Snooker is one of those spectator sports that you either 'get' or think is the most boring thing on Earth. Two people with cues whacking a load of balls around a baize-covered table is not the height of athleticism or, on a superficial level, the source of obvious visual thrills. But once you understand a little of what's going on, and the sheer skill required to not only pot a ball but plan multiple positions ahead – you're hooked.
Or I was, at least. Snooker was one of those things that, when I was growing up, seemed to always be on the telly. Whenever the Crucible rolled around in particular, the pull was almost irresistible, because every single character in the game would be there, and the stories were irresistible. That's the side of snooker that isn't obvious. Ask any Jimmy White fan what it felt like to watch him in the 90s, his unbelievable skill married to a creativity that few others have ever possessed, and watching him lose final after final, even from winning positions, because in some cruel way that was fate.
I was and am a Stephen Hendry fan. As a young Scot growing up in England, this taciturn champion was my lodestar. Other people hated Hendry because he lacked charm, he looked emotionless, and he absolutely smashed everyone that was put in front of him – including, on four occasions, Jimmy White in world finals. Hell, even I wish Jimmy had won one of them but that was the beauty of Hendry. No fairytales. No getting caught up in the romance of the occasion. Just methodical, brilliant, winning snooker (until his decline, which he describes brilliantly in this interview).
Which is all to say that snooker is not just a game about people knocking balls around. Like all great sports it's a drama, one where the personalities involved almost matter as much as what they're doing. You tune into the big events because you want to see if Ronnie O'Sullivan can still turn on the magic; you want to see if Mark Selby can hit the heights he was at a few years ago; if you're me, you even want to watch the disgraced John Higgins continue on his long-term redemption tour. The frame through which we understand this all is television, or any screen. Snooker's popularity is not because of people packing out halls, though these days it's doing pretty well at that, but the hundreds of millions who watch from home.
Snooker 2019 is the first licensed snooker game in quite a while, which is largely because of what's been going on in the sport over the last decade, as Barry Hearn, an extremely successful sports promoter, looks to re-angle the game towards a modern audience. This has been pretty successful, and includes variants on classic snooker play where, for example, there are less red balls or players have a strict time-limit in which to take shots. It also means that developer Lab42 could acquire the license and use all the players and venues, rather than have to negotiate individually for likenesses (as was the case in the pre-Hearn era).
So what've they done with it? Snooker 2019 takes as its starting point that idea of TV presentation: between shots, the table is viewed from exactly the camera angles you'd see on such shows, and the familiar voices of Eurosport's Neal Foulds and David Hendon ring out on the (not perfect) commentary. The players, the ones I recognise at least, are very good 3D likenesses that have an odd combination of animations: they're very stiff, with ram-rod straight backs, but execute cueing motions with fluidity. There were also a few amusing bugs that saw cues flying through their wielder and rising out of the table like Excalibur, but hopefully such gremlins will be squished before release.
So with a few caveats, it looks the part. And I wouldn't do Snooker 2019 down in this regard, because this game is coming from a standing start and the comparisons people will draw, inevitably, are with the mega-resourced multi-decade sports franchises that dominate the marketplace. This was never going to recreate Ronnie O'Sullivan's nose pores or incorporate a suite of bespoke animations for each star, but it does a good job of looking like an authentic game of snooker.
Not least because it gets the most important thing right. Don't take this the wrong way, as I said to the game's director while playing a few frames, but these are some of the shiniest balls I've ever seen. The table's baize looks exquisite and lush, as if you could run your fingers across it and enjoy the texture – and in a brilliant touch, shots leave chalkmarks over the course of a match. I was surprised to find out that this is a deliberate inaccuracy: apparently most of the top players now use something called Taom chalk, which doesn't leave such marks. But a chalked-up table looks cool, so it's in the game (and if you ask me it's all the better for it).
Shots are approached from several cameras: first you get an angled top-down view, then the 'player' view, and finally you lock in the shot and cue. Depending on the assists selected, you can have everything from multiple lines showing you where the balls will go post-contact to a single line showing where your shot's aiming at. Also dependent on the assists is your window of opportunity for a good shot: after lining everything up, you pull back the right thumbstick, which sets a little line bobbing, and push forwards to take the shot when it's in the right zone. The parallel to the real-world action is obvious and works really well: get it right and the shot plays out as planned, screw it up and who knows what's happening.
Before any shot you can tweak the parameters that matter, whether that's changing the angle you're cueing from or the spin you're putting on the ball. The latter is especially nice in concert with the aim-assist arrow, and enabled me to pull off at least one Jimmy White special to escape a snooker. Your exact contact point can be fine-tuned, and you choose the power with which you want to hit the cue ball. None of this will be very surprising but it's worth saying that the interface is excellent: uncluttered, simple, does the job. Taking shots is (in theory) easy.
Then comes the beauty of snooker, and if you've read this far then you know what I mean. The game is not just about precision pots, but precision planning: getting position not just on the blue after you pot, but setting yourself up for the red after that in a way that cannons into that difficult black on the baulk cushion and brings it into play. The thrill of snooker is in the shots, yes, but it's equally in seeing how a player approaches a given situation and tries to turn it into a winning position. I could babble on ignorantly about Snooker 2019's physics engine but the important thing is that, outside of the occasional floating cue, the way the balls react feels right, their impacts and they way the nestle into each other perfectly-judged.
So while it may not be the most stunning insight in the world, if you like snooker then Snooker 2019 looks like it will be a great snooker video game. There is a slight sense that this is a foundation, though I could be wrong with that. It feels like the first iteration of a game that will be improved-upon and added-to for some time to come. But I wouldn't overstate that either: there's an awful lot to be going on with here, from the solo career and local play to the extremely clever implementation of online. In fact if anything will make this stand out against the FIFAs, it's probably the latter.
Here's the idea: tournament mode runs in concert with the real-world snooker tour. The snooker tour has events running for roughly 28 weeks of the year. So basically, while these events are going on, a virtual version will be taking place inside Snooker 2019. This won't be a knockout format but a Starcraft-like ladder system, with the top players winning rare cosmetics for their avatars. There are various other online options, of course, including unranked and the modern variant modes (six-red, shootout), but this tournament idea is simply brilliant – hats off.
Writing about Snooker 2019 is, in some sense, like advertising cheezy peaz. If you like snooker, and you like video games, guess what? I do and Snooker 2019 plays like the real deal: a great-looking recreation with an interface that can be used quickly, and all the modes any pot-fancier could ask for. If you're not that into snooker then... well, balls.