Everyone has a hobby: Something you do in your spare time (or not) that you enjoy maybe once or twice a week. For a large part of my childhood my free time was taken up playing snooker. I spent up to 15 hours a week in dimly lit snooker halls and therefore was also interested in playing snooker when I couldn't get to a club. Back in the days when 486 equated to a powerful PC Virtual Snooker was a classic. It was everything I wanted from a snooker game and even included cue control via the mouse. Now, many years later, I haven't experienced a snooker title that even comes close to that aging classic, particularly on a console, but World Snooker Championship 2005 from SEGA comes mighty close.
Developed by Blade Interactive, the people behind Codemasters' now dead World Championship Snooker series, WSC 2005 offers pretty much all you would want in a console snooker title. Play in Exhibitions or take part in the official snooker tour, complete with ranking points, qualifiers and prize money. No one could argue that the game isn't rich with features. Even for players not too keen on standard snooker, the game provides trick shots, pool, billiards, bar-billiards and a number of unconventional spin-offs that are sure to please even the most adamant snooker hater.
What really matters, though, isn't the magnitude of game modes available, it is how well the sport has been brought to the console and more importantly the console's controller. Mouse control is not present (although I'm sure Unreal Tournament on the PlayStation 2 supported a mouse) so we have to make do with analogue stick control. While I'm sure many of you will gasp, in fear of a game devoid of any finesse, you have no reason to worry. Blade have done a truly excellent job.
Using the right analogue stick in a similar way to how you swing your club in the Tiger Woods golf games, your thumb motion mimics the action of the cue. Initially this will seem awkward, with shots either being hit with inhuman like strength or weed like feebleness. You'll soon discover a subtlety to the control and when combined with the fine-tune button, no shot is out of your repertoire. Spin and cue-angle are both added via a simple combination of buttons and movement of the left analogue stick and the new cue-cam and standard viewing angles makes lining up shots trouble free. A power bar can also be used if you can't get used to the analogue stick control.
To aid your play you have two arrows: A yellow arrow indicates where the object ball is heading and a blue arrow indicates where the cue ball is heading. If any spin is being applied to the cue ball the blue arrow will turn red so you don't accidentally play a shot with unwanted spin. You have the option of three arrow lengths which depend on your skill level. Novices can play with extended arrows while pros can opt for arrows that don't stretch all that far from the ball you are playing; the middle option provides a nice step between the two. With this aiming aid players of all skill levels can compete competitively against each other and still have close and enjoyable games of snooker. All players can have their own identity too, with the new character creation mode. It lacks the sophistication of what is found in EA's sports titles, but it is a nice inclusion.
If ever there was a game suited to online play it is snooker. With the turn based gameplay WSC 2005's online play works very well. While the online play rests on how well the game sells, we'd bet that there will be some die-hard players playing this online for many months. Even if you don't have the option to play online, the game's AI opponents put up a good fight, if not a little too good. Even in a qualifying match you can be on the wrong end of a total clearance. While this is demoralising at first, it helps you improve your game and gives you a better chance of qualifying at your next attempt.
While the core to the game is excellent and is easily the best console snooker game ever made, there are a number of niggles that prevent it from being truly wonderful. The most annoying of which is the use of the spider. For those that don't know, the spider is a raised rest that makes cueing very difficult. It is only used when you must cue over a ball to strike the cue ball and cannot reach far enough to play with a normal raised bridge. When playing with either the rest or the spider (both of which are automatically selected) your shot is made harder by a decrease in your arrow length. This adds realism to the game and is fine. What isn't fine is the AI deciding that you need to use the spider when there is absolutely no reason to do so. If the handle of the rest happens to go over a ball the game automatically chooses the spider, even if the ball in question is many feet away from the cue ball. It's not a game breaker, but when it happens you won't be happy.
The game's commentary and music is also terrible. Commentary from Virgo, Davis and Parrot is almost always laughable, with comments rarely matching the shot in question. Commentary also slows down the gameplay, with noticeable pauses every time a line of commentary is loaded. In-game music is also excruciatingly bad, with a mute option not being nearly easy enough to access. Also worth mentioning is the ridiculously clumsy main menu system. It combines a rotating 3D menu with a text based label below it, but no matter how many times you use it, it never becomes easy to use. I'm all for nice presentation, but something a little simpler would have been nice.
In-game the visuals are solid, if not overly attractive. The PlayStation 2 version in particular suffers from some slowdown and a fair bit of aliasing. While player modes have been improved over Blade's previous efforts, they still seem lacking in polygons; however, you don't see them that often and their animations are smooth enough to make up for their less than human appearance. It is all forgivable once you are immersed into the game, though, and a widescreen option is present, which is pleasing.
Despite a few problems, World Snooker Championship 2005 is easily the best snooker title available for home consoles. Its control method is initially bewildering, but persevere and you will come to love a game that will eat away time and keep you entertained for months. It may not have the action found in a game of Pro Evo, but a black ball decider in a best of 5 match sure is gaming that all sports fans should experience.