When I reviewed Pure Pool on PS4 a couple of years back (a game that, by the way, has doubled its price on PS Store alone for some reason), I found myself surprisingly playing much more than expected, really enjoying the digital version of one of my favourite social activities. The recreation was really good, the multiplayer worked nicely, and at the same time it was a means to learning more interesting things about my hobby. I wasn't expecting enjoying a pool game that much, as I thought the lack of many of its physical, tactile and spatial feelings would make me quit after a few tries. For this very reason, and also after the minutes I spent with the game at the last E3 show in L.A., I was really looking forward to Hustle Kings VR. Would it be just like Pure Pool, but with added immersion thanks to the move into virtual reality?
It turns out that Hustle Kings VR has been developed by the very same team, the UK-based VooFoo Studios, and, as the title implies, it comes from the less 'pure', more gambling-like branch of their pool games. This means it's more focused on betting, lessening the simulation a notch and inviting players to get hooked on the online multiplayer leagues, involving both real and virtual money. In fact, Hustle Kings has been available since last year on PS4 as a free-to-play game, and we advise those interested in the VR version download it so that you know what to expect from Hustle Kings in VR, which launches now for £16/20€.
This introduction is needed before assessing the game's value, as Hustle Kings, with it's PS3 roots all too clear, isn't as fine and beautiful as Pure Pool, and because multiplayer sessions played with the headset on are rather trickier than you might expect.
Immersing oneself into virtual reality here is, at first, both impressive and compelling. Both table and balls look the part, explanation texts hover sharp and clear in front of you, and the simple ability to lean over while looking for the best angle would make any pool fan's eyebrows arch. Taking a look around and having the chance to check out the full environment from a 360 degree view actually manages to get you fully involved, like you're actually there. In those first moments, we felt like we were just about getting the additional feedback missing on traditional pool games, but the illusion was shattered soon after.
Hustle Kings VR keeps the same, intricate control interface. In other words, you need too many actions, too many button presses, to perform each shot. Adjusting player position, finding your angle of approach, determining the shot's power and finally trying to emulate accuracy, isn't an intuitive process at all, and feels more annoying here inside the virtual world, disappointing especially since we'd expect a more natural feeling in this immersive environment. Moving around the table, as you can't walk freely, is done by dragging a crosshair, which then loads the new perspective (by the way, these loading times, as well as others, take too long in general). Then, when you've got your shot ready and perform it, the physical response from the balls isn't as carefully implemented as it is in Pure Pool, particularly in terms of weight.
We've tried out both control systems - DualShock 4 and PS Move - and in turn both accuracy methods: analogue (by sliding stick or Move back and forth, aping the real move) and button-based (you have to stop a pointer at the right moment, arcade-style). We never felt truly comfortable with either of these on the table. What's more, with PS Move, when we actually expected more realism and freedom as you free your hands and carry a 'stick' that relies on steady play, we found the controls too unreliable. It's rather frustrating the way you have to fill up the power bar by pressing circle and waving the Move controller in the air, and it's an annoyance when, by using the very same gesture but while holding the T button, you must align the shot's trajectory by looking at some guidelines that, to make matters worse, have some flicking and inaccuracy.
When you add the inexplicable and occasional shaking of the VR image, the added heat and sweat when you've been playing for a few minutes, and the fact that Hustle Kings VR can occasionally turn blurry and make us feel a touch of motion sickness, the experience turned out to be pretty disappointing. Wave goodbye to immersion, illusion and excitement.
As much as it's presented as an online competitive game, PSVR means a clear obstacle to something as traditional as playing pool with two or four people playing locally in the same room. Hustle Kings VR has local multiplayer for two people, but you don't want to pass your friend, grandma or partner the headset with each turn, for each strike. They'd then need to strap it on, tighten the thing for the best positioning, push in the headphones (with its truly horrendous music; you can't customise it anymore), blindly grab the controller, follow all the required steps for a single shot, and then pass the headset back and start over.
Considering all of this, there's no real value to those inventive tables with cool non-rectangular shapes, nor to the online possibilities. We really wanted a more natural way to explore the environment, more polished graphics and added depth, not to mention customisation options and authenticity. And of course we would like those obstacles and glitches to be eradicated. So it would seem that we're still looking for a pool-based experience which has been designed and developed for VR, and not this quick adaptation. As said: try out the F2P version first, and then wait to see how the more promising SportsBar VR (formerly Pool Nation VR) turns out before entering this virtual gambling den.