The golf genre, to put it lightly, has been on a downswing. Mario Golf: World Tour wasn't terribly impressive with its limited courses and low replay value. Nor was the latest PGA Tour title featuring Rory McIlroy with its lack of golfers, customization, and general content. We haven't seen Hot Shots Golf title since World Invitational in 2011, and while I did preview New Hot Shots Golf at the most recent PlayStation Experience, the only thing it seems to do better is letting you hop in a golf cart and wander around the course. That's about it.
Winning Putt, a new IP by Bandai Namco and the Korean developer Webzen OnNet, hopes to save the golf genre before it lands in deep water. In brief, Winning Putt reintroduces golf as a free-to-play multiplayer PC MMO, a concept that might sound strange to Western audiences but has actually been quite successful for Webzen OnNet with Shot Online since 2006 (though again, you probably haven't heard of it before). Korea is also home to the popular PangYa, a more casual, cartoony golf MMO in Japan and Korea which impressed me with its PSP incarnation just on the basis that you could play a round of golf as a black dragon-morph.
Of course, since the whole golf MMO idea is relatively foreign to North America and Europe, Winning Putt is trying to take a more conservative approach, straddling the line between simulation and arcade golf. Character models and golf courses tend to lean on the more realistic side, but at the same time they're all fictional, partly because EA Sports has the majority of the licenses and partly because Winning Putt emphasizes its MMO innovations. The golf gameplay utilizes the familiar three-click swing instead of an analog stick, but reading greens and judging distance is still the name of the game.
Where Winning Putt sets itself apart is its character customization and multiplayer features, which you would expect given that it's an MMO. After choosing to be either a Power or Accuracy golfer, you can alter your character's appearance using a high number of sliders and purchasing tops and bottoms at the various shops in the central clubhouse area (some outfits require platinum, which is the game's premium currency). You can sign up for various tournaments, some of which take place in real-time with other players, where you can win ranking points and unique prizes. And you can join guilds that have their own lounge area and initiate head-to-head matches with another guild.
The other point of difference is that Winning Putt doesn't back away from difficulty. Through my two quickplay rounds of 18 holes at a private event at the Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco (a fitting location), it was clear that my character was underpowered. About one-third of the time, I wasn't able to reach the green in regulation (GIR, for short), which meant I had to scramble to make par and manage risk. Perhaps this was because my Junior Pro character wasn't a high-level character—the six rankings goes from Novice to World Pro—but I felt that some of the Par 4s were ridiculously long at over 450+ yards. The game also doesn't give the player the ability to spin the ball apart from skills at this moment, so I hope that this is added in somehow.
Also, whenever your character takes a shot in Winning Putt, he or she loses both stamina and mentality. If they're both low, the speed of the bar that determines accuracy and power goes wickedly fast and your attempts to come back are only that much harder. Yes, you recover some stamina and mentality after each hole, but shooting in the bunker or rough takes away more stamina and mentality than a typical shot from the fairway. And any skills you use, like Drawshot, Fadeshot, Power Shot, and Straight Shot, also drains stamina or mentality. In other words, if you start to spiral downward, you spiral hard, and it takes a lot of skill (or items) to come back from the brink.
Now, what about "Tekken Golf"? Okay, I know that's just a fantasy, but in the drive up to the golf course, I thought that something like "Tekken Golf" would be the surprise Bandai Namco would be revealing. Of course, Winning Putt was the headliner instead, but I had to ask in my interview time with the developers whether we would see crossover characters. I mean, Bandai Namco has a huge range of characters it could bring to the table from One Piece and Dragonball to Digimon and Tekken. In fact, Lee Chaolan's comedic ending in Tekken 6 features golf. To that end, the developers said that this would be a great idea. (Do it, you guys!)
The open beta for Winning Golf will be available today, so you can head to the game's official site to get registered. Bandai Namco and Webzen OnNet hopes to release the final version some time this year – the sooner, the better. Golf players of all strokes (see what I did there?) should check Winning Golf out and see if it can live up to its innovations.