Video games typically sit on a continuum between realism and fun. Should developers stick to pure simulation, or go for what feels good? With shooters, for example, one end of the spectrum is occupied by the likes of the ARMA series, with Team Fortress 2 balancing it out. Sports games too often fall into the former category, which PowerStar Golf proves by way of counterpoint.
PowerStar’s splash screen introduces you to its cast of highly-stylised cartoon golfers. The characters are so broad, in fact, that they verge on caricature (generally inoffensive, given the game’s breezy tone): the starter characters are genius Japanese scientist Reiko Kobayashi and brawny American astronaut and Patrick Warburton soundalike Frank Weaver, but more characters can be unlocked by playing through the game’s various opens.
Each character has a slightly different set of stats, but the key differences lie in their in-game chatter and their power-ups. Each character has a limited-use power that can be activated before a swing, giving the ball superpowered properties like homing in on the pin or travelling at supersonic speeds. Caddies also have abilities, like predicting the exact path of a putt. This fantastical element is promising but underutilised, and with the character design it really serves as a reminder of how great a superhero sports game could be.
Complementing said design are the courses themselves, rendered with bright, crisp photorealistic cartoon graphics. It’s a very pretty game, given the tendency of too many games to drench their graphics in a miasma of brown.
The courses sound great too, with tranquil, atmospheric sound design and music during play and jauntier tunes in menus. Strangely, despite Microsoft’s obsession with forcing Kinect into our lives and the success of Nintendo’s Wii Sports titles, PowerStar features no motion controls.
Gameplay mostly conforms to the formula golf games have followed since time immemorial: choose a club; line up your shot; adjust for wind direction; hit A when the meter reaches the power level you want. It’s uncomplicated and repetitive, but the gentle pace and tone make it almost serene. There’s a remarkable degree of camera freedom, allowing you to traverse the entire surrounding area and get right up close to the ducks swimming about the pond if you want.
The putting interface is similar, but it overlays the green with a grid, with pulsating lights moving according to the slope of the surface. It’s a handy way to gauge the shape of the land you’re putting over, but it can be difficult to tell just how much to compensate for hills. Upon conquering the laws of physics and getting the ball in the hole, though, the friendly David Attenborough soundalike voiceover congratulates you as big sparkly graphics fill the screen and your character cheers (or throws their club, depending on the score). It’s just enough praise.
Like all games associated with sports, PowerStar Golf offers a range of modes, adding extra gaminess to the generally uncomplicated sport it’s based on. There’s free-play and career trees, along with local-only multiplayer.
While online multiplayer doesn’t make an appearance per se, leaderboard information pops up in single player in the form of markers on the fairway representing the best shots from other players.
The career mode is where PowerStar Golf’s meat lies. Numerous opens across a range of courses are available, though many only get unlocked when your golfer reaches the right level.
PowerStar Golf is the latest non-RPG to gain RPG-like features: after every game, your golfer earns experience points and credits, levelling up and unlocking more courses.
Those credits put PowerStar squarely in the middle of the other big current trend: our friend the microtransaction. Although credits can be earned in-game by completing optional challenges, they can also be bought with real money; the main menu has a “Store” button right there alongside “Play”.
It’s not the most egregious implementation of this particular economic structure, but it makes grinding for credits seem a little hollow when you can pony up five bucks instead. Regardless of the means of acquisition, credits are used to purchase packs of randomly selected gear – clubs, balls, outfits, bonuses – that can be equipped in your next open.
The range of available upgrades is deep enough to require an inventory management system more complex than you’d expect from a golf game.
Ultimately, PowerStar Golf will likely be written off as just that - a golf game - but for a golf game, it’s pretty charming. And in an age where dudebros scowl at you from the covers of EA Sports titles, a little charm goes a long way.