Ever since its first appearance on the original PlayStation, Hot Shots Golf has been a model of consistency. Big-headed cartoony golfers, realistic courses, fast-paced gameplay, and simple controls--you know what you're getting when you buy a Hot Shots Golf game. That's the good news...and the bad news? Outside of a new swing mechanic and some enjoyable online play, there's little else new in Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds. Even so, it's still a fun game that's worth a look if you're a fan of the series or arcade-style golf.
The first thing you'll notice when you pop the disc in your PlayStation 3 is a 10-plus minute install to your hard drive. But unlike many other games that make extensive use of the hard drive, Hot Shots' install pays immediate dividends with quick load times throughout the game. Hot Shots' main single-player mode is Challenge mode. As in previous games, you start by choosing one of the two unlocked golfers, then you compete in a series of nine and 18-hole tournaments to unlock equipment. You'll also unlock the rest of the game's 15 anime-inspired golfers and six courses. Because there are so few courses, you're forced to play each of them at least five times before unlocking a new one. Granted, you'll be playing different holes on the course with different rules and stipulations, but putting 10 hours into the game with only four courses available to you is frustrating. Thankfully, the realistic course designs are pretty good, and they can get quite challenging depending on pin placement or wind conditions.
The big change to Hot Shots' gameplay is an all-new swing mechanic. You can still use the traditional meter with the three-button-press method if you'd like; both methods give you a limited number of power hits and let you press the D pad to change where you're striking the ball. But the new swing works really well and makes the old method feel antiquated--which it is. With the new swing, you press the X button to start your swing and then press it again to set your shot's power, which is determined by how far your golfer is into his backswing. The club head sparkles at 50 percent, but it's solely up to you to gauge any other power level. The third press of the X button determines the shot's accuracy. A large circle appears around the ball, and as the club head approaches the ball, the circle shrinks. When it's smaller than the red brackets that indicate the maximum tolerance for a decent shot, you hit X again. Putting uses the same mechanic, but emits a beep at 25 percent, sparkles at 50 percent, beeps again at 75 percent, and sparkles again at 100 percent. It'll take a round or so for you to become accustomed to the new swing, but it's worth the effort because, as in real golf, you're playing by feel rather than by staring at a meter pressing buttons.
If all you had to look forward to were a new swing, it would be difficult to recommend Out of Bounds. It's good, then, that there's an excellent online mode to complement the game's tried-and-true gameplay. The first time you go online, you'll make a custom avatar that, believe it or not, is even zanier than any of the game's over-the-top golfers. You can pick from a number of goofy faces and outfits to make all sorts of perfectly absurd characters. For example, you can create a boy with a face straight out of South Park, wearing a football helmet, a snorkel, flippers, a soccer jersey, and a backpack. There's no shortage of ways to make your avatar stand out, which begs the question "Why can't we make our own playable golfers?"
Once you've made your character, you'll go to a clubhouse lobby, which is an actual place, such as a saloon, safari camp, or beachside cafe, where you can run around and interact with other players via text chat. This is also where you go to set up or play matches and enter tournaments. If you're in a hurry, you might just want to play nine holes with seven other players, but if you've got the time and are looking to take on the best, you can enter a tournament. Up to 50 people can participate in a tournament. They take place every 15 minutes, and you must book your slot a half hour in advance or catch a tournament with an opening just before it starts. A reasonable but not too short time limit for each hole keeps things moving along, and the ability to chat with players between holes as you wait for everyone to finish gives you just enough of a sense of who you're competing against without exposing you to too much nonsense. Our experience online couldn't have been better--players were polite, the rounds went by quickly, and there was no lag whatsoever. Unfortunately, thanks to periodic disconnecting issues, which Sony says it's working on, not everyone we played with had the same great experience.
The PlayStation 3 version of Hot Shots: Out of Bounds looks exactly the way you'd expect it to look. The big-headed, big-eyed characters maintain the look of previous golfers in the series, though they aren't quite as interesting as some earlier characters. From an artistic standpoint, the courses aren't anything to marvel at, but technically they look just fine, and their slant toward realism works well when combined with the unrealistic characters. Hot Shots' relatively simple visuals do have one benefit; the game runs smoothly at all times--a must for a game where precise timing is so important.
Hopefully, you've got a stereo or MP3 player handy for when you play Hot Shots because it sounds dreadful. The golfer and caddy voices are particularly obnoxious and repetitive. The music is just as bad. There are only a handful of tunes in the game, and they're not very long or very good. You can turn off the music, but you can't turn off voices, so unless you mute your TV, you're stuck listening to something annoying.
The Hot Shots Golf series has changed very little during the past 10 years, but there's no question that while still good, this is a franchise in need of a shot in the arm--or at the very least, more courses. But that said, the new swing and robust online play freshen things up just enough to make it worth getting a tee time with Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.