Full Review: Get it? Fore? It's the 4th Hot Shots game, Fore! Har, har!!
The Hot Shots Golf franchise has quietly been one of Sony's more beloved 1st party offerings. It may not have the flash of Gran Turismo or Ratchet & Clank, but HSG has had a strong following since the original debuted on PlayStation some years ago. The combination of light-hearted characters and fairly realistic gameplay has been a hit, and that only advanced further with the first PS2 version, Hot Shots Golf 3. Here and now, Clap Hanz and Sony have unveiled the newest entry ? Hot Shots Golf Fore. Bad pun aside, HSGF is a golfer's dream come true ? though many may see it as a minor upgrade to HSG3, the new courses, characters, and inclusion of a bare-bones, but playable, online mode are enough to warrant picking this game up if you're a fan of virtual links. While this fall will be a monster for PS2 owners, it's no reason to pass up Hot Shots Golf Fore if you're even remotely interested in golf video games.
HSGF is fully loaded with gameplay types. There's the usual 18 hole tournaments (organized differently than HSG3), vs. mode to unlock new, tougher characters, and offline multiplayer, but there's a couple new things. Well?one old one and a new one. Mini-golf was a hit in the original Hot Shots, but failed to make it into the last two games. Finally however, HSGF sees the return of miniature golf, with two tough courses to check out. The biggest addition, however, is online play. Up to 50 people can play tournaments online together, if they have a broadband connection. Tournaments are simple ? you create a room, pick a course (or go with a random), and once everyone is there, you all individually play a hole. Once you're done, you're dropped into a lobby where you can discuss what everyone did on that hole, until the timer runs out and you head off to the next tee. Unfortunately, all you can use is text chat ? no voice at all. While it makes sense that with up to 50 people, having 50 voices would be atrocious the option would have been nice. On the other hand, the keyboard chat is fine and because the game is lag-free, the competition is fierce, especially given you don't know what the other players are doing while you play. It can lead to some big battles down the stretch. If tourneys aren't your thing, there's also a rival mode where you can play with others in real-time, together on the same course, but it lacks the depth of the tournaments. It's a little bare-bones (ranking system is weak, no buddy lists, why 56k is shunned is bewildering, etc), but it's addictive nonetheless.
Offline, tournaments are a bit different this time around compared to last game. At the outset, you get a small amount of courses, a couple taken straight from HSG3. As you play, and at least finish in the top 10, you'll unlock a Stage Trial to increase your rank. Pass the trials (some of which are extremely difficult), and your rank increases, and you unlock a new course to play on. You can play at whatever level you want for as long as you want, but pass the Stage Trial and the opponents get tougher, as do the requirements to upgrade your rank. It works fairly well and does allow for some learning for HSG newbies, and because practicing offline helps online?it should occupy plenty of time.
While most golf games have moved to analog swinging, which does tend to allow for easier control, Hot Shots Golf Fore has not yet gone to this point. Instead, the traditional three-click system returns, and it's as good as ever. With this system in place, it really puts pressure on you to not screw up. It's much easier to mis-time a swing and end up whacking it into the water or the sand, no matter how good you are at the game. For new players HSGF has the "Everybody's" Clubs which reduce the game down to one click for distance, but at the expense of distance, making many holes too difficult to birdie other than par 3's, even if you ?juice' the ball with the power swing. It may seen archaic to use the click system with games like Links and Tiger Woods using it, but in Hot Shots Golf Fore, it works extremely well.
As usual, Hot Shots Golf hides its more realistic gameplay behind the curtain of light-heartedness. The characters and caddies are silly and stereotypical, but the courses, as unusual as they can sometimes be, are challenging because of how the physics engine works to craft realistic play. There's no ?grip it and rip it' around in this game, you have to take into account almost every possible factor during a shot. You have to measure wind (though you must guess the wind on your tee shot, which is a bit frustrating), elevation (if a hole is 10 feet below you, it's smart to take a bit off a shot so you don't overshoot the green), and check the surroundings to be absolutely sure you won't roll off into a sandtrap, into a puddle of water, or right in front of a tree which would result in a serious amount of trouble. Granted, sometimes you have to take some risks, because the wind doesn't always do what it says, and sometimes the elevation differences have little bearing on shots. It becomes a game where you really gotta learn a course, like the real game of golf. There are some?ahem?unrealistic aspects (being able to have wacky backspin, the varying wind on different holes, even rain on individual ones, for instance), but the game maintains a feel of realism despite itself.
Putting is quite a challenge ? there's really no ?tips' other than a faint white line that sometimes appears if you're close enough, and you have to guess the distance and curve through trial and error. It can get mighty frustrating when a put ?swirls' out even if you hit it dead on. While it's great they didn't dumb down the game and put in a line to use for putting, there could have been some better assistance other than your caddy saying ?hit it right, pudgy' when who knows how far right you should be doing it.
Still, Hot Shots Golf Fore is a great game of golf that maybe hasn't evolved much from HSG3, but the newer courses, online play, and the same challenge will appeal to many gamers. Granted?if you're not a big fan of the click system or even of the last Hot Shots game, you won't like this one, but anyone else interested in golf should own this game. Don't let the light-hearted appearance of the game fool you, because it's a mighty realistic links game that is punishing to those who aren't patient enough to play; playing randomly will result in spending much time at the bottom of leaderboards. In other words - it may look arcadey, but it's far from being so. It's pick-up-and-play at its best, but some restraint is needed in order to play well. Like real golf, you can't master a course the first time you play it.
Visually, Hot Shots Golf Fore isn't much different than #3, but really, that's okay because HSG3 looked pretty good. The unusual mix of realistically proportioned courses and big-headed characters is a bit odd, but the characters are designed well, though they all seem to borrow the same basic animations, save for a few unique ones. The courses are sharp and colorful (and in many cases, beautiful, such as the treacherous Blue Lagoon CC), and when you play them in different seasons, they look totally different though they play fairly similar no matter what season you're in. The presentation is quite sharp, as they really do a fine job of putting all the different gauges to use in preparing for a shot, without overly cluttering up the screen with useless nonsense. It maintains a clean look that is very intuitive for playing the game.
On the audio end, HSGF carries a mixture of fitting music for each course (western-movie like music for the Western CC, and tropical music for Blue Lagoon, etc), that's lighthearted and silly, but works well. The characters have their own sets of lines like always, but they're constantly repeated thus get a bit tiring after a while, as do the caddies (who barely manage to be funny anyway). Same goes for the crowd ? while there's some really funny lines, they don't deviate much from the basic batch of lines and thus don't mean much. Otherwise, there's some solid sound effects for hitting the ball, rolling into sand, dropping into water, etc. Thankfully, none of this matters in the long run, though I hope HSG5 adds some more diversity to the voicework.