Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds for the PlayStation 3 is a game out of time. While the technical sheen of the presentation and the robustness of the online component feel modern enough, the cutely Japanese characters (complete with poorly matched English voiceovers), the all-too-familiar swing mechanic, and limited number of courses and gameplay modes make it feel like 1997 all over again. While the new subtitle might suggest that Hot Shots is finally going to let its hair down, break some rules, think outside the box, incite a paradigm shift, etc., this is about as traditional as video game golf gets. Despite the dearth of much genuine evolution, though, Out of Bounds still manages a pleasant game of golf.
The most daring thing that Out of Bounds does with the gameplay is introduce a new advanced swing system, which isn't much more than a new coat of paint for the three-click swing mechanic that dates back to Golf for the NES. You still hit the X button once to initiate the swing, a second time to determine swing power, and a third for accuracy, it just does it without cluttering up the screen with various meters. This requires you to play a little more by feel, though there are still plenty of hints provided to help guide the timing of your button presses. During the back swing you'll see a yellow glint on the club when you're at 50% power, then a red glint when you're near 100% power, and as you swing forward, you'll see a shrinking circular meter around the ball, and the closer to the center the circle is, the more accurate the impact is. If you're a hardcore traditionalist that wants no part of all these scary, newfangled mechanics, the traditional, meter-based swing system is still included. It gets the job done, and there's something to be said for going with what you know, but even the new advanced swing feels like a bit of throwback.
Out of Bounds doesn't take many chances with the modes of play, either. The challenge mode represents the meat of the single-player game, challenging you to win a certain number of 9- or 18-hole tournaments before you can go head-to-head against a ranked pro. Win this match and you'll advance to the next rank and begin the process all over again. Ironically, the challenge mode isn't really that challenging through most of it--not to brag or anything, but I got to the fourth rank before I actually lost a match--though once the game decides it's not kidding, it starts coming hard with heavy winds, convoluted putting greens, and opponents who can put up a real fight.
It's in the challenge mode that you'll unlock the lion's share of the 15 playable characters and six different 18-hole courses the game has to offer. The characters are all ridiculous in that filtered-through-Japan kind of way, with my personal favorite being Fernando, the cocky salesman with rolled sleeves who will occasionally leave the course via helicopter. Everyone still has the oversized anime look that has defined the Hot Shots look, and though the PlayStation 3 allows them to look more detailed than ever before, there's a woefully limited number of animations and voice samples. Additionally, the added detail, coupled with the exaggerated art style, gives everyone a weird kind of living-doll feel.
Characters are ranked, and each has unique stats, but individual characters will improve the more you use them, and the clubs and balls you unlock in the challenge mode can have such an adverse effect on performance that you'll likely end up sticking to one or two characters. You'll also gain access to new caddies, who do absolutely nothing. Watching the caddie run like a lunatic between shots is mildly amusing, but their advice when you're on the green is usually painfully obvious, and occasionally downright inaccurate. The six courses in Out of Bounds aren't quite as outlandish as the players, though expect to see plenty of wildlife on the course, as well as the occasional rally race or hot-air balloon. The courses are well-designed and tend towards a more subtly exaggerated realism, but even with mirrored and long-tee versions, there simply aren't enough. This is especially apparent in the challenge mode, where you'll play the same two courses over and over again for the first several ranks.
Live opponents certainly help spice things up, and you can play Out of Bounds locally against friends in either match or stroke games, and you can apply a few custom rules to your matches as well. There's a rule that increases the size of the cup, a rule that adds strokes for landing in a sand trap, and so on. The online play has these same features, but is far more involved, with custom avatars, a full lobby system, and a tournament structure that allows you to reserve your spot in tournaments that happen at specific times in the day, as though it were a tee-time at an actual country club. But, in another turn that reinforces my theory that Out of Bounds was actually developed in the late 1990s, your character and course access in the multiplayer is determined by what you've unlocked in the challenge mode, which sucks if you're just interested in some golf with your friends.
Hot Shots fans will probably be getting exactly what they want/expect from the series with Out of Bounds, which is a very tradition-bound golf game whose playful exterior belies some fairly sturdy and familiar gameplay. I've personally been pretty cool towards the Hot Shots series for a while now for these exact reasons, and while Out of Bounds has done little to change my mind, there are worse ways to spend a lazy Sunday morning.