Developer: Clap Hanz
Release Date: March 19, 2008
The Hot Shots golf series, also known as Everybody's Golf in Japan, started back on the PS1 in 1998 but would eventually be the beginning of a long-running franchise whose animated caricatures were only a facade for the complex realism that the ever-improving gameplay would deliver. Japanese developers Camelot Software Planning, better known for their work with Sega's Shining series of S/RPGs, were responsible for the first title. Clap Hanz worked on subsequent games and are responsible for expanding upon and polishing the series' enjoyable tongue-in-cheek take on the gentleman's sport.
It was the reputation of the series that drew me to the latest title, Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds, as a relative newcomer. It seemed to be right up my alley, as I've heard a lot of things about the franchise from other players, and I had wanted in on the fun. The only reason that you're reading this review now is because I had to force myself to stop playing Out of Bounds for a little while, ignoring the urge to unlock just one more golfer, caddy or new avatar piece for my online persona.
There's no story to the game, but the golfers and caddies that you will encounter in the menu will have their own charming biographies explaining why they love the sport. If you're not a big fan of chibi-style anime, you might be put off by the overly cute design that the game uses in an attempt to be as friendly as possible, but you'll get used to it, thanks to the remarkably deep gameplay. The cartoony characters will cheer, dance and point victoriously at the camera whenever they do well, and they'll sulk, pout or handpalm their faces when they have a rough go of it.
Standing in almost direct contrast to the characters are the golf courses themselves. Rain, wind and bright sunny days are part of the realistic weather effects that grace each course, along with local flavor such as an ocean coast with palm trees or desert dunes. Anyone expecting this to be an elaborate game of miniature golf with moving windmills or trick doors will be shocked and disappointed when faced with tricky sandtraps, crosswinds and water obstacles. Prepare to cringe as a gentle slope turns a putt into a miniature line drive past the cup.
The music is equally as pleasant, although it's sparse and only plays at certain times, such as when you pull off an impressive feat or attend an award ceremony. The voice acting was particularly good, and there is plenty of variety thanks to the increased diversity of the golfers and caddies. There's no serious dialogue here, so you aren't required to remember who said what to whom. Each character provides enough audio candy for your own enjoyment, making it only a matter of choice for yourself in deciding who you want to take into the next round of golf.
Each golfer also has his own strengths and quirks, and the two characters with which the player starts off are only the beginning, as Out of Bounds has plenty of unlockables that players can discover and use online. New caddies, golf clubs, golf balls and costume color schemes become available as the player wins single-player tournaments; he's then allowed to pick from a set of facedown cards for a random shot at a special prize. There's even a loyalty level associated with the characters that you use the most, with more loyalty unlocking even more bonuses that you can use in single-player games. Another extra has to do with the difficulty level when you face off in a challenge against other golfers. If you don't do so well against an opponent, you can switch over to Easy mode after the third failed attempt so that the game stays fun. In short, there's a lot that players can get into by simply playing the game on their own even before getting online.
The mechanics of Out of Bounds are extremely simple to get into, and they offer plenty of information and options that can make each game a challenge in practice mode or in a match. If you've played golf games before where you had to match a button press to a preset spot on a swing meter, Out of Bounds' controls will feel familiar. Starting the shot with the X button, and the meter begins to fill with power. When it's at the point that you need it, hitting X again swings the meter down as your golfer arcs his club at the ball. Hitting X again just as the spot crosses over the point of contact on the meter determines how accurate your shot will be. It might sound overly complicated, but it works especially well with a little practice. That's the Traditional Shot.
New to Out of Bounds is the Advanced Shot, which does away with the above meter-style approach and relies instead on visual cues to help draw you even further into the game. You'll still be doing a three-step tap, but now you'll be watching the actual swing of your golfer rather than a meter. Flashes of light will indicate how much power he has as he raises his club — yellow for half and red for full. When the time comes to send the golf ball flying, a large circle comes up and shrinks as the head approaches, which tests just how close you can tap X at its smallest point. Surprisingly, the Advanced Shot worked a lot better than I thought it would. Trying out both systems worked equally well for me both on- and offline, although it was interesting to see that a lot of matches in which I participated opted to use the Traditional Shot. In my opinion, the Advanced Shot system makes it feel a lot more involved.
Multiplayer makes its debut in this latest iteration of the franchise, and for the most part, it works as intended. It's still a little rough around the edges, though, with the occasional dropped player and lag. Talking is also handled via text messages or emotes in the lobby. Players who are used to having voice in their games will miss that feature, but it's not as detrimental to the experience as it could have been in other titles.
When you first head into multiplayer, you'll be asked to make a chibi-styled avatar with different pieces; there's a decent selection of available avatar pieces at the outset, but you can also select bits that you've unlocked from the single-player game. Faces, hairstyles and even accessories can be used to make your persona represent who you are, or you can simply go crazy over the options. After you're done, you can log into the Hot Shots network and get into one of the lobbies that were open for players to congregate while they wait for games to open up or tournaments to start.
Lobbies come in all shapes and sizes, such as a beachfront resort or a Japanese-style home, and it's very easy to find one crowded with people who are busy running around, emoting, and basically treating the space like a room in Maple Story. Although you may find that it's difficult to avoid overdosing on the saccharine, the overall aesthetics work well in promoting Hot Shots' idea that everyone is here to have fun.
Finding a game uses a menu that's called up while you are in a lobby, and you can select between tournament games or simple matches with a group of players from around the world. You can also search for friends if you want to shoot a few holes with them, or try to locate the type of game that you want. Game rooms offer a round of nine or 18 holes, with rules set up by the host, such as "Big Cup," which makes the cup much larger so that it's easier to make puts. You can also choose to restrict players to using either the Advanced or Traditional Shot modes.
You'll see transparent avatars of the other players on the course, and you even get to see how their shots perform as you play through without worrying about hitting anyone's ball or getting in the way of a shot. There's also a timed period within which you must finish the hole so as to not hold up the match; if you fail to make the deadline, unless you decide to forfeit the hole, you could be retired from the game, which can come as something of a surprise. Fortunately, the game is pretty forgiving and won't put too much pressure on players to make their shots.
Tournaments are big contests that can bring up to 50 players in one match-up. You'll pretty much be playing the round yourself, so you won't see them all on the field at the same time, but your performance will be ranked against everyone who is in the match, making it an exciting addition to the game. It's also where you might see some of the more troubling performance issues that can knock players offline in the middle of the match due to lag or a bad connection. It's just as frustrating as it is for those who have gone in for only nine holes, but whether you're in a Tournament or a Game room, the network is not picky about where it might drop you due to performance issues.
Clap Hanz has taken complete advantage of the capabilities that the PS3 has offered players in creating an approachable golf outing for both veterans and newbies alike. For someone who may want to take a vacation from the serious business of dueling against Tiger Woods or for a player whose only exposure to golf may have been at the local minigolf course, Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds is a refreshing change of pace that welcomes everyone to the same game.
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