Version tested Xbox One
Like the pastime upon which it is loosely based, Xbox One launch game Powerstar Golf is comprised of a few triumphant moments, some boring bits and an awful lot of time spent looking at pretty scenery and wishing your friends were around.
In truth, real-world golf holds little sway over events here. It's apparent very early on that Powerstar developer Zoe Mode has drawn more inspiration from Clap Hanz' long-running Everybody's Golf series than from the sport that it is emulating, but while it one-ups its rival in some areas, it trails it in too many others.
One of the first things to note about Powerstar Golf is that it lacks any form of standard head-to-head online play. There's four-player local multiplayer and an online Rivals mode, in which you compete against AI representations of up to three other players' best course scores, but there's no option to play in real-time against a friend or in online tournaments. This, more than anything else, could damage Powerstar Golf's long-term popularity and will prevent its community scene from ever becoming as vibrant as its visuals.
Instead, Powerstar Golf focuses predominantly on the single-player experience with a reasonable crack at a meaningful XP system and the introduction of random, on-the-fly challenges that add variety to the slim pickings of its four courses.
In career mode, each course offers nine cups that mix up standard variables such as tee length, pin placement and wind strength, as well as requiring a varying number of holes to be completed under match or stroke play conditions. Every round has bronze, silver and gold targets that offer scope for repeat play and there's one new character to be unlocked per course, to increase the meagre starting brace of competitors to an underwhelming total of six.
Everything you do in Powerstar Golf earns you XP, whether it's hitting the fairway, landing a nice approach shot, achieving a personal best or setting a new world record, and this method of positive reinforcement helps to counter the inherent frustration of failing a course challenge at the 18th green. You never feel that a round was a waste of time because you'll still earn a tidy sum of XP and are awarded bonus points for completing the round regardless of the result. This XP all goes towards opening up new events, and there are usually several cups available at your current level so you can move on from one to tackle another or even miss some out entirely.
The XP you earn goes towards levelling up your profile rather than the individual golfers, which means you can switch between the six characters to utilise their various strengths and quirky special abilities depending on the challenge at hand and not be penalised for neglecting a character earlier in the game. Improving the stats of the individual golfers is achieved by obtaining new gear from blind booster packs that are bought with gold that you earn from completing medal challenges (or via micro-transactions).
There are five different levels of booster pack that contain new clubs, buffs, passive perks for the game's two caddies or vanity items that can be used to customise your golfer and boost their starting stats. The best gear is typically found in the most expensive booster packs, which take several rounds to earn enough gold to purchase - but there's a good mix of mid-range items to feed your appetite for progression and each character's powerful unique gear is typically plucked from a range of loot levels.
To Zoe Mode's credit, I didn't once feel that I had to grind for more gold in order to stand a chance of meaningfully competing in the next challenge tier, and for the most part progression is based on skill rather than gimmicks. However, it's here that one of Powerstar Golf's major disappointments makes itself keenly felt.
After knocking about in the early events and learning how wind, elevation and the three different shot types drastically affect ball trajectory, it's natural to want to start to take it a little more seriously and put into practice what you've picked up. This is hampered by Powerstar's uninspiring control mechanism, which is based on the age-old three-button-press method to start the swing before setting power and accuracy. Here the process is depicted on the old-fashioned power bar at the bottom of the screen, with no options for either the visual representation of the swing meter or any use of the analogue sticks. As such, you spend an awful lot of time staring at what is effectively a ruler, rather than at the bright and bold visuals. It's disappointing that Zoe Mode hasn't gone to more effort to include several options in this department.
It's surprisingly difficult to consistently hit the 100 per cent power mark, irrespective of practice or golfer stats, which certainly adds a level of randomness to proceedings but also proves frustrating if your best laid plans are undone by missing the end of the power bar. The AI seems to struggle with this too, and on more than one occasion was forced to forfeit a hole after driving its ball into a water hazard a dozen times from the tee. It's on these occasions that you most miss being able to jump online to share your pain or bemusement with friends.
For all of Zoe Mode's forward thinking with regard to character utilisation and level progression, it feels like it's living in the past when it comes to course design and control options. There's also a niggling worry at the back of my mind that the developer might be readying a raft of DLC that will feel like it should have been in the game in the first place.
Despite its exaggerated cartoon characters and picturesque sunsets, Powerstar Golf feels surprisingly staid and lacking personality. This is further exacerbated by the isolating feeling that, without sofa buddies, you're always playing alone. Single-player becomes tiring and the fact that you have to play a separate mode to contribute scores to the online Rivals' data - rather than it using your career data, say - makes the asynchronous multiplayer even less appealing. Powerstar Golf adds some nice touches to a genre presided over by Everybody's Golf, but its limited scope and some baffling omissions ultimately scupper its chances of outscoring its rival.
6 / 10