A Hot Shots Golf game for PS Vita? Shocking! Thankfully, this one’s as substantial as it is expected. The latest in a casual golf dynasty that dates all the way back to the original PlayStation, Hot Shots Golf World Invitational doesn’t do much to revolutionize the series. But it gets by just fine with its tried-and-true, user-friendly golfing action, strong multiplayer, and a mostly smart smattering of Vita-specific gimmicks and upgrades.
The series’s trademark combo of golf and RPG-lite character building returns, offering level-ups and purchasable rewards to anyone who’s willing to put in some time. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, and if you stick with one over the course of a few dozen rounds you can hone their skills further. Our only quibble with this system is the relatively pokey rate of golf shop unlocks. Since many of the early store items aren’t too exciting, we felt compelled to hoard our precious reward points rather than blow them early, an outcome which left the obsessive bit of our brain that likes to watch numbers go up gasping for stimulation.
One thing World Invitational does not lack is content. Six 18-hole courses provide the stage for competition, with mirrored versions thrown in for good measure. Each course has its own beautiful motif - like Japanese countryside, or Mediterranean resort - and varying weather conditions that affect your golfing.
You’ll spend the bulk of your single-player career in Challenge Mode, which offers over 50 tournament scenarios ranging from 10-minute quickies to half-hour epics. Beyond just placing in first, each challenge also has a secret bonus objective that you can try to achieve for additional bonuses. Most of these secret conditions are absurdly difficult, or at least seem so to our modest duffing.
The golf action itself is just this side of perfect. There are no less than five different swing interfaces to choose from, so just about everyone should find one that’s to their liking. The game moves along at a fairly quick pace, at least by golfing standards, letting you skip through extended animations or observe them through a variety of camera angles - we particularly liked the ball’s-eye view.
World Invitational does a pretty good job of utilizing the new Vita’s capabilities. Most obvious are the graphics, which combine smooth, cartoonish characters with the many picturesque vistas. Obvious aliasing and texture sparkle keep it out of console territory, but this is still the best-looking portable golf game yet. There are also a couple really neat camera options that let you look around the course by moving the Vita itself; this doesn’t help the gameplay much, but it’s a fun way to take a closer look at all the attractive scenery. Finally, you can tap the rear touchpad to estimate distances, but this felt too twitchy to bother with.
The only real misstep comes in the gimmicky new method for executing Extra Power Shots, one of several sort of “special moves” characters can call upon. The idea is to tilt the Vita toward yourself and then back at exactly the time that you hit the ball. The motion input feels vague and unsatisfactory, and jerking the system just as you’re trying to time your ball impact is an excellent way to end up with a nasty hook or slice. Thankfully, the other special shots all use normal button inputs, though even they aren’t very well-documented in the manual. You’ll probably want to hit a FAQ.
Extremely robust multiplayer features round out the game. In addition to the expected eight-player online tournaments (complete with nifty, avatar-driven lobbies) every day there are three “National Daily Tournaments,” asynchronous events that you download and play at your leisure; they automatically submit your scores next time you’re online. The only multiplayer kink comes in the fact that you need an activation code to play online; if you buy the game second-hand, it may be missing or already used.
A Hot Shots game for Vita was pretty much a certainty, so we’re glad it turned out so well. Unlike many other launch titles, World Invitational takes advantage of the Vita’s capabilities and offers lots of fun in both solo and multi. With such a solid foundation, the inevitable sequel clearly has its work cut out for it.