If there’s one thing every console apparently needs, it’s a golf game. Whether you’re seeking realism in one of EA’s PGA-licenced affairs, or firing up the over-the-top action of the excellent Everybody’s Golf series, there always seems to be at least one available relatively early on in a console’s life-cycle. Powerstar Golf is Microsoft’s own take on the arcade golfing genre, with SingStar and EyeToy veterans Zoë Mode taking hold of the developmental reins.
Although somewhat slow to start – you’re initially given access to a single course and two golfers – Powerstar Golf is a game that does an awful lot of things right. The four courses that eventually become available all look superb, if a little samey, but it isn’t the graphical performance that grabs you. Instead, the little gameplay tweaks that set the game aside from its peers are what will get you playing for hours. Rather than giving you an open shop where you can just buy the best equipment once you’ve accumulated enough in-game currency, you’re able to buy random packs of cards that may or not contain items that you want. Right off the bat, this means that there’s a reason to play again and again, as you aren’t going to get the best woods, irons, putter, and balls from a single pack. Equipment is branded, too, and a performance bonus is given if you’re using equipment that’s all from the same manufacturer. It may seem like small dice, but knowing that you’re using the irons and wedges from one maker and that finding a similarly-branded putter in a pack of cards will give you a 30% boost to the spin ability of all of your clubs, is reason enough to crack on and play another round in order to win enough credits to buy a new pack.
On the course, perks and boosters come into play in order to set the game further away from the realms of reality. Also collected via card packs, these can boost your abilities, reduce the effects of wind, or even slow down the speed of the swing meter. Playing a course that’s riddled with bunkers? It might be time to whip out that booster card that improves your bunker lie by 50%.
With regards to the swing meter, the speed that it runs at is what keeps Powerstar Golf challenging. In other games, you can pretty much get to the point where you can hit 100% power and a perfect strike on every single shot. Not so here. In this game, you can spend ten minutes lining up your shot, judging the lie, and compensating for the wind, but if you don’t pay any attention when actually taking the shot, it’ll all be for nothing. Even the most experienced player will occasionally whiff a shot off to the right, or hit a ball short due to mistiming the power setting. Throw in putting that is easy to pick up, but very tough to master, and a set of courses that can be set up with some devilishly placed pins and near gale-force winds, and it soon becomes apparent that Powerstar Golf’s unassuming look masks a tough, tough challenge.
There are some issues to take a look at, though. Over our first four hours of play, we experienced two crashes. One where the ball landed on a tree branch and was never adjudged to have stopped – meaning that we had to quit the round – and another where the game went absolutely insane and decided that we were an ever-increasing amount of distance from the hole. When we got to 1,500 yards away, the game crashed back to the Xbox One dashboard. Not good. On top of that, there appears to be an awful lot of slowdown in place on some of the courses, particularly when certain effects – such as falling blossoms – come into play. Throw that into the mix with splashes that don’t always trigger when your ball hits the water, and foliage effects that are non-existent as you blast the ball through the trees and you’ve got a game that whilst generally gorgeous to look at, lacks polish. A lack of thought when it comes to close-range play is also demonstrated. Yes, it’s great that we get a big shiny effect when we hit the ball perfectly, but when it prevents us from seeing where the ball is actually going, it does nothing but detract from the fun.
But, that isn’t to say that Powerstar Golf should be overlooked. In fact, it stands as the most enjoyable and playable of the digital-only titles that were made available on day one. It’ll take double-digit hours of gameplay to get at least a bronze medal in each of the events available in the game’s career mode, and if you find yourself with a lack of things to do, online multiplayer works brilliantly well. There’s still the problem that there are only four courses contained within and that they threaten to become repetitive after only a short amount of time, but the changes in rules and occasional “Powerstar Challenge” pop-ups that appear during a round keep things fresh.
A “download content” option on the main menu is greyed out at the moment. We only hope that extra courses will be made available in short order. It might seem unfair to charge more for extra courses, but the developer has made sure that there’s more than enough gameplay included for the initial asking price. That you can purchase credit packs using microtransactions – 140,000 for £11.99, with the best card pack in the game costing 60,000 - is a little bit more concerning, given that the rate of credit rewards during normal gameplay is more than ample, but we’d simply recommend that you avoid the option.
Powerstar Golf is a game that’s unpolished in places, but also superbly fun and dangerously addictive at times. Mastering the game will take a fair amount of time, and there’s no doubt in our minds that what you get is easily worth the asking price. Well worth a spin.