The Hot Shots Golf series is one of those rare sports franchises that has sold well across Japan, America, and Europe, so it came as little surprise when the first clip of Hot Shots Golf 5 (known as Minna no Golf 5 in Japan) was shown at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. In March, Japanese PlayStation 3 owners were treated to a downloadable demo of the game, and, unable to contain ourselves any longer, we downloaded it to check it out. But we didn't stop there. We scrounged up details on some of the game's new courses and characters, as well as its online mode.
The demo lets you pick from two characters: Jasmine, a 17-year-old who plays on her high school golf team, and Conan, a 15-year-old who golfs in a cowboy hat. Two other characters detailed on the game's Web site but not playable in the demo are Chris, a German-born prodigy who's only 10-years-old, and Sophie, a pigtailed 13-year-old girl from France. As you would expect from a Hot Shots game, the character models are a bit over the top and not particularly realistic. However, they do look great, and there's a tremendous amount of detail to be seen on each character. You can see individual stitches on Conan's jacket and almost make out the time on his caddie's watch as the camera pans by.
Once you have picked your character, you can choose from two different club types. With the advanced club, you must determine your own power and accuracy, and for the beginner club, you only have to worry about power because the ball goes straight every time. Next, you'll pick your swing mechanic. The first option is the one that has been available in every Hot Shots game; you'll hit X to start your swing, hit it again when you've reached the desired power level on the horizontal meter at the bottom of the screen, and then tap X a third time when the cursor is in the area of the meter where you get the greatest accuracy. The new swing mechanic is similar, but it must be done without the benefit of a meter. You still hit X three times, but now you hit it once to start, and then you must judge how far back you need to swing to reach your desired power level and press X when you've reached it. Almost as soon as you've hit the X button a second time, a large circle will close in on the two sets of brackets on either side of the ball. The red brackets are farthest apart, and the pink brackets are closer together and closest to the ball. The closer you are to the ball when you hit the X button, the more accurate the shot will be. This new method of swinging takes a while to get used to, but it's pretty forgiving--as long as you're inside the red brackets, your shot won't be horrible.
Both putting styles have the familiar grid placed over the green and require just two button presses, but the new method is much more difficult because there's no visible power meter. Even if it does take a short while to get adjusted to the new controls, you'll soon find yourself quite comfortable. The pace of play is as fast as ever, and you can still add power to your drives by pressing the square button or add loft and spin by pressing the D pad in midshot. Even changing your clubs and controlling the camera is done in the same way as before, though you now have more control over camera angles and the replays are much more dynamic.
The demo takes place on three holes at Ayamegahara Country Club, one of the game's new courses. This course is located in a swampy area and has plenty of ponds and hills to challenge you. There are also lots of animals hanging around, including some bears that appear to enjoy watching you play. Two other courses that aren't in the demo but are profiled on the game's Web site are Churaumi Golf Resort, which is an island course with a constant breeze from the south, and the Great Safari Country Club, a course that was apparently built by the animals themselves in the middle of Africa. The demo's course will feel familiar to series veterans, as it's reminiscent of many of the beginning courses in previous games. It doesn't immediately look challenging, but there are plenty of elevation changes and wind is always a factor. Thanks to the power of the PlayStation 3, you'll see more trees than ever, textures are vastly improved, and the sun will move across the sky as you play. Now, the game can load several holes at once, which gives you a more realistic view of the course, and if you're creative, it possibly gives you new ways to get the ball in the hole with fewer shots.
Hot Shots Golf 5 will also have a more robust online component than ever before. You'll start off in a lounge area where you'll be able to move around your customizable character, type messages with the keyboard, and arrange matches. The coolest-sounding feature is called the real-time tournament. This tournament mode will let up to eight players play at the same time. Yes, you'll actually see the other players on the course, and you can take your shot while they're taking their shots. This sounds hectic, but it's also a lot of fun. There will be a basic tournament that will allow 100 people to enter, and 50 of those participants will be able to play at once, though only their scores and comments will be shown while you play, not their actual golfer.
The game isn't due out until this fall in North America, and if you're worried that developer Clap Hanz might have lost sight of what makes the series so enjoyable, don't be. Even with the new controls and improved graphics, Hot Shots Golf 5 feels, well, a lot like Hot Shots Golf.