Birds Are Chirping...
And boy will you notice said cleaning and polishing. Hot Shots has never looked so good, not even on the PS3. Starting with the clear, colorful menus and ending with the crisp, detailed golfer character models, the game oozes production value at every turn. Some of the course fly by's suffer from detail pop-in on the trees, but on the whole, the game is yet another launch title that will make you proud to own a Vita. Even more impactful than the technical competence is the overall art direction, which lends a light-hearted air to the proceedings. Even a grumpy old man like myself can't resist smiling during one of the character's birdie celebrations. The franchise has always succeeded at bestowing an infectious sense of joy upon the player. World Invitational continues this tradition, even during its most challenging moments.
Which, by the way, there is no shortage of in this installment of Hot Shots. It starts out as simple as can be, on a course with wide fairways, slow greens and a gentle spring breeze on your virtual self's face. Not two courses later, you'll be dealing with gale force winds, devious doglegs, and sand bunkers of Sahara Desert proportions. There are 6 courses in all to choose from. Granted, it isn't a whole lot, but they are quite diverse in both their aesthetics and their playstyle. No matter what your level, you're sure to find courses that suit you. Not only do they cater to a wide range of skill levels, they also challenge the player in different ways. Some offer a combination of harsh weather and downright brutal greens while others dog you with devilishly placed hazards. Each of them demands a different approach and will call on the player to draw upon the different bits of knowledge they have picked up along the way.
This is, and has always been, Hot Shots greatest strength. I can still remember the first time I teed off on Green Country Club and how simply satisfying each shot felt. It starts so innocently, with three rhythmic clicks of the x button, but it eventually grows into an incurable disease of estimating shot carry, and the effects of lie and elevation on your stroke. Just like any respectable drug dealer, it starts you out easy, with feel good birdies to get you hooked. Then all of a sudden you realize how deep the gofer hole truly goes and there is no way out. You're addicted.
Clap Hanz achieves this by taking all the guessing out of your shot. While the game goes out of its way to appear simplistic and accessible, it actually sports just as much depth as any golf sim, if not more. The detailed, easy to read HUD provides a preposterous amount of data with which to plan your approach. When you start out, you'll barely use any of it. But as you advance from hole to hole, the game's deftly designed courses begin teaching you how each element works. Learning to incorporate all these pieces of data into your game starts to become second nature. At times, it can be daunting, but before long, you start to see each shot as an equation to be solved. Certainly, walking this path to mastery is a good enough time, and reaching it is sheer ecstasy. After pulling off an amazing shot under crazy conditions at just the right time in a tournament, you'll be able to do little else but yell out victoriously - further convincing your neighbors that you do indeed have mental issues in need of sorting.
This performance driven euphoria peaks when you take the game online to compete against players across the world in both synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer tournaments. Daily international events allow you to simply select a tournament with a set number of holes and rules and play through it, uploading your score and doling out a ranking at the end. For a more social experience, you can join online lobbies and interact directly with other players via your lobby avatar as well as create and play events. These play out on a hole by hole basis, giving all players a set amount of time to complete their hole before moving everyone on to the next one together. It can take a lot longer than a usual round, especially if someone in your tournament is new, but it also adds a constant sense of competition that the Daily International lacks. Completing a hole and then returning to a player lobby to see that someone else had a better drive or scored better than you makes you that much more eager to get back out on the course and top them. Online performance was terrific, and with a constant stream of new tournaments to play each day, the multiplayer will help keep Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational in your Vita for quite some time.
However, even if you don't feel like being an online warrior, the game has more than enough content to keep you playing for the foreseeable future. You'll spend the bulk of your time in challenge mode, where you progress through tiers of increasingly difficult 9 and 18 hole events. Some events have special rules and stipulations like a plus sized cup, or an extra shot penalty for landing in a hazard. Performing well within a particular tier grants access to a VS challenge where you play against a new golfer in a one on one duel to add them to your stable of selectable characters. There are even secret victory conditions that if met often enough, net you the opportunity to face and unlock one of several hidden golfers for use. Characters brim with personality and offer well differentiated playstyles. As you use them more often, they level up, unlocking new special shot types and traits. Throw in a wide selection of balls, clubs, and costume configurations to unlock and suddenly you'll need to clear your gaming schedule to have enough time to collect everything.
It will be time well spent though, that much is certain. Something I look for in every game I play is a sense of joy and reward in every repeated action. This is something that games from the 80's really nailed. If I have to fire the same gun or do the same three hit combo a thousand times during a run through of a game, then care must be taken to make that action look and feel fun. You can't keep the real fun confined to the special instances and set pieces. Make me look forward to the next random battle or platforming section as soon as I'm done with the last. Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, like its many predecessors, accomplishes this phenomenally with crisp visuals, delightful sound effects and an arcade golf feel that makes every swing a joy. In terms of gameplay depth, volume of content, and sheer enjoyment, there aren't many games on the Vita right now that can best it.