As a young gamer, often times my first foray into the wide world of sports was through videogames. Before I knew how to run a slant route in a real-life game of football, I knew how to run something in Tecmo Bowl and Madden.
The same could be said for the greenest of all sports, which was first introduced to me by way of Nintendo's Golf for the NES. Even though I had no idea what "par" was or the difference between a driver and a wedge, there was something tranquil about hitting a tiny ball down a giant digital course.
Powerstar Golf (Xbox One)
Developer: Zoë Mode
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Powerstar has a unique aesthetic that's somewhere in-between cartoony (mostly the golfers) and realistic (the courses). At times, seeing the two different styles juxtaposed together can be fairly off-putting, and in other sections, the scenery can look particularly impressive to the point where you really don't care. But as a whole, the artwork presented by way of the game's loading screens is far better than what's seen anywhere else, and Powerstar looks like a far cry from anything resembling a next-gen game. Even within the confines of its graphical limitations, it's not perfect either -- I encountered a few glitches where my game locked up and a number of chunky framerate problems.
Having said that, Powerstar Golf's controls are much more consistent than its visual style. All you need to do to make your way down each course is aim your shot, press the A button, line up your power on a meter, then press it again to hit a small white space to perfect your aim -- that's it. It operates like many tried-and-true shot mechanics have in the past, and it works like a charm.
If you want to see your shot's destination, you just press the Y button, and you'll be greeted with an in-depth close-up camera angle of the course, with the ability to change your destination at any time. One of the best mechanical systems found in Powerstar though is putting, which makes the intricacies of each green as visible as possible. Using tiny little waves of different colors, the game will display uphill, downhill, and flat surfaces in a simple manner, allowing for some intense putting planning sessions.
Powerstar also attempts to mix things up with a bit of arcade zaniness by adding in powers like blazing comet shots, multi-balls, and vacuum holes that suck up your putts. Although these shots do add a bit of character to the game, I feel like they could have gone a even further. In Powerstar's current state you only get one power per golfer, and one per NPC caddie. The golfers usually get the coolest powers, but your caddies are usually relegated to lame abilities like "better guidance." The caddie system itself is a neat idea (they give you light hints and remind you of things like wind direction), but it often feels underdeveloped and pointless -- like a half-realized design.
All of this is accented by a unique RPG system that's linked to absolutely everything you do. It feels good to constantly earn experience and unlock new events even if you're doing poorly, as nothing ever truly feels like a waste of time. Having said that, the amount of content available in Powerstar is rather limited, and gated off in multiple ways. For starters, there are only four different locations (with 18 holes) to choose from, all of which quickly get old. In order to progress through to any of these areas you'll have to level up quite a bit, playing on the same few courses over and over until you have the privilege of moving on.
The number of golfers and caddies are also extremely low, so experimentation is rather limited. In short, playing Powerstar can get highly repetitive without friends, both using the local and asynchronous features (which I'll get to momentarily). For golf game fans this is literally par for the course, but given the game's arcade-like influences, I expected a bit more.
Another unfortunate addition is the presence of microtransactions. For a fee, you can buy "booster packs" that will randomly grant you outfits, one-time boosts, and permanent pieces of equipment (read: golf clubs). Now, in some games (mostly PVE or co-op based titles), the addition of microtransactions wouldn't bother me so much.
But in a competitive title like Powerstar, it simply feels wrong to offer players the ability to get ahead if they spend a little bit of cash. If you're the kind of person who just wants to enjoy the game by yourself, it's entirely possible here with a bit of grinding, but for everyone else you may feel the sting of this DLC model.
Thankfully, the social features make up for a few of the game's shortcomings by adding in good leaderboard features at every turn. On just about every course you'll be able to see your friend's best shots and longest drives in real time, as they show up on both the course and the game's menus. You can take this step a bit further as well, with the "Rivals" feature that lets you square off against someone online, going head to head with a number of different challenges. Real-time play is limited to local only, with the option for a two-player heads-up tournament, or a four-player mode.
In the end, Powerstar Golf isn't particularly special, but it'll win over the hearts of golf fans for sure. If all you're looking to do is whack a ball down a course on a next-gen system with the occasional bit of positive reinforcement, Powerstar is your huckleberry.
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