Conventional video game wisdom says simulations are more realistic than their so-called arcade counterparts. Racing sims like Gran Turismo are designed to appeal to the hardcore driving fan, while games like Burnout are meant for the casual racer who just wants to go fast without worrying about gear ratios and wheel differentials.
Simulations, by their very nature, are intended to reproduce as closely as possible the experience of driving a car, running a railroad, managing a European football team, or striking a golf ball. While simulations usually outgun their arcade rivals on the realism scale, occasionally a game comes along that beats the sim in the fun department, while also pulling off a surprising upset in the realism race. Such is the case with Sony's Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.
Before going any further, let me say that I've never played a video game that accurately simulates the game of golf. In the early '90s the Links series for the PC (Access Software) came the closest, but that franchise died after Access was purchased by Microsoft, then later sold to Take-Two who moved development to their 2K Sports division, then promptly killed it with no explanation. The Links games featured a sophisticated course editor (still missing from Tiger Woods) and an environmental ambiance no golf game has captured since.
Ironically, the final Access-developed Links arrived in 1998, the same year two new golf games were introduced: Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf and Hot Shots Golf (known in Japan as Everybody's Golf!). From the beginning, the Tiger Woods franchise was promoted as a simulation featuring actual PGA tour golfers, authentic courses, and an analog swing system meant to emulate the swing of the club. The Hot Shots games, on the other hand, feature cartoonish anime-inspired characters, miniature golf, and a generally more humorous take on the game.
How is it, then, that Hot Shots takes Tiger to the cleaners in '08?
The biggest reason goes back to the issue of simulation. Tiger Woods '08 is less a golf simulation than a simulated broadcast of televised golf. If you look carefully at the experience of playing Tiger Woods - from the sweeping virtual camera shots to the constant chatter of on-air commentators - what you are experiencing has less to do with playing golf than watching golf on TV. Sure, I can play as Tiger Woods. But I'm Tiger from a distance, as if I'm manipulating him from a control tower.
Add to this a wonky, frustrating analog swing mechanic intended, it would seem, to prevent me from hitting a straight shot, and I'm nowhere near the kind of immersive experience a simulation is supposed to provide. GameDaily calls Tiger Woods '08 "the ultimate golf simulation," but I say it's not. If you're looking for a closer approximation of what it actually feels like to play golf - with a great deal more fun thrown in - you ought to be playing Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds.
Hot Shots Golf has no commentators, no racks of logoed clothes or equipment, and no corporate signage. The only voice you hear is that of your caddy helping you line up a putt. She talks to you the golfer, rather than you the golf broadcast viewer. The courses are beautiful, detailed depictions of courses that don't actually exist - which ironically enhances the realism for me. It's fun to see St. Andrews reproduced in Tiger Woods, but I'm always drawn to the flaws and missing parts on such landmark courses, which detracts from the experience for me.
Hot Shots Golf's other edge is its swing mechanic. Golf games have struggled to get this right for years. Everything from meters to mouse gestures have been tried, but nothing I've seen works as well as Hot Shots' visual timing system. Instead of a meter, you watch the swing itself and choose how far back to draw your club. Contact is made by timing your final button press with a circle closing in on your ball. With this system, you focus on making your backswing, then shift your focus to the ball. I find this much more intuitive and "realistic" than anything I've seen in other golf games.
A telling moment occurred as I was playing Tiger Woods last night. I hit my approach shot to the green and after the game loaded the next screen I found Tiger standing next to a big yellow truck with an enormous crane attached. It took me a moment to realize what the game was telling me: I'm playing golf on television, and this big truck is here to capture it all with a fluid camera stationed high above the action. Once again, the video game medium needlessly limits itself to the visual language of another existing medium.
Instead of a crane, I would have preferred to see a tree. In Hot Shots Golf, that's exactly what you'll find. Granted, you'll be standing next to that tree as a hyper-cute cartoon-styled golfer. But all things considered, I can live with that.
In reality, golf isn't the fist-pumping in-your-face rock-and-roll show EA Sports wants you to think it is. It's actually a quiet, solitary experience that can humble you in a hurry. The best players don't grip the club; they hold it lightly in their hands. Hot Shots Golf understands that much better than Tiger Woods.