Windows Phone Xbox Live Review: Pool Pro Online 3
Namco Bandai’s Windows Phone output has been somewhat uneven so far. Some of their games like Puzzle Quest 2 are great, many are overpriced (Pac-Man Championship Edition DX anyone?), and a few like More Brain Exercise are simply duds. Their previous release, Pac-Man Kart Rally, fell somewhere in the middle of the quality spectrum, but I respected the developer’s boundary-breaking use of local Wi-Fi multiplayer. Now Pool Pro Online 3 pushes things even further, becoming the first mobile Xbox Live game with true real-time online multiplayer. While its online mode is unparalleled, a few fouls keep Pool Pro Online 3 from being a truly great pool game.
Three in one
For those who are new to pool, a primer: there is no one game of pool. Rather, a variety of games with different rules and ball configurations can be played on a pool table. PPO3 features three such games, all designed for two players: 8-ball, 9-ball, and Snooker. The first game is best known in the USA, the latter in the UK.
Learning to play
Unfamiliar with one or more of the game’s rules? They’re easy enough to learn thanks to a decent generalized tutorial and some reference text in the Help & Options menu.
Here’s how making a shot works:
- Drag left or right anywhere on the table to aim your stick. Arrows indicate which direction the cue ball and the first ball(s) it hits will travel.
- Use the slider at the bottom of the screen to fine-tune aiming.
- Press the Eye icon at the bottom-left corner to switch between first-person and overhead views.
- Press the English icon at the top corner to aim at a specific part of the ball, affecting its spin (optional).
- Once the shot is lined up, pull down on the cue stick at the right edge of the screen and release to make the shot.
Sounds good, right? It is, at first. But the more you play, the more nuisances become apparent. First, truly fine aiming can be tough because lifting your finger after aiming usually nudges the aim a bit. The developers should have compensated for that somehow.
More importantly, the mechanism for actually firing the shot needs serious work. Performing a maximum strength shot is extremely tough because your finger often strikes the bottom of the phone before the game can register the stick has been pulled all the way down. Worse, sometimes the stick releases without me even removing my finger from the meter, ruining the shot. I’ve even had my aim change instead of the stick moving, which should never happen. Given the importance of striking balls with maximum strength at times, I found these quirks quite exasperating.
Earning money in single-player to buy new equipment and pool halls is all well and good, but multiplayer really increases the fun factor. PPO3 offers both pass-and-play and real-time online multiplayer. Let’s look at how online works.
Each of the three game types has a public lobby, from which you can invite other players to a game. If you’d rather play with someone else, simply press the Invite button and send one out to somebody on your friends list. Unlike Battleship, they actually need to accept right away since there’s no asynchronous multiplayer. Once a challenge has been accepted, both players must agree on a bet before the match begins.
Chatting up a storm
Each player has a turn timer, so you can’t just take forever to line up a shot. While you’re waiting, feel free to tap the Chat button at the top of the screen. New messages create a nice sound effect, making it easy to keep a light conversation going during the game.
Once the match ends, the winner walks away a bit richer and the loser slightly humbled. Chat unfortunately cuts off at that point. But you’re free to choose a Rematch; as long as both players stay connected to the server, the gameplay can continue.
Still a Windows Phone game
The public lobbies, real-time multiplayer, and chat features might fool you into thinking you’re playing a console or PC game online as opposed to the rudimentary multiplayer modes we’ve seen in Xbox Live games on Windows Phone so far. Well, all is not perfect in the online mode. Once you challenge someone or accept a challenge, actually connecting to that game is a crapshoot. I’ve also experienced disconnects during games, for which neither player is penalized.These connection issues aren't so severe that they ruin the game as in Gun Bros and Contract Killer, but they certainly cut into the fun.
While multiplayer gives a game like PPO3 some legs, an addictive single-player component or metagame is also necessary to keep players coming back. Unfortunately, PPO3’s unlocking system and Achievements fall pancake flat.
See, scratch can either be earned by performing feats and winning games in single-player or by betting and winning multiplayer games. That scratch can then be spent in the pro shop to unlock felts, sticks, and pool halls. It costs 500,000 scratch to buy everything from the shop (Achievement), and there’s also an Achievement for collecting a million scratch.
Unfortunately, the developers seem to have pulled those two numbers out of thin air, because as it stands nobody will ever reach 500K, let alone a million. Single player games pay about 500 scratch on average – up to 700 or 800 if you play on the highest difficulty and do really well. Nobody really wants to bet large amounts of scratch online because you lose your bet if you lose. The betting economy might actually work if the pot exceeded the amount bet, but it doesn’t.
Given the average payout I just described, it would take a minimum of 1000 victories to unlock all the pool halls and 2000 to get the Fat Cat Achievement. Each game takes several minutes, and that’s not counting loading times and losses. Unless Namco Bandai changes payouts with a patch, it would simply take a ridiculous amount of time and dedication to get either Achievement.
Pool Pro Online 3 really wowed me initially, but as time went on, its faults became increasingly apparent. In the all-important area of controls, the game is only sufficient rather than intuitive. In real life, high strength shots are easier to make than low strength ones, but the reverse is true here. And with Achievements that are either extremely contrived and luck-based or insanely laborious, players can’t look forward to earning the game’s full 200 GamerScore.
Thank goodness for the online mode, then! Being able to play and chat with random strangers or friends in real-time on Windows Phone is a cathartic experience. I wish we didn’t have to bet scratch in order to play and profit from online games, because an ‘everyone profits’ situation would be more fun overall. Still, the online multiplayer is the best the platform has seen so far, and will likely keep pool fans entertained for a long time.
Pool Pro Online 3 costs $2.99 – not bad given the robust multiplayer options and fairly good 3D graphics. Just make sure to turn the music off before it eats away at your soul. Get the game here on the Marketplace.