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Premature Evaluation: Golf With Friends

tilting at windmills

Every Monday, Rob Zacny hacks through the rough of Early Access trying to avoid the bunkers and find the green.

This week, Golf With Friends.

As a child, miniature golf was one of those things that was more fun in theory than in practice. I loved the look of the minigolf course at the local arcade / amusement park, with its bubbling fountains of electric blue water that was so heavily dyed it would give your hand a sunburn if you so much as touched it. I loved the fanciful, storybook castles that loomed over strips of worn astroturf, and