Review: Hustle Kings (Sony PS3)

Hustle Kings
Developer: VooFoo Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Genre: Realistic Sports
Release Date: 1/28/2010

I love playing pool, but when it comes to actually getting to play, I have two choices: either go to a crummy bar and pay $1 a table on crooked tables with warped house cues, or go to a place called US 1 Bar & Billiards, which has a good twenty tables of high quality, drinks for my friend, and a nice atmosphere. The latter is the preferable option, but B&B is a half hour away in West Haven, and those trips get costly in a hurry. Neither option is optimal, but what’s worse is that any local options for me have died. The local place in Seymour that I and all my friends learned the game was closed by it’s owner because he got sick of dealing with the local hooligans. Derby Billiards’s building was condemned so the city could put up condominiums, and its successor, Fat’s Pool Hall, didn’t even last a year. In short, I’m running out of places to play.

I picked up Hustle Kings because I have been looking for a good, solid pool game that would hopefully, maybe, FINALLY make me forget the standby I’ve had since I was a teenager: Mindscape’s Championship Pool for the Super Nintendo, which had outstanding pool physics, lots of game modes, and a good way to learn the rules of pool thanks to a license from the Billiard Congress of America (BCA). I still occasionally play the game, despite it being over sixteen years old, but it doesn’t have the niceties that modern games have, like solid graphics, good camera angles or online play. The game needs an evolution, and I picked Hustle Kings up hoping it was what I’d been looking for for over sixteen years.

Ultimately, Hustle Kings’s pool engine – the actual part of playing pool – is great. It’s everything else that falls flat on it’s face.

On the surface, Hustle Kings looks to be loaded to the brim with modes. It has exhibition matches, tournaments and a career mode for you to partake in, all of them containing plenty of different types of pool. 8-Ball, 9-Ball, 14.1 Continuous, Black Ball (essentially 8 ball with snooker balls), more types of both regular and snooker pool, as well as various trick modes as well. There’s also “hustle” pool, which allows you to wager with someone with X amount of Hustle King Credits (HKC) on the line for whoever wins. I actually learned a few ways to play pool here; I’ve never played “Killer” pool before this, and at the very least, it’s going to give my friend Mike and I something to think about next time we’re at Bar & Billiards. The only problem for people who are anal-retentive about the rules of pool is that for some games, the rules are a bit easier than they would be in tournament play. For example, in 14.1 Continuous, you’re supposed to call every shot; for example, 6-ball, side pocket. In 14.1 here, you can just play any ball into any pocket, which usually leads to games of Jesus Pool: smash and pray. Also, the rules for 8-ball here are definitely slop count; only the 8 ball has to be called. I’d have liked to be able to vary the rules of individual games.

At first glance, this is fine. There are a lot of great ways to play pool here. But one thing strikes me as missing: a practice mode. You HAVE to play against someone in some form. This is problematic for a few reasons. For one, in order to get used to playing with no aim line, practice is required as it’s different than playing on a real pool table; it’s also different than playing with the aiming line, which can be gamed a number of ways. It’s silly to have to wait for computer players to play when I just want to knock around on a table for awhile. How is it that Championship Pool has a practice mode and 2010’s Hustle Kings doesn’t? This is silly, and as I’m going to go into later, having to play the computer to get practice is a major problem.

Career mode is where the majority of offline play is going to be performed. It’s a standard progression of games with opponents and settings matching the level of tournament you’re playing. Different events have to be beaten before others become unlocked. Some events have entry fees, where you have to pay a set amount of HKC to be able to play. Those HKC are also used to unlock avatars, balls, cues and other assorted goodies, and since the price for these items is so obscenely high, it seems a bit silly to me to force this requirement in non-Hustle based modes. Speaking of Hustle Mode, getting into a game of Hustle is less about negotiating than it is about guesswork. Suggesting a price to your opponent will either be accepted, or have a counter price given. There is no haggle after this; you either take the offer or leave it, having to go through the whole process again to get a different entry fee. This is one of many interface issues that creep up through the game.

There’s one major problem with career mode, and it’s a problem that permeates all offline play: the artificial intelligence in this game is fucked. There are three different difficulty modes, but the only difference between them is how often the computer player screws up, and the degree of the screw-ups. When I say “screws up”, I mean catastrophically, to the point where a real pool player would be checking his cue for warping. About 50% of the time, the computer player on Easy will hit the cue ball with about 20% accuracy, giving us the sound a cue makes when it shanks the cue ball, and send the ball whereever. The other 50% of the time, the computer morphs into Minnesota Fats, and performs amazing, unbelievable shots effortlessly. Three ball banks off two cushions where two balls go in are performed routinely by the “easy” opponent, leaving a gimmie for the next shot, which ends up being missed entirely for a foul; this is VooFoo’s idea of “intelligence”. On harder settings, the amount of world-bending screw-ups is simply reduced. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call “Mortal Kombat Syndrome”, named after the 16 bit home ports of Mortal Kombat 3 and all it’s advanced iterations. The first few fights on default difficulty, the game would play like a functional retard, but on the fourth fight would do macroed combos to wipe the floor with you; if you did something to counter, the game immediately did a counter move with split-second timing, as if it was responding to your button press. It’s the ultimate example of lazy, ineffectual programming you can find, and Hustle Kings has the worst case of it I’ve seen, ironically, since Street Fighter IV.

