Great Balls of Fire

Inferno Pool turns pool into a game of speed, and does a hell of a job in the process.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: June 28, 2009
Dark Energy Digital, what have you done? You turned what used to be a game of careful shot placement, nuanced pre-planning and experience-based skill into a game that plays (and sounds) like a first-person shooter more than it does a dance of geometry and physics. And I love you for it. You essentially distilled what everyone will do if given a long enough timeline at a pub -- turn a strategic game into one where you can just slam balls around the felt in the hopes that something actually gets pocketed -- and made it into a downloadable game with online play.


Because the biggest limiting factor in any pool game, carefully lining up the shot in the hopes that your perspective, power and whatever the game's physics decide to do with things all works out, has been completely removed by nearly always being able to see exactly where the shot is headed (unless you scratch, and even then it's just a few-second penalty), speed becomes the goal. The kind of speed that makes you write paragraph-long run-on sentences. Inferno Pool is that powerful.

It's also remarkably simply. Though there are games of eight- and nine-ball to be found for those needing to scratch the vanilla billiards itch, it's in the entirely new Inferno Pool option that the game really does become something special. Played offline against AI, things are something of a game of survival. Even against the easiest computer-controlled opponents (there are five stops for AI difficulty, a few options for table color, a ticker for the number of opponents and, if you've unlocked 'em, the option to use new ball sets), it's quite hard to completely clear the table -- and that's with a gauge that instantly tells you where your shot will end up.

The "problem" is that every ball pocketed by one table is eventually shot over to an opponent's (when playing up to a four-player game, the face buttons determine where the balls are sent). You have the option of basically stocking any pocketed balls to fire over all at once, or they can be immediately sent over The clock, however, is constantly ticking down, and as it does, the number of shots that can be stocked shrinks until it's an insane scramble to send more over than you've received, thus winning the match. It's not only far harder than it sounds, it's ridiculously addictive -- and that's just against the CPU.

Being that this is still a game of bank shots, chains and combos, though, one would think that knowing were at least the first leg of a shot is going to go would make the game too easy. It's true that it reduces the amount of variables, but quickly lining up the shot almost turns everything into a kind of twitch game; get everything lined up, use the L2 button to fine-tune shots, and quickly get 'em into the pockets.

A few wrinkles are introduced by the Inferno Meter. Properly sinking shots without scratching or missing builds a streak counter, and any shots that bounce off the rails, hit other balls, jump over a ball before striking another or pocket multiple balls will increase the meter. When it fills, Inferno Mode is kicked off and every shot dropped while the meter slowly burns away will clear an additional ball from your table. It's competitive speed/trick shooting, and it's a blast.

And really, that's about it. There's little in the way of unlockables or a whiz-bang presentation (adjusting the color of the felt is... nice?), but the game runs quite nicely even with four players going at it, though I did notice a few dips in framerate here and there. By and large, though, it's a silky, clean, if not overwhelmingly gorgeous take on the basic game of pool. The background tunes are a sort of over-the-top electro-rock soundtrack that, like the rest of the game's audio (including an announcer ripped right from Unreal Tournament), belong more in a deathmatch scenario than a game of pool, but I guess this is technically a shooter, and it most certainly fits. Even if it's all rather repetitive and limited in variety.

The game's life's blood and source of the most longevity, however, is online play. The unflinching AI doesn't really offer the same kind of see-sawing back-and-forth that human opponents do, and, simply put, this is not a single-player game despite it having those options. The offline portion is practice and a light time killer, nothing more. The online bits are drinking game-fueled comback-laden, impossible shot-making bits of controlled chaos, and they instantly validate the game's purchase price (which, when it arrives here in the States, will likely be close to about ten bucks).

I haven't been so pleasantly surprised by a downloadable game -- and one I had to register a UK PSN account to get -- in a long, long time. What's here is so effortlessly effective and taps into the sort of speed play impulse that results when anyone adds sufficient amounts of booze and pool to make something that's almost instantly rewarding. Best of all, it eliminates the one thing that holds back most versions of digital pool: there's no waiting. Just bank more shots, sink more balls and get yourself into Inferno Mode before the other guy while managing juuuuust the right amount of technique, aim and careful shot planning. That's it. And that's precisely why everyone needs to get them some Inferno Pool. Now, if possible, but certainly when it makes the hop across the pond.
The Verdict
8.5

Inferno Pool may well end up being one of the hidden gems of the PlayStation Network. That we're reviewing an import version with such glowing praise should make it obvious that its appeal knows no borders. Only blood alcohol levels.

8.0Graphics:

Solid, but otherwise unremarkable. Luckily, the key ingredient to any precision shooter, the framerate, is almost always rock-solid.

7.5Sound:

Hilariously over-the-top in just about everything but the sound effects (and even those have a rather heavy-handed "clack" when the balls collide), the music and announcer really do make the game better.

9.5Control:

Damn fine, and razor-precise when they need to be. Figuring out how to lock in power, tweak where the ball is hit and bank some of your pocketed shots takes a bit of menu diving, but once it clicks, it's brilliant.

8.5Gameplay:

For something so limited, you'd think I'd be more upset about a lack of modes, but that one main mode (and yes, there are others, but they pale in comparison) offers so much multiplayer goodness that it honestly doesn't matter.