One of the ever-evolving joys of gaming has been that playing videogames allows players an opportunity to do things they'd never do in real life. Gamers can be space heroes, Navy SEALS, ancient warriors, or in my case, great golfers. Sure, I can hear it now—"Mike, you could just go out to one of the millions of golf courses in America and actually play the game"—and while this is true, it's oh so much easier to just sit on my couch with a game like Tiger Woods PGA Tour. I don't have to pay greens fees, I don't have to walk, I don't have to buy a set of clubs, and most importantly, I don't have to wear ugly shirts. Yes, videogame golf may well be one of mankind's greatest creations and Hot Shots Golf 3 was quite arguably the zenith of the genre. So, when Hot Shots Golf Fore turned up on my doorstep, I settled in to see what developers Clap Hanz had done, this generation, with one my favorite games.

The first thing gamers who spent time with Hot Shots Golf 3 will notice is that this installment looks more like an expansion to that game than a brand new title. Yes, there are tweaks and additions (most notably the long-awaited inclusion of online play with Sony's Network Adaptor) but underneath it, this is HSG3 with a new coat of paint. The courses from the last game are back, as are many of the players and caddies along with several new courses, new characters (including unlockables like Ratchet and Jak), and the return of mini-golf. And while the game may seem more like an expansion than a new title, it's really not an issue since so much of the material is included to refine the HSG3 experience. Because of this, players who spent hundreds of hours with the previous game will still find a lot to like in this update—the additions are almost entirely there to make the game more complex and more realistic (or at least as realistic as a game featuring a dog caddy can be…).

More casual players likely won't notice the many subtle changes to the core gameplay, but that doesn't mean they won't still benefit from them. As with previous installments, Hot Shots Golf Fore sticks with the traditional three-click swing mechanic. While more realistic golf sims like Tiger Woods have moved on to an analog swing system using the controller's sticks, HGS sticks with what's worked through the first three installments. This is not to say the three-click swing system hasn't been tweaked—it has. However, like everything else in the game, the tweaks are so small many people won't notice them right off the tee.

Perhaps the most notable enhancement is in the accuracy portion of the bar. In previous games, this part of the swing mechanic featured a small pink sweet spot surrounded by some red areas. Hitting the pink squarely meant players hit a straight shot. Landing in the red meant the shot would have some hook or some slice to it. Landing squarely in the red meant the player was essentially screwed as the shot would often go nowhere. In this year's game, the red area features an even darker red segment. Rather than avoiding this though, the game wants players to hit it—because landing there means the player hits a sort of super shot—the ball stays straight and covers some extra distance while in the air, but won't roll after landing. This adds an extra dimension to a lot of shots, particularly since aiming for the red is such a risk—there's no room for error with these shots as missing the dark red means the player has hit an awful shot instead.

One of the more interesting features in this installment is the inclusion of a "beginners club," which allows players who are new to the game to get in on the action right away. Rather than featuring the three-click swing system, players using the beginners set only have to time the distance of the shot—the accuracy is automatic. This is a nice way to allow new players to get used to how the game works, but it's unfortunate that the club has become a crutch for online players who want to win at all costs.

Speaking of online, the biggest selling point of Hot Shots Golf Fore is undoubtedly the inclusion of online play. While HSG3 got a ton of play here at Casa de Bracken when friends were over, there's nothing quite like being able to log in and find a match at any time of the day or night. Taking the game online is simple and user-friendly as it features an easy-to-use menu system and lots of lobbies. Online play is divided into two forms: a four-player match or a tournament with up to 50 other people. Both formats are fun, and allow players to see where they stack up against the rest of the country. The only downside here is the lack of a voice-chat option. Trust me, a golf game like this one needs voice chat for trash talking.

Graphically, the game has been cleaned up and enhanced a bit from the last outing. Character models are a little nicer and well-defined (and just as quirky as ever—I find myself playing as tormented samurai Sam a lot) and perhaps the biggest enhancement is that players can now see the effects of wind on the trees around them. Not only does this add one more level of visual enhancement to the game, it also aids the gameplay immensely as the title still doesn't allow players to see the actual speed of the wind until their second shot.

The title's offline component hasn't changed much since the first game. Players can still partake in tournaments against the computer or challenge one of the rival golfers to a match. Good shots earn points which are used at the pro shop to buy things like new caddies, new outfits, new gear, and so forth. Unfortunately, after the extreme amount of purchasable items on display in last year's Tiger Woods game, the items here seem fairly ho-hum.

Earning points in tourneys increases the player's rank—and once enough points are earned, the player must take a tour test to advance to the next level. These tour tests start out easily enough, usually they involve beating a certain score for a round on a predetermined course. However, at the higher levels, the challenges become just that—and most players will never reach the ultimate levels of the game because of this.

Which brings me to the game's biggest flaw: it's hard to the point of not being fun at times. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the cartoony graphics and the funny voiceovers— Hot Shots Golf Fore will beat you like a rented mule at any given moment. Sometimes this is just because the game asks for Herculean feats from the player (such as the rank tests) —other times it's because the game can be unbelievably cheap. One of the biggest flaws of the original Hot Shots Golf was that the computer-controlled players had an unnatural ability to hit amazing shots in challenge matches whenever they were behind. This was, and is, my largest complaint about that game and why I never bothered with the second title.

Hot Shots Golf 3 essentially fixed the problem. Later challengers were difficult, but they could be beaten by playing a good, solid round. Yes, they'd hit the occasional great shot, but they'd actually hit a bad shot from time to time too. Such is rarely the case in Hot Shots Golf Fore—challengers here have the ability to consistently hit 150 yard eagles, hit shots regularly within five feet of the pin, and even manage to hit the occasional hole-in-one. Several times, in sudden death, I've hit a shot within feet of the cup, only to watch the computer-controlled challenger sink their 100 yard approach shot and win the match. This happening once or twice is understandable, but it happens so often in Hot Shots Golf Fore that it borders on the ludicrous. If you get ahead against certain players, they will hit a series of amazing shots in order to win the next hole.

Despite this one serious flaw, Hot Shots Golf Fore is still a respectable entry in the now venerable series. In an ever-more-crowded golf game market, it manages to set itself apart from its competitors by offering a realistic golf experience without the staid traditionalism of Tiger Woods or the Links games, or the silly over-the-topness of titles like Outlaw Golf or Mario Golf. Duffers who like to spend more time on the couch than on the greens will find much to enjoy here and they can do it without looking like a dork in a pair of knickers. Rating: 7 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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