Version tested: Xbox 360
With the advent of the heady homebrew Community Games on Xbox Live, the old scoring systems that we've relied on for so many years can seem inflexible and restrictive. There's not much point berating some bedroom developer for failing to match the polish of even the most basic Live Arcade game, while praising them for creating something that's almost like a real game feels horribly patronising.
Easy Golf arrives from start-up studio Barkers Crest, which is really just an umbrella for affable solo developer Matt Davis. At 800 Microsoft Points, it costs the same as most Live Arcade games - including rival golfing game Tee It Up! - which automatically puts it smack bang in the middle of the awkward scoring conundrum.
It's priced like a professional game, but clearly doesn't have the level of polish and presentation we'd usually expect for the cost. Thankfully, dig past the perfunctory menus and slightly crude graphics and there's a genuinely good golf game not too far under the surface; the sort of thing that may not look like its next-gen rivals, but with the robust charm that would have made it an enduring cult hit on, say, the original PlayStation or N64.
You get three courses for your money - Weeping Willow, Hazard County and The 19th Hole. Or at least you did get three courses for your money. In a generous burst of post-release patching, the game recently received an additional trio of courses - Robot Retreat, Desert Oasis and White Mountain Country Club - basically doubling the size of the game.
Each course comes with tees that can be set to easy, normal and hard difficulty levels while control uses the familiar three-click swing system to set the power and angle of your shot. It's a smooth and intuitive implementation of a tried-and-tested control scheme and it works a treat. Hooks and slices initially appear more pronounced than you'd expect from the slight deviations in your stroke, but it's easy enough to adjust and incorporate this into your game.
Obviously, you're not going to get the same spread of features you'd find in the latest Tiger Woods game, but what there is gets the job done without the need for frills. Left and right triggers cycle through your clubs, though the game automatically selects the best fit for each stroke, while the X button selects the shot type should you wish to opt for a chip or putt for tactical reasons. Tapping down on the right analogue stick adds backspin, while tapping up gives you a reverse angle on your target. The right and left bumpers allow you to elevate and drop your viewpoint.
The ball physics are unsophisticated but mostly effective. Wind can affect your shot, as can the slope of the fairway, but everything is intuitive enough that you're soon landing shots with all the accuracy you'd expect. The only time the physics feel out of your control is on the green. The game's not particularly good at making the contours clear, with the traditional wireframe grid from other golf games replaced with an overlay where light and dark smudges are used to show higher and lower slopes. It's just a little too vague when you're lining up a long putt, and one of the few areas where the game really stumbles.
The courses themselves are simple but effective, with basic grass textures and fairways hovering in a light blue skybox. The water effects are quite nice, and the trees may not be realistic but they're at least varied in colour and shape. While this wouldn't cut the mustard on Live Arcade, as far as Community Games are concerned it's easily one of the best-looking efforts. The default music is a pleasantly twangy acoustic guitar theme, which sounds suspiciously similar to the music from Kingdom for Keflings. It loops over and over and soon grates, so it's handy that the game supports custom soundtracks, using your own music from the hard drive or whatever media server you've got set up.
There's even support for four players, online or off. While it's difficult to find other players using the lobby search, Matt Davis has set up a special Gamertag - AVF Easy Golf - that you can add to your Friends List and then use the View Friends option to find other owners of the game.
So far, so good. It's a solid, if slightly old fashioned, golf game that only occasionally betrays its homebrew origins. What sets Easy Golf apart is the rather splendid Course Creator, which is simple enough for anyone to be able to throw together a decent hole or two but also has enough depth for those who want to tweak and refine their designs into an expertly balanced 18-hole experience.
Placement of the green, bunkers, water hazards and rough is all handled by placing anchor points in the shape you want. The game then fills in the enclosed area accordingly. Each anchor point can also be moved afterwards, and the curves between anchors can be adjusted. If you've ever used Illustrator or the paths tool in Photoshop then you'll have a good idea how it works, and it's a cunning way of enabling a console joypad to do the sort of work usually reserved for a mouse. Terrain can also be lowered or raised, and weather variables set to your satisfaction.
It's more than enough to make course-creation a doddle, and the ability to share your creations in Xbox Live games makes the process even more appealing. It's the sort of robust functionality you'd expect from a commercial game, and to find it in a Community Game does much to dispel the amateur stigma that too often clogs up the homebrew scene.
Also earning praise are the tweaks and updates that Davis has been applying to the title since launch. Indeed, it's this near-constant refinement that has kept the game from being reviewed earlier. As well as the new courses mentioned earlier, the game now boasts rain and snow weather effects, which can be enhanced by choosing one of the new backdrops. These just replace the blue skybox with a different image of cloudy skies, city streets or stars, and the weather itself doesn't seem to have any notable impact on gameplay.
Your robot golfer now comes with greater customisation options, rather than the simple colour palette swap available at launch, and there are accessories to unlock as you play. There were also new features added to the course designer, with the ability to place islands in the middle of water features among other cosmetic enhancements such as new tree and rock formations. Online multiplayer has been beefed up to support eight-player matches.
It's a staggering overhaul for an already solid game, and in terms of after-sales fan service it not only puts the other Community Games to shame but most Live Arcade titles as well. Barker's Crest is supporting the game in other ways as well, with a contest running throughout March to see who can register the lowest score on any of the six courses, with prizes of 1600 MS Points available to the winners. There are even specially created "hub" Gamertags that you can add to your Friends List in order to share and swap courses with other players and arrange online tournaments.
So as an overall package Easy Golf certainly offers enough variety and worthwhile features to justify far more than a condescending pat on the back and a certificate for being "Very Good for a Community Game". It's simply a good game, and one that keeps getting better all the time thanks to its commendably committed creator. While the occasional rough edges would be easier to accept at a lower price point, anyone who simply wants to enjoy a cheerful game of arcade golf certainly shouldn't regret spending a little extra to support a promising new talent.
7 / 10