't be a question of profit or market size: Virtual Pool developers Celeris and Interplay apparently did well enough with Virtual Pool, its sequel, and Virtual Snooker to justify Virtual Pool 2000 - so obviously there's some money to be made here. And it can't have a lot to do with technological challenges, either. I mean, seriously - Celeris and Interplay might have made a lot of whoopee over the "realistic physics" in the Virtual Pool games. But I reckon if someone can do a decent job simulating a jet fighter, then figuring out how a billiard ball moves must fall a lot lower on the difficulty scale.
And now the days of Virtual Pool being the only shark in a small pond are over. Expert Pool might not live up to all the advertising baloney on the back of the box, and it's missing a couple of the features found in the Virtual Pool games. But when it comes to re-creating the experience of playing pool and giving you plenty of ways to do it - 19 different game types and a full suite of multiplayer connection options - Expert Pool delivers the goods.
The most important aspects of any pool game are how well it simulates the behavior of the balls and how good a job it does of making the interface seem as seamless as possible, and here Expert Pool scores high marks - with a couple exceptions. You don't get an option to turn on those magical lines showing where the ball will travel once it caroms off a bumper the way you could in Virtual Pool. And there's no way to "walk" around the table and size up the situation: You have to zoom, pan, and rotate around the view you're given at the start of a shot. It also doesn't help that a gratuitous scoreboard floats at the top of the screen to obstruct your perspective as you try to figure out your best shot. It reminds you what ball you need to shoot next, but it'd be nice if you could turn it off as you try to get a good idea of your next move.
Aside from that, though, the action feels both natural and realistic - just as in real life, you've got to take your time setting up shots and executing them if you want to stay competitive. The biggest mistake beginning pool players make is to rush shots; try that here, and you'll see that oh-so-easy shot bouncing off the pocket cushions and winding up God-knows-where. Expert Pool supports mouse, joystick, gamepad, and keyboard inputs, but a mouse is pretty much the only way to go in a pool game, and thankfully Visual Science provides a thorough mouse calibration system to customize the game to your style of play.
While Expert Pool offers both hardware-accelerated and software 3D rendering of the balls, tables, and players, you'd better have a 3D card if you plan on giving this game a try. The software mode automatically (and irrevocably) turns off shadows, lighting ambience, and background characters and even knocks the graphical detail to low. And brother, when they say low, they mean low - we're talking pixels the size of one of those Michelob Light coasters they use down at Triangle Billiards here in High Point, NC. The 3D-accelerated graphics, on the other hand, are acceptable but not breathtaking. Character clothing consists of a lot of flat-colored polygons, balls and tables are good not stunning, and the scenery graphics for each of the game's venues are entirely static and only moderately convincing.
Including 13 different venues for billiard action was a great concept, one that sounds even more appealing when you read about "Las Vegas style pool halls, crowded stadiums, biker bars" and such on the back of the box. But it takes more than a different-colored table and unique background graphics to make one of these cyber pool halls feel unique, and the bottom line is that after a few games you probably won't even notice where you're playing. One reason is because you face the same group of opponents no matter the location. The manual might ramble on about "leather-clad bikers" congregating at the "Shark's Den" and warn you of what'll happen if the guys there lose to you. But when you head there for a game, you'll still play against the same normal-looking characters, staring at bad posters of motorcycles and a couple of half-empty beer glasses in hopes of getting that "Born to Be Wild" feeling.
You've got to give credit to Visual Sciences for trying to liven up the experience, though, and fortunately that same effort shines through in the sheer number of pool variations in Expert Pool. Yes, some of these games are serious cases of flogging a dead horse - rotation, 9 ball, 10 ball, 6 ball, and 3 ball are essentially the same game with the only difference being the number of balls on the table when the match starts. But that doesn't detract from the fact that they've been included. Besides other favorites like basic pocket billiards, 8 ball (three rule sets), and straight pool, you can also try oddities like bank pool, 1 pocket, bottle pool (with an upside-down bottle in the middle of the table!), French billiards, and a few more. Maybe you'll never play some of these variations, but isn't it reassuring to know they're available if you get really bored?
Divided into three skill levels, the 198 computer opponents play about as much like real people as you could hope for: They make the shots you're sure they'll miss and doink the ones they should sink as easily as they did their last drink (not the pros, though!). Expert Pool's single-player modes - single matches, tourney, and a couple of practice modes - make it a good value, but pool is a social game if ever there was one. With that in mind, Expert Pool provides a full array of multiplayer connection options - hot-seat play and modem, LAN, and Internet are all supported - to let you prove what you've learned from the single-player game. I'm not usually a big fan of gaming services like Mplayer or HEAT, but this is one instance where I'd actually prefer them because of the sheer number of people who go online and hang out at such places. But Psygnosis opted for GameSpy support, which means the only way you'll hook up online is if someone's there looking for a game; and every time I checked, I was the only hustler in town. At least it's a safe bet the game plays fine online - the only games more lag-tolerant than pool are spades and reversi.
But I can deal with the lack of cyber-opponents because I've got plenty of pool action on my hands with the single-player game. Advertising bravado aside, Expert Pool doesn't really come close to making you feel like you're really hanging out in a pool room - but it does a great job of making you feel like you're really playing pool. Personally, I'll settle for that until enough people get online who have the guts to take me on - or down, as the case may be.