Golf is hardly an inclusive sport. Between the buckets of money you spend on gear and greens fees, the fiercely difficult act of striking a stationary ball with a club, and infinite hours of practice needed to hone your skills, it's amazing anyone actually finds their way onto the links these days. However, the Hot Shots Golf series has always looked at the sacred game with a wink and a smile, introducing countless gamers to the sport with a combination of whimsy and authenticity that's proven highly successful – not to mention cheap and (relatively) easy.
The franchise makes its next-generation debut on the PS3 with Hot Shots Golf: Out Of Bounds, and the result is predictably enjoyable. Don't let the Japanese caricature players and kid-themed menus fool you, either. Underneath the veneer of a cartoonish landscape lies a darned good game of golf that's a heck of a lot closer to Tiger Woods than Mario Golf. All the hallmarks of a true simulation title are in place, from choosing the right club, judging the wind, measuring the arcs of the greens, and determining the right shot based on the lie. Out of Bounds may look like a kid's game at first glance, but chances are that Dad will wind up putting in more hours than Junior when the day is done.
Hot Shots also packs a tremendously enjoyable online mode that significantly expands the playability of the title from hours into weeks and months.
Instant accessibility is the name of the game. Whether you're a grizzled veteran of the virtual links or a newcomer to the scene, you'll be knocking the ball all over the course within minutes. The newest gameplay addition is an Advanced swing, which reduces the visibility you have into the exact amount of power you're putting into the swing but offers significantly more opportunities for spin and distance. Off the tee it's not particularly complicated, as a full swing is almost always the way to go. However, when you're in those in-between lies and 100% power is more than the distance to the hole, it becomes quite challenging to figure out exactly where to position the top of the swing. That's part of the beauty of the Advanced swing though, as it takes plenty of practice (and a little luck) to turn bogeys into birdies. Luckily, all this practice is a darned good time.
The so-called Traditional swing is also available, presenting a gauge that removes any doubt as to how much power you're using. The tradeoff isn't really worth it in the long run though, as your abilities to get maximum distance and sharp impact are reduced. That may not be a big deal in the early parts of your career, but once you advance past the first couple of tiers (not to mention venture out into the popular online world) you'll need the extra oomph that only the Advanced swing offers.
The single player campaign is the heart of Hot Shots. You start off with a couple of ordinary players on an amateur circuit, learning the ropes and playing in small-time tournaments. As you win competitions, you unlock new players, items, clubs, abilities, and caddies. Choosing the right combination of clubs and golfers becomes an intriguing chess match as the difficulty ramps up from simple to crushingly difficult.
While the sheer amount of items you gain is impressive, I was a little surprised at the relatively small number of courses available. While six playable areas may sound decent at first, the fact that you spend long amounts of time playing different tournaments in the same locations over and over gets tedious after a bit. However, the most annoying aspect of the single player campaign is the fact that you're booted back to the main screen after each round. Why, I wonder, do the developers assume that once you've wrapped up a successful jaunt around the course that you've had enough? Add to that the fact that it takes a half-dozen button presses to move on to the next challenge once you get back in, and there's five extra minutes of menus and clicks just to get back out onto the links. Frustrating, indeed.
Luckily, the fun but rather condensed single-player campaign isn't the only major gameplay mode. Hot Shots also packs a tremendously enjoyable online mode that significantly expands the playability of the title from hours into weeks and months. The tongue-in-cheek humor of the series spills over into the multiplayer world. You can create an over-the-top avatar to represent yourself then jump into one of the colorful and interactive lobbies while you look for a quick match or sign up for one of the continuing tournaments that are offered all the time. There's no voice chat (yet), but text messaging is available to communicate between prospective duffers and it's more than enough to take care of business.
While it doesn't break new ground, Hot Shots Golf: Out Of Bounds is an undeniably fun game that just about anyone can play and enjoy. It balances ease of use and depth better than many oh-so-complicated sports games, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Toss in speedy, breezy matches that can be played in less than half an hour and plenty of collectable items to hook the completists out there, and it's obvious that it offers something for everyone.