Pool has a spotty history in video games, possibly because the real thing's available in any bar or basement. But that's a game usually played badly. Can Hustle Kings make you into a shark, or just feed you to them?
Rack ‘em up: The basic necessity of a billiards sim is a predictable and understandable physics model that, if it doesn't mirror life, comes damn close. VooFoo Studio's Hustle Kings, exclusive to the PS3, delivers. While the table plays fast, you get used to it quickly and learn to compensate in your shot power accordingly. Even on the angle shots - cushions are the trickiest aspect of a billiards sim - never did I feel like I correctly struck a ball and had it do something unexpected or, worse, unreproduceable. Mishits - and as a veteran of many bad games of pool, I can speak with authority - also came off realistically. While you get three different views, the first person camera isn't the best for lining up shots because moving the view adjusts the stick angle or shot direction. Still, Hustle Kings is simply a superb billiards simulation that allows you to compete as a top-flight pool shark while still feeling like you own your shots and choices and have earned their outcomes.
Cool and Under Control: Hustle Kings gives you an aiming line (whose length is affected by the match difficulty) and two means of executing a shot. One is a spinning accuracy meter whose speed is affected by the shot difficulty. The second is a back-and-forward motion on the right analogue, with the sway of your cue and a flashing pattern on the cue ball indicating how difficult the shot is. I played with both and preferred the latter, even though it provided less assurance of a good shot at strike than the meter, which I got pretty good at timing. The analogue control had a reasonable feel and feedback to it, and felt more like playing billiards than stopping a dial. Chalk - which you apply by shaking your SixAxis controller - acts as an accuracy enhancer, slowing down the meter and reducing cue sway - although some trick shots will be flashing red no matter what. You have an infinite supply of standard chalk, which improves your strike. You can also buy three speciality chalks, with limited uses (50 to 100 times) through microtransactions that will improve your shot accuracy and lengthen your aiming line. While these are especially useful in difficult singleplayer modes, it feels a lot like cheating when you whip them out in a multiplayer match and turn every critical shot into a drafting class. There are shot timer options to cut down on such micromanaging. But I walked in cold to my first multiplayer 8-ball match and ran the table after my opponent's first miss. So if anything, the game enables too much accuracy, and it can be a little grating when facing human opponents who know how to exploit it.
Hard Stop: It doesn't take much to kick arse through the first three stages of a singleplayer campaign, but in the pro circuit, you are thrown into the deep end against some killer competition. Your shot line disappears and every strike is of grade-A difficulty, while your CPU opponents will make one miss, tops. This is where I left the singleplayer (although I cheated like hell against one bot opponent, specialty-chalking every shot) and went online, which is where Hustle Kings' replay value really is. In fact, I haven't even mentioned Hustle Kings' multiplayer virtues - its room system allows you to create one of seven games for up to 32 people to join, and you can challenge multiple opponents, pairing up with the first to accept. It takes a lot of the waiting out of matchmaking without having to settle for whatever game options the a quick match crapshoot throws you. If you're doing this for singleplayer only you will likely play the hell out of it and love it to death for a few days, get frustrated on hard, and move on to something else. Billiards is ultimately a game of decisions and tension, with human competitors providing the most realistic variables and drama.
Whatever faults I find with Hustle Kings are minor overall. And while my review fixates on the gameplay, don't forget about the game's sleek visuals and ultra-cool ambience. Each of the venues is the bar I wish I had in my city right now, and some of my best sports game moments this year have come as I lined up my final shot on the 8 or 9 with the last few keys of a jazz piano song plinking out, and then pocketing the ball and victory in a dramatic silence.
It's possible that Hustle Kings hit the winning formula for video game billiards. As a full title, it's hard to build something that justifies a retail price without saturating it with gimmicks and diversions or making it cruelly difficult. As a downloadable, though, VooFoo Studios was able to focus on and deliver strong gameplay and leave the rest up to the hustlers, who more than get their money's worth. They always do.
Hustle Kings was developed by VooFoo Studios and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America for the PS3 on Jan. 28. Retails for $US9.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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