[30 June 2004]
Thus so wretched is man that he would weary even without any cause for weariness… and so frivolous is he that, though full of a thousand reasons for weariness, the least thing, such as playing billiards or hitting a ball, is sufficient enough to amuse him.
A thin layer of perspiration beads your brow as clinking glasses and random chatter swirls around you, and hanging there almost as thick as the chalky grey smoke. You squint hard, studying your gleaming, round, black target as if through a sniper’s rifle. One slight error and it’s all over. Make no mistake about it. A woman in a half-there pink top saunters by, and, even though you want to take a moment to stare, your concentration remains firm. Two glaring florescent bulbs dangle just above your head as you lean in, double checking the angle one last time. It’s then that everything goes quiet and slows down to a crawl. As your moist palms tighten around the wooden shaft, you steadily pull it back and release—striking the cue ball, hitting the eight, sinking the shot, winning the game.
Quite possibly the best thing about pool is the atmosphere. Breathing in the bear and cigarette-soaked air as the balls crash into one another, and watching the pool hall junkies boast and sulk is almost more enjoyable than the game itself. That’s because there’s a comradely, a shared love for the sport—even amongst the losers.
No video game has ever, or will ever, accurately reproduce that atmosphere. Not even the best of them. And Lightning Break is no different. Though it’s an addictive and inventive pool game (snooker, really), it doesn’t do the pastime a lick of justice.
Unlike other games, which typically follow the rules of Eight or Nine Ball, Lightning Break offers up a different slant. To start, you have 99 seconds to pot one red and one colored ball (numbered one through seven). Easy enough. As the game progresses, however, it becomes two reds and two colors, three reds and three colors, then a break of at least 20—meaning, the balls you sink have to total 20 or more within the time allotted.
Just as you think you’ve mastered the game, you realize you’ve just begun. Accomplishing breaks of 30 and 40 or more are tough (even though you’re working on a clock with 120 seconds by then), but then the top three pockets disappear and then the bottom three. As the attempts at each level pile up and you finally move on, the balls suddenly change colors (and numbers). You might have a solid lock on that dark brown seven and you know it’s going to drop, but you better hurry because it could morph into the yellow two and suddenly you’re down five less points than anticipated. Oh, and then there are the glass balls and hands that randomly block the pockets.
And though this is all well and good, where’s the skill? As strange as it might seem, the further you progress in the game the more luck factors in, rather than skill—which is the polar opposite of any activity that’s practiced with regularity. This goes to the enjoyment of the Lightning Break, and factors in as much as a lack of atmosphere. After a short while you come to realize that you’re not necessarily making shots because you’re good, but because you got lucky. Once you realize that, the fun is gone and you come to understand just how important it is to hold a stick in your hand and breathe the warm breath of others as you sink shots with a few buddies. Clicking the left mouse button just can’t compare.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lightning-break/