There were no shortage of pub games on the PlayStation 3 by the end of its tenure as Sony's flagship format, and the PlayStation 4 is picking off right where its predecessor left off. Following the release of VooFoo Studios' pretty Pure Pool last year, the Japanese giant has decided to port Hustle Kings – ironically, also originally created by the aforementioned developer – to its next-gen device. While the core gameplay remains largely unchanged, though, this represents a bold new step for the billiards simulator, as it's free-to-play.
The gambling theme of its PS3 ancestor always made it a great fit for microtransactions, of course, but how does it all work? Basically, you'll be playing for HKC (or Hustle Kings Credits) of which you'll begin with a balance of 2,500. There's a tutorial and a short single player campaign for you to practice in, but the meat of the release comes in League, which is essentially the online mode. Here, you'll be spending virtual cash in order to buy in to multiplayer matches. Win the game, and you'll double your money.
It's a neat structure, because it adds a little pressure to proceedings – it feels like you've got something on the line. Of course, it also means that, if you're not very good, you'll run out of HKC to bet with. Should that occur, you'll be able to grind for credits by playing the career mode, or pick up a pack of coins from the PlayStation Store. These sets are actually reasonably priced, and will cost you anywhere from £0.99 up to £15.99, with the latter keeping you well supplied for a while. As you move up the leagues, the stakes will increase.
It's too early to say how popular the latter rungs on the progression ladder will prove, as no one's got there yet. Considering that it would likely take 100s of matches to hit the top tier, we're going to assume that the majority of activity will remain in the lower leagues. This is fine, however, as the matchmaking is fast and fluid – and you're even given the opportunity to view your opponent's record before stepping up to the table. In other words, you'll be able to avoid the pros looking to pounce on your cash.
The gameplay itself is fine if unspectacular. The balls don't feel quite as heavy as in Pure Pool, so it's got a bit more of an arcade feel to it, but the physics are consistent and largely believable. There are a couple of control options available – including analogue and button-based shot methods – as well as a handful of camera angles. You can add spin to the ball if you desire it, and also change the cueing angle for curve and jump shots. Playing skilfully will multiply the amount of HKC that you earn during a match, and this will be added to your balance even if you lose.
It's clear that it's an updated PS3 game, however. The balls are shiny enough, but the lighting is flat, and the arenas lack ambience. You'll be playing in a few different futuristic venues – including a lounge seemingly set inside a submarine and a glitzy rooftop joint – but the most interesting things in these environments are the posters for fellow first-party properties, such as Resogun, LittleBigPlanet 3, and DriveClub. Meanwhile, the music is simply abhorrent, and even though it can be toggled to your tastes, the best songs will still give you earache.
Similarly infuriating are the Daily Challenges, which are supposed to give you a reason to keep returning to the release, but are borderline impossible. These add puzzle-esque challenges to the affair – such as pot six balls using only plants – but are so difficult to execute that the average player doesn't stand a chance. The day prior to penning this review, just two people managed to finish the task, and earn a spot on the leaderboards. You can invest HKC into special chalks and boosters to help, but the expense doesn't seem worth the reward.
At least the DualShock 4 is well used, with the touchpad providing an optional alternative to the analogue sticks, and the on-board speaker emitting sound effects, which add a bit of extra presence to the proceedings. There's plenty of stat tracking buried in the release, too, while special cues and ball sets give you something to work towards. And, if you just want to play some old-fashioned pool without the microtransactions and restrictions, the £3.99 exhibition mode seems reasonably priced on the PlayStation Store.
Hustle Kings is hardly the Earl 'The Pearl' Strickland of the billiards simulation world, but it racks up a decent round of eight and nine ball pool – and it does so for free. The microtransactions are well implemented, and actually add a sense of consequence to the online play, but disappointing visuals and ear shattering audio let the overall experience down. Pure Pool's probably the better of the two packages, then, but if you don't want to pay for the odd frame, then you'll find this alternative arriving right on cue.