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Review by: Mike Laidlaw
Published: April 17, 2001
Billiards is one of those activities that enjoys mass popularity in large part due to its accessibility. Like many sports, pool requires skill, practice and concentration, but unlike more athletic events there’s little need to train at high altitudes or stretch before each game. Mix in the appeal of the archetypal pool hall, complete with smoky air, free-flowing beverages and dimly lit ambiance, and you have a combination that’s hard to resist. Of course, financial concerns and time constraints often conspire to keep the billiards aficionado away from his favorite hang out, but Sierra Sports is hoping to help players through these tough times with Maximum Pool for the Dreamcast.
One of the key features in Maximum Pool is the ability to go online and rack up points against real human competition. A separate online game or the Dreamcast’s included web browser must be run before this process begins, however, since Sierra didn’t include an Internet configuration utility in this package. Fortunately, the Dreamcast stores up to two ISP configurations in its system memory, making the setup a one-time process. Once connected to the net, Maximum Pool shunts the player into a selected Gathering Place, a group of lobbies divided up into different categories such as “Beginners” and so forth. Once in the lobby, players may create a game, chat with other denizens or join a match waiting for players. As with many other online titles, the Dreamcast keyboard is fully supported and facilitates the setup process with much more grace than the software keyboard. Fortunately, those without this piece of hardware can expedite their conversations with a smattering of preset messages.
Of course, gathering a group of buddies and setting up offline matches can be just as rewarding, since Maximum Pool features competitions like the three-player Cutthroat game. Should there be an open seat around the virtual table, however, any one of the five AI players can step in to fill the void. Complete with in-game commentary and their own personalities, players can match wits and skills with the likes of Amy, the sociology student who plays for fun or Linda, the confident executive with a British accent. Rounding out the cast are Brad the hot head, Jim the cynical and largely unsuccessful novelist and Buddy, the lovable pool-playing terrier (who was, presumably, one of the original models for the now-famed series of paintings).
Regardless of what assortment of players you gather to your table, the thorny issue of determining the game type still remains. While all pool varieties cater to two players, certain competitions are exclusive to a pairing, such as Basic Pocket Billiards and Eight Ball, both of which are extremely common playing styles. Three players will most likely want to engage in a game of Cutthroat, where the balls are divided into three groups and the winner is the last player with their spheres still on the table. Another three-player variation is known as Rotation and works on a scoring system: each of the 15 balls awards its numerical value in points. The catch, however, is that before you sink any balls the cue ball must hit the lowest value ball on the table, meaning you have to rely on combination shots to score high points early in the match. Those looking to eschew pockets altogether may wish to partake in a game of Carom Billiards, a variation that involves only three balls — one yellow, one white and one red. The cue ball switches between the white and yellow ball from turn to turn, and one point is awarded for each shot where it touches both of the others. Play continues until the victor has scored a preset number of points. Rounding out the basic package is Nine Ball, a two to four player game that involves sinking the balls numbered one through nine in order, with victory going to he who clears the table.
Should these variations prove too mundane, a specialty game has been tied to each character and may be unlocked by claiming victory over the AI player. Buddy, for example, relinquishes a special “Poker” variation on billiards that introduces a unique table design reminiscent of a Vegas card table. Once open, the AI no longer needs to be included in the match, meaning two human players or online opponents may take advantage of these unique layouts.
The mechanics driving Maximum Pool are fairly simple, so long as you understand the basic angles and rules. Novices may wish to peruse the included Help section for pointers on things like combination shots and hints on when to put backspin on their ball. Once familiar with these techniques, putting them into practice is simply a matter of aiming with the analog pad, adjusting the point of view with the flippers and analog stick and setting the strength of the shot. To put English, or spin, on the cue ball, depressing the Y button switches control to a sub window where a small crosshair denotes the cue’s target point on the white ball. Creating backspin, for instance, is a simple matter of moving the target below the centerline of the white ball’s circumference. Depending on the chosen difficulty level of the match (as compared to the AI), a ghost cue ball extends a certain distance outwards and will provide a visual indicator of the shot’s vectors if the target ball is close enough. As might be expected, the harder levels shorten the length of this indicator significantly, and real pros have the option to disable it altogether.
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