Due to the frustrations involved, playing against the computer is nearly useless, making all offline play modes equally useless as well. It’s too bad, because the actual gameplay involved is pretty good.

There are two types of aiming mechanisms; a timing based and analogue based method. The timing based involves trying to line up a line inside a circle, whereas the analogue method involves pulling back and going forward with the analogue stick. To compare these methods to golf games, the digital method is comparable to the tried-and-true method of control found in games such as Hot Shots Golf and Pangya Golf, whereas the analogue method is what’s found in Tiger Woods PGA Tour. It’s really a matter of preference as to which mode is preferable to players; I prefer analogue, most others prefer digital, though it should be said that the analogue method is very touchy, and it’s nearly impossible to even get 97% accuracy on your shots. Depending on settings, there is an aim line of varying length, though it can also be shut off. The line shows where the shot is going, how the cue is going to react to hitting the ball, and if the shot is close enough, an idea of where the contacted ball will be going as well. The shot line is able to be gamed by maxing out power (with the triggers), and then pulling back that power once the line is acquired, so anyone playing against human players, either turn the line off or put in a shot clock. One thing that screwed me up a little after being so used to both Championship Pool and real tables is that the felt in this game plays very fast. It’s going to take a slight adjustment period for people used to other pool games to see exactly how much power they need, especially when playing defence. Each successful shot or play – including something like hitting a bumper first – gains HKC, with more being awarded for highly advanced shots; therefore, watch the computer rack up crazy amounts of points, as the focus becomes less on winning games than it is hitting balls in in the trickiest way possible. Thankfully, in the tutorial, the game teaches players how to jump and massé the ball. Hustle Kings incorporates chalk into the game by making you shake the controller to chalk up your cue; the longer you go without chalking, the worse your accuracy gets, like real pool. Strangely, they sell advanced forms of chalk that give benefits such as guaranteed 100% accuracy or longer sight lines, but not with in-game credits; you insultingly have to buy better chalk at $.99 a piece, with limited uses per. I can’t believe this was actually approved with a straight face. It’s not just that you have to pay real-world money in order to have LIMITED uses for something that they could have easily allowed to be purchased with HKC. The fact is that chalk costs $.99, and the minimum you can put into your PSN wallet is $5 at a time; unless you have money lying around, each piece of chalk is really a $5 purchase. Again, this is for limited uses, and to be fair, I don’t know how many uses since I refuse to pay for an in-game power up with limited use solely on principle. Thankfully, the game is fully playable without this nonsense.

There are also multiple camera angles, by which I mean three. That’s exactly as many camera angles as Championship Pool had, and though the game is in 3D, this isn’t enough. Ball cam – the camera that would normally be used to look exactly where your shot is going – is particularly limited. You can only see a limited view from the balls on the table; you can’t look ahead and see, for example, where your shot is going to hit on the bumper, or if anything else is out of the way. It turns out the best view for that is the top-down view, which has only been around since, oh, Side Pocket. This reeks of laziness on the part of the developers. Again.

Since single-player mode is so useless, online mode is the place to get anything out of this purchase. For what they’re worth, the game’s online modes do the job. There’s a quick mode that allows you to find an opponent, though the settings – a sixty second shot clock, a “short” sight line, and US 8-Ball – are not optimal. Thankfully, there are other rooms created by other people that support up to 32 players per room, which kinda reminds me of Yahoo Pool in a sense. The game varies based on what the room is, and some (read: most) rooms have a pay-in of HKC credits in order to join. Most games, once I got into them, were lag-free and easy to play, but a lot of times I went to play someone, the game never started because the other person wouldn’t start the game. I don’t know if this was a glitch or just crummy players, so I can’t hold it against the game, but it was annoying nonetheless. This is the best way to gain HKC and enjoy the game, though the rooms can get a little thing at off-peak hours. It’s also an oversight to not allow trickshot competitions online; trickshots are only one player modes.

Aesthetically, the game does OK. It looks good, with the balls and tables all looking outstanding. There are different stages that all have different environments, though during gameplay, these are almost never noticed unless you’re shooting against a bright backdrop, which can get annoying. Sound effects are good in terms of the sounds a game of pool should make, from the balls hitting each other to the cue to shanking shots, but the music is horrific. They have different, inventive names like “Jazz”, “Techno” and “Hip-Hop”, but they all sound like something that’s played on a loop in Hell’s WalMart. The option to play my own music would have been extremely welcome.

The Scores
Modes: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Mediocre
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Worthless
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Below Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Awful
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

Hustle Kings is a good purchase if you really enjoy pool, have friends who also like to play pool, and can’t get to an actual table. However, the single player mode is such a travesty that I can’t really justify purchasing it unless you’re going to spend your entire time with the game online. The game is lazy, has terrible AI, a somewhat bare-bones (but effective) online mode, and offensive attempts to steal money from unsuspecting gamers looking for an edge.

I’ll enjoy playing it with my friend and fellow pool aficionado Mike when we can’t make the drive to West Haven, but if it weren’t for that, I would never play Hustle Kings again. Anyone looking for a decent pool game can save a few bucks and get the PS one Classic title Backstreet Billiards instead.

As for me, it looks like it’s back to Championship Pool I go…

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