It's hard to believe that Hot Shots Golf has been around for almost 15 years, and given how much of a staple the series has been on Sony systems in that time, it's no wonder the games have become so well-loved by PlayStation fans. While the series has evolved at a fairly consistent rate alongside the growing technology, nothing quite compares to the wealth of new features bundled inside of Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, many courtesy of the Vita's unique hardware.
While franchises like Tiger Woods PGA Tour have stuck to more realistic takes on the sport, Hot Shots Golf has generally relegated itself in the category of arcade gameplay. While there are still a wealth of real-world elements, such as wind, weather and authentic golfing links to tussle with, the system itself has always remained simple and intuitive. Using simple button presses, execution of shots is accomplished using only a power meter and pinpoint timing. It's this simple system and wide variety of courses and situations that give the game its strategic yet incredibly accessible design, but in the end the goal is still the same: get the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible.
The single-player mode of World Invitational comes in two flavors. Challenges are the meat of the package and basically pit you against a selection of holes on various courses with the goal of winning the challenge and earning a star. This time around, however, there's the added challenge of gold crowns earned by meeting specific criteria. These range from finishing at least three strokes ahead of everyone else to landing every shot on the fairway. As you earn stars and crowns, you'll unlock new courses and earn points to purchase new equipment and characters. You'll also earn experience to level up your character, thus attaining better hitting stats. And if you find yourself wanting something a bit more relaxing, there’s the more leisurely Stroke Play mode where you merely try to better your record for a particular course.
For taking on actual living players, you have two choices. Local multiplayer lets you play tournaments with people around you and gives you a wide variety of customization settings to tweak to your desire. These allow you to set special rules, choose a course and select the number of holes you wish to play. Of course, if you don't have anyone on-hand to play with, there’s the online tournament mode. Here you can either quickly jump into the Daily International Tournament for a quick go at it, or head into the lobby with your pint-sized avatar character and enter a wide variety of tournaments that fit your playing level and style. Much like the local multiplayer, there is a near-endless level of tweaks to suit just about any preference.
Since this is running on the newfangled Vita, you might expect a selection of unique control schemes, and in that department World Invitational’s cup runneth over. Everything from using the Vita's camera to play on an augmented reality course of your surroundings to swinging the handheld to pan around the course, there are plenty of unique touches to keep things interesting. The game even allows you to control pretty much the entire experience using the front touchscreen and rear touchpad if you're so inclined, although there are the standard button controls for those not quite ready to jump into the touchscreen world with both feet.
While a small few of the Vita-specific control functions do feel a bit unnecessary at times, like using the rear touchpad to set up shots, the majority of the new controls add a lot of function and excitement to the experience. The inclusion of six different shot systems gives players of all preferences and skill levels a variety of gameplay choices to suit their needs, and the ability to unlock new things and play a steady flow of online tournaments does a great job of adding replay value to the package. In truth, when something works as well as Hot Shots Golf has over the years, there's really no reason to mess with it too much.
The Hot Shots Golf entries on PSP were very well done from a visual standpoint, but once you take a peek at what developer Clap Hanz has done with the Vita and its beautiful 5" OLED screen then you'll appreciate how significant a step up the visuals are this time around. The level of detail in the surroundings is astounding and it's quite easy to get drawn into the gorgeous environments, sending your ball to a watery grave in one of the many water hazards. Even the character models look amazing and animate with lovely realism. Sure, there's a little polygon clipping every now and again, but it's fairly minimal and a small price to pay for the impressive level of detail and vibrancy jumping off the screen at every turn.
When it comes to music, the Hot Shots Golf series has generally tended to keep things simple and subtle, and World Invitational doesn't stray far from that formula. The cute tunes you're treated to during play tend to remain off in the background and do a great job of allowing the golf and character sounds to shine. The majority of the sound effects remain very authentic to their real-life counterparts and character voices feature the same sugary sweet overtones players have come to expect from the series. A few of the character's voices can be a bit grating over time, but it's nothing to get too worked up over.
Even with its myriad of new gameplay and control functions, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational is still very much the same enjoyable arcade golfing experience it's always been. And with a wealth of challenges, online play, and an almost endless amount of customization, there's easily enough content to keep players coming back for more. Hot Shots Golf fans have come to expect a rather high level of quality when it comes to the series over the years and World Invitational doesn't disappoint. In fact, it might very well be the best Hot Shots Golf game to date.