Considering how bad I am at pool, I’d have to assume that I’m similarly terrible at snooker, but that’s only in the real world. When I don’t have to take into account my gangly arms, my abject lack of fine cue control and thoroughly average hand-eye coordination, I’m not so bad. That’s where video games come in and Snooker 19 is the first game in the better part of a decade to offer that salve for those utterly inept at hitting balls with a nice long stick.
“We’ve focussed on the core fundamentals of the sport,” explained Lab42’s Justin Forrest, who has a lot of experience with sport games that involve hitting balls with bits of wood. “The thing that underpins this game really is the very solid physics – we’ve written the physics engine ourselves – the AI, and then your control over the cue ball and what you can do on the table.”
I think most of us can picture what cue sports look like in video game form. You have the table with almost luminous green felt on it, you have billiard balls that reflect the environmental lights with almost unfathomably shiny accuracy, and when you go to strike the ball, you’re presented with guiding lines to show where you’re actually aiming and give you an idea of the fallout from that hit.
It’s these lines that are the foundation for Snooker 19’s difficulty levels, providing accessibility for the newest of the newcomers, and stripping them away for the seasoned veterans who want to win purely on their own merits. At its easiest, you can aim the cue ball, see where it’s going to head to after hitting another ball, and get a good idea of where the ball your targeting is going to go with a faded fan of colour – there’s still some element of uncertainty here and the fan widens the trickier the shot – but as you pick successively higher difficulties, you lose these assists one by one until you only have a single cue ball aim indicator or, for the true masochists, nothing at all! Excellently, if you’re playing local multiplayer, you can pick different difficulty settings for the two players to add a handicap.
There’s a lot of detail to the ball physics, as you’d expect, and this feeds into deciding where and how hard to strike the cue ball. Top spin and screw are the easiest concepts to grasp, hitting the ball toward the top or bottom to alter where it ends up, but then adding sideways spin and changing the angle of the cue that you use can curve the ball in dramatic fashion, and that’s further altered by how much power you want to use. The difficulty comes into play here as well, as you pull back the right analogue stick and then try to flick it forward in the marked window on the power meter.
Speaking about the control scheme, versus those found in other snooker, golf, and sports games beyond, Justin explained, “My feeling on that is that the shot set up is the key thing. We tried out a system where if you were playing your actual shot, you were defining the power by pulling [the stick] back a certain amount and then pushing it forward, but you didn’t know what the power was, you were just doing it on the fly. […] I found it was really quite punishing when this is such a precise sport. With golf, the key thing is that if I get it slightly wrong, I can still land the ball on the green. With this? If you get it wrong, you’ve missed the pot and then your opponent’s in. Something a bit softer and gentler just made more sense.”
Still, that window to flick the stick and get a perfect shot gets smaller and smaller the higher the difficulty and the tighter the shot. My personal pro tip? Always go for 100% power, because that way you only have to worry about undercooking the shot. Note: This may not actually be good advice.
The real ace in the whole, as far as Justin is concerned, is with the AI. “The fundamentals of our AI are really impressive – I think it’s the best AI that we’ve ever had in a snooker game. Just having the ability to identify when to play a safety shot, when to play a pot is a big deal.” It’s a contextual awareness that could really elevate this game over its forebears. Though the difficulty you choose doesn’t determine the AI’s actions, the better the player you go up against, the tougher they will be. Face Ronnie O’Sullivan or Mark Selby and you could be on the end of long breaks and awkward safeties that snooker you, having to use all the tools at your disposal to beat them.
One of the big breaks for Snooker 19 is Lab42 and Ripstone have acquired the full World Snooker license, which as with FIFA and NFL is all encompassing. They’ve been able to include 128 pro players, capture all the real world venues and include all the tournaments that are featured on the world tour.
The career is pretty comprehensive in that regard, letting you take either a top tier player or a plucky Rising Star and work from their real world ranking position and tournament tier all the way up to the top. The realities of development have had to be considered, and that’s why there’s no custom character creation, no RPG style levelling systems, and so on. In fairness, this is a brand new game, built from the ground up and without the resources to throw around that EA and 2K Games might have.
As I chat with Justin, there’s a pragmatism to some of the areas that the game isn’t yet venturing into, mixed with an excitement when I ask about something that he hadn’t really considered. Sadly it means you also miss out on a trick shot mode (let alone licensing Big Break and Jon Virgo), but there’s the real potential for it given the simulation level ball physics and the difficulty of the shots you can attempt. “The nice thing about this,” he says after just missing a tricky shot and hitting the wrong ball, “is that it’s realistic enough that you can play these shots, but they are incredibly difficult to pull off. […] The community love that kind of stuff; they wanna be able to do everything you can do in snooker, but if you’re trying to do something very hard, it needs to be really hard in game.”
That doesn’t mean it’s bereft of interesting features and ideas, though. In addition to plain old snooker, there’s also the shorter Six-Red mode, popularised in Thailand, and Shootout mode for a tense win or lose shootout where you have set time limits for deciding, lining up and taking your shot. You can play these offline, in local multiplayer or head online, and online is where you’ll also find events themed around real world tournaments. For the length of a real world championship, you’ll be able to play and have your results contribute to a final leaderboard standing. That’s your route to rewards like trophies, fancy waistcoats and other cosmetics.
Looking to the future of the game and a burgeoning new series, Justin revealed they are considering something akin to FIFA’s Ultimate team. They’ll be keeping a beady eye on what the community feedback is around those ideas. “It is something that we’re thinking about one day adding an Ultimate Team style mode where you collect cards, open packs as well.”
Snooker 19’s story is likely to mirror that of a young, fresh-faced sportsperson stepping into the limelight once more. Fans of the sport will likely look on with interest, finding something that’s full of promise, but equally has a few rough edges that will be worn away as the game and the series matures.