Inserting cartoonish characters into luscious, realistic environments is all part of the Hot Shots aesthetic, and for some reason it just works.
Fans of the Hot Shots Golf series will discover something missing in the latest version of the game. The bobble heads are gone. Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds retains the cute anime-inspired characters from past titles, but now the golfers appear proportional and slightly more realistic. Developer Clap Hanz hasn't exactly made the leap to photorealism, but the update is discernible.
This change in visual style signals a subtle shift in the long-running series. Hot Shots Golf has always emphasized casual fun over realistic simulation, but Out of Bounds accomplishes a feat few sports games seem able to achieve: it hits that perfect sweet spot between hardcore sim and pick-up-and-play arcade game. At first glance, Out of Bounds may look like a saccharine sweet kids game, but it plays a mean round of golf.
Like previous titles in the series, Out of Bounds starts you off with a couple of underpowered players, a boy and a girl, and encourages you to plow through the single-player challenges to unlock new characters and courses. As has always been the case with Hot Shots, it feels a little creepy to play golf as a pig-tailed schoolgirl in a short skirt, but it could have been worse. The North American version replaces the white panties of the female players with black biking shorts.
You will win these early events easily since all your virtual opponents are hopelessly incompetent golfers. But the competition ramps up nicely, and you will soon be checking the wind direction and fiddling with your landing areas to make sure you hit exactly the shot you want. If you're smart, you will be hitting that shot in Advanced mode.
The Advanced Shot mechanic is the most significant addition to the Hot Shots series in years. The first time you try it, you will likely experience one of those "why didn't somebody think of this before?" moments. Unlike the power meters used by most sports games to hit, kick, or throw a ball, the new system in Out of Bounds enables you to keep your eyes on the two things that matter: the player and the ball. You click to begin your backswing, click again when the the club reaches the desired point, then shift your attention to the ball. You strike the ball at the instant when a green circle encloses around it. Focus, rhythm, and timing all come into play -- just like real golf -- and once you get the hang of it, you will never want to see a meter again.
Inserting cartoonish characters into these luscious realistic environments is all part of the Hot Shots aesthetic, and for some reason it just works. In other games this kind of stylistic collision might feel jarring, but the fanciful costume details and fluid character animations bridge the stylistic gap nicely. Ultimately, the message communicated accurately reflects the truth about the game: this is a fun and whimsical, but realistic and challenging game of golf.
Out of Bounds offers online play in two formats. One requires you to reserve a tee time for prearranged online tournaments. The other, exclusive to the North American release, enables you to set up or join a match with up to seven other players. Both systems work well, and I experienced no lag issues. The game cleverly allows each player to tee off and play each hole on his or her own without waiting for other players to hit. You can see ghosted versions of your competitors as you play, but none of them interfere with you. At the end of each hole a scoreboard appears showing the results and updating the leaderboard. A time limit on each hole ensures that no one can drag down the rest of the players.
Call me crazy, but I prefer the tee-time system, which more closely simulates real golf. I found it particularly immersive keeping an eye on my clock, knowing that my tee time was approaching and reporting to the clubhouse at the appointed hour. Another benefit of this system is that the level of competition is much higher in these tournaments than in the player-arranged matches. Some may find the virtual clubhouse and lobby system a bit silly and cumbersome, but Clap Hanz has clearly decided to virtualize as much of the online experience as possible. I have a feeling in a week or so I'll be ready for a menu option to make my tee time.
A simple course editor would also make a terrific addition to the franchise. When Sony finally rolls out its online Home environment, sharing and downloading original courses with other players would be a huge boon to the series.
The game also lacks online voice chat, which is a serious oversight. I suppose the demographic Sony is targeting with its Hot Shots series may make them nervous about opening up a family game to the kinds of Wild West antics frequently found on Xbox Live. I wish they had chosen a parental control function to address this, rather than omitting the feature altogether. With their slower pace of play and built-in player companionship, golf games are incredibly well-suited for voice chat, and it's a shame this feature is missing.
Hot Shots Golf continues to refine its well-designed balance of fun and challenging gameplay, and Out of Bounds faithfully upholds the high standards of the franchise while adding key gameplay features and impressive visual upgrades. It is a tighter and more solid game than this year's version of Tiger Woods, and it's a heckuva lot more fun too.