Golf might be the very definition of a game that is simple conceptually, but exceptionally difficult to master. It's this mix of simplicity and challenge that makes golf video games so captivating, when they get it right. Which Powerstar Golf does--mostly. There's nothing revolutionary here, but Powerstar Golf is an absorbing game in the tradition of the Hot Shots Golf series, with some fun competitive features and a loot system that offers you enticing rewards for your progress, but can also be stingy with the goods.
When you first fire up Powerstar Golf, you have access to only two golfers and one course, the leisurely City Park. Each golfer has his or her own unique ability that can be used a set number of times in each event. Scientist Reiko Kobayashi's Tesla field, for instance, puts just a teensy bit of magnetic pull on the hole, giving you a slight edge when putting, while retired astronaut Frank Weaver's rocket launch ability lets him send balls flying farther than they would otherwise. These characters and the others you can unlock have a fashion sense and an angular look that make the game feel as if it takes place in some idealized vision of the 1950s.
It's at City Park that you learn the basics--how swings are performed by tapping to start, tapping again to set the swing's power, and tapping one last time for accuracy. It's a straightforward approach to swinging, and just tricky enough that nailing the power and accuracy of a shot never stops feeling great. Simple as it is, though, it becomes quite complicated when you realize you have to take factors like wind and terrain into account. It's your struggle against these factors that makes success on the links so satisfying, but Powerstar Golf doesn't go far enough in helping you to understand the tools at your disposal. Brief tutorial videos introduce you to concepts like putting spin on the ball to curve your shot and to the properties of pitch shots and chip shots. But at no point does the game illuminate the difference between a 3 wood and a 5 wood, or explain why you might want to use a 9 iron for certain shots and a 4 iron for others. Since the game doesn't shy away from many of the complexities of real golf in its mechanics, it's a shame that you can't say the same about the tutorials.
Though the game doesn't go far enough in its efforts to help you succeed on the golf course, it does make your successes, large and small, feel like a cause for celebration. On every shot you take, you can see markers on the course indicating your previous personal best, as well as the best performances among your friends, and even the world record. The game tracks things like the longest drive, the closest approach within 75 yards, and the closest approach beyond 150 yards. And each time you beat your own personal best for longest putt or anything else, the previous marker for your performance vanishes and is replaced with a new one as the game celebrates your achievement. The game finds little ways to make you feel good, even when you're having a bad day on the course.
It's on the green where most of your dreams are realized or shattered, where your heart sinks as a chance at a birdie turns into a double bogey when you miscalculate the left slope in the terrain or overcompensate for an uphill climb. But if the game of golf (and of Powerstar Golf) couldn't conjure such heartbreak, the victories wouldn't be as sweet, and the difficulty of putting properly means that when you do sink that birdie from a distance, you feel like a champ.
As you play, you level up, unlocking new courses and new career events, though the process can take a while. You may be eager to see what challenges await in the lush Emperor's Garden course or in the tropical and volcanic Burning Sands course while you're still stuck only having access to City Park and the autumnal Rocky Ridge. Leveling up isn't enough, in and of itself, to get you access to additional golfers. For that, you must defeat each of them in career events on their home course, and these events can be devilishly difficult. Two-thirds of the game's playable characters require you to win tough events before you can access them, and you might tire of playing those nine-hole contests over and over again in a bid to unlock them.
You can improve your performance with gear that you purchase using credits you earn during play, but you can't just pick out a more precise putter or a more powerful set of irons. Instead, you buy packs that contain five items, and each item could be gear, or a onetime-use booster (a 20 percent boost to the experience you earn, for instance), or a new equippable perk for your caddie (a 50 percent chance for the ball to skip on the surface of a water hazard, perhaps), or even just a new outfit for a golfer or caddie. The element of chance makes it exciting to fork over your credits and see what you end up with, and the color coding of items in the green-blue-purple-orange tier system familiar from so many loot-driven role-playing games makes getting the rare, high-end stuff especially exciting.
At least, until you rack up enough credits that you can buy packs guaranteed to contain nothing but orange-colored "extreme" gear. Acquiring that many credits, however, would take an extremely long time, given the slow pace at which the game doles them out. As it is, you can purchase a pack of blue "pro" gear after every few events and purple "elite" gear after every several, and there's always a chance these packs will include a few items from the next tier up. But the game is just stingy enough about doling out credits to nudge you toward purchasing them with real money. This option isn't yet active in the game's online store, but there's already a button prompt for it, so it's likely coming very soon.
Thankfully, Powerstar Golf makes your time on the links enjoyable, whether or not you have any interest in sinking money into microtransactions to get some extra goodies. This game covers well-trodden territory, but the way that it tracks your performance and the performance of your friends makes it a fine fit for the Xbox One's launch lineup, and a pleasant way to spend some time. So long as your idea of pleasant doesn't preclude the anguish that can come with a missed putt or a miscalculated swing that sends your ball plummeting into the water.