For a pool title to be enjoyable, three features are essential: realistic physics, multiple points of view, and total control of the cue ball. Virtual pool has all three. The physics feel great: Balls go where they're supposed to and bank realistically (which in my case means my shots fail just like they should). The table is viewable from almost any angle, from right behind the eight ball, to underneath the table itself. Players may even view the action from directly overhead (something only Wilt Chamberlain could hope for in the real world). Control of the cue ball is also excellent: Hitting the ball at different points and speeds creates a wide variety of special effects. And because cue ball control is so good, putting English on the ball is never a problem. The cue stick speed control is awkward at first, but it soon becomes second nature. The PC version's mouse control would be a welcome addition but the Sony Mouse isn't supported.
Gameplay itself offers numerous possibilities: two-player, player vs. CPU (with 15 different levels of difficulty, from inept to masterful), and a one-player practice "free pool" mode. Games include 8-ball, 9-ball, Straight Pool, and Rotation. My favorite use of the game, however, was as a kind of billiards laboratory, trying out more liberal applications of English, slower shots, or more outlandish banks than I would dare use in a real game.
Virtual Pool does suffer from an abysmally slow frame rate (entire breaks seem to occur in four to five frames), and certain angles are a little fuzzy. The images in the score board are also a tad unclear. Don't expect any texturization, either; the felt is one solid block of green (or cyan, or tan). Sonically, the balls clack, thump off the banks, and yield a satisfying thunk when sunk. Predictably for a pool game, these sounds are few and far between, leaving a disquieting silence in between shots. The music is a bizarre hodgepodge of outdated hard-rockin' ballads and love themes. If Return to Porky's II came out straight-to-video, this would be the soundtrack.
Virtual Pool's full motion video (FMV) segments are one of the few instances when this feature adds more than load time to a game. In fact, this feature is principally responsible for the high value score in this review. The FMVs include an interesting and goofy history of pool, as well as thoroughly engaging technique and trick shots sections. More than 40 techniques and trick shots are explained and performed (some of them truly breathtaking) by Machine Gun Lou Butera. Each FMV is completed in roughly 30 seconds, and this kind of brevity is a breath of fresh air in realm of full motion video. After each video, the player has the option of switching over to play mode, with the table set up for precisely the same shot. This is a fascinating and useful application of the technology, with little lost in the translation from FMV to gameplay. Players will master butterflies and escape shots in virtually no time at all.
The first pool title for the Playstation, Virtual Pool contains certain sketchy graphical elements. Its 3-D perspectives, geometric clarity, and wealth of features, however, overcome these shortcomings to provide a realistic pool experience capable of improving real-world gameplay. Virtual Pool is no hustle.