Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 19, 2005


‘James White’ isn’t actually the best AI player, but he does get a cool, Bond-baddie-style underground base.

Regular FFG-ers (if indeed they exist) may have noticed a new ‘sports’ section appearing in the all-new, bells-and whistles version of the site. At the time of writing, this particular cupboard is looking pretty bare, a fact which has prompted his royal FFG-ness to demand some more content. I guess this is fair enough, really; this is supposed to be my specialist area, and seeing as he does spend hour after hour attempting battling alien races and conquering galaxies, the least I could do is get off my arse and spend a few hours with a sporting oldie.

But it’s not all my fault. The sports arena has increasingly become a case of “better, faster stronger”, with the relentless onslaught of EA seasonal updates reducing discussion of recent titles’ merits to a list of what was different from last year’s effort. Of course, updated teams and stats are important, but such is the cost of acquiring licenses and taking on the might of EA, most developers seem to have given up. I have played most of the FIFA games, as well as the occasional NBA and NHL; in short, they generally look and sound great, play okay and aren’t that interesting to write (or read) about.

All of which leads us nicely (what?! – a reader) to a snooker and pool game endorsed by Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White. Whether such games are necessary is open to debate; while scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final seems like a perfectly healthy fantasy, winning a game of computer pool is less so. Even those who yearn for the opportunity to take on the likes of White and Stephen Hendry in the Snooker World Championship will be disappointed here; opponents are not real-world players, and the games take place in a variety of unlikely locations, including a desert island and a James-Bond-baddie-style underground lair. Still, it’s cheaper than going down the local for a game (and a skinful) – and for those of us who happen to be shit at pool it provides a welcome opportunity to avoid public humiliation and sarcastic comments from burly, tattooed regulars.

Playing at Stonehenge. The bloke with the scaly hands is quite good.

Cueball World is the latest in the series of games from coder Archer Maclean, the man largely responsible for putting cue-based games onto the gaming map. It follows the hugely-popular Jimmy White’s Cueball 2, a game which offered pretty much everything you could want from a game of this type: an accurately-rendered pub offering snooker, pool, darts, draughts and even a jukebox. With the physics engine pretty much spot on and the graphics remaining reasonably impressive, JWC2 was not the most obvious candidate for a sequel, but it got one anyway, with the somewhat woolly justification that Cueball World offers the chance to play pool and snooker in a number of exotic locations.

Here’s how the game works: you get to play pool (8 or 9-ball, US or UK rules), snooker or billiards against an unskilled computer opponent in a traditional-looking snooker room. Once you win, you unlock the next stage, a desert island, play a slightly better opponent, and so on. As the AI players get smarter the locations get crazier, and if you do well enough to beat them all you can unlock sub-games such as maze-puzzles, trick tables and darts.

As nice as the locations look, though, it’s difficult to see what they add to the game; they’re essentially backgrounds supplemented by some appropriate sound and the occasional amusing animation. Your opponent (represented throughout the series by a pair of gloved, disembodied hands) also changes with the scenery, so in the ruins of Angkor Wat you break-off against some gorilla hands, and at Stonehenge you face the wizened, warty hands of a druid. Again, a nice touch, but completely superficial.

If you’re a bit crap, the game gives you a bit of help lining it up. I could do with a line like that in real life.

As for the action itself, it’s all pretty good fun. The 3D engine allows you to play from a variety of camera angles, with an overhead view on offer if you want to simplify things. You can either select the angle and strength of your shot on a power bar and let the computer execute the stroke itself, or you can opt to move the cue manually with the mouse. As with the ‘mouse-swing vs. tri-click’ debate in golf games, opinions differ as to which method is best, but from a personal point of view the manual option certainly adds to the feeling of involvement, with more satisfaction to be gleaned from successful shots as a result of you taking them yourself. And with optical mice becoming increasingly popular, traditional problems associated with mouse-control should occur much less frequently. It is however possible to foul up a shot as a result of failing to chalk your cue; once this happens more than a few times you’ll soon integrate a ritual of clicking repeatedly on the chalk icon into your pre-shot preparation. It’s not a particularly necessary feature, as use of the chalk has very little strategic value, and it’s just plain irritating when you forget.

The AI opponents are all pretty good, with a basic mastery of the controls allied to a rudimentary knowledge of the game you’re playing enough to see off the initial challengers, but you’ll need to really tighten up your game if you want to beat later opponents on a consistent basis. I say on a consistent basis because occasionally they default (by potting the black in pool, for example) and you’re credited with the victory even if you were taking a beating in the match itself. This represents quite a significant flaw in the whole Cueball World concept, as these ‘victories’ allow you to unlock further locations and opponents without proving yourself worthy. Still, there’s nothing to stop you from re-playing previous opponents, and generally speaking it’s possible to find someone to match your skill level and give you a good game.

Despite the pseudo-campaign on offer, this isn’t really a game you’ll want to play for hours on end. It’s likely casual players will find themselves dipping in and out for the occasional half-hour of pool rather than tackling the snooker option, which is a significantly bigger commitment. Pool is generally a much more accessible game, and its simplicity allows the AI players to be reasonably prompt in taking shots; while when playing snooker there are more variables for both you and your opponent to consider which obviously impacts on the amount of time you spend playing. However, even if you never even touch snooker or billiards, the pool option alone provides plenty of entertainment (closest rival Virtual Pool doesn’t even give you the option) and, once unlocked, the darts game is instantly enjoyable.

One of the sub-games is this mini-maze thingy. Fairly mindless fun, but not a patch on the darts.

How different Cueball World is to its predecessor is largely a moot point these days: on its release Cueball 2 was available for a fiver and reviewers were understandably reluctant to recommend splashing out extra money on the basis of some slightly sharper graphics and the gimmick of being able to play around the world. Clearly the buying public agreed with this prognosis, and Cueball World has swiftly been demoted to the same £5 price tag. Logic dictates that newer is better; although some may point out that not all of the older features (draughts, Dropzone and the jukebox, to name but three) remain intact in this version.

In any case, pool and snooker games have arguably reached a plateau, and if developers have any sense they won’t try and release any more in the near future. Regardless of the muddled thinking behind it, as consumers we may as well reap the benefit of Cueball World‘s early budget release. Although snooker enthusiasts seeking the ‘you-vs-Stephen Hendry’ experience mentioned earlier might want to take a look at Codemasters’ World Championship Snooker, and the pool hardcore may prefer a spot of Virtual Pool, most need to look no further than this as a great all-round package. You’ll certainly get a cracking little game for your money; it does everything it sets out to do, with plenty of class and a little bit of charm, too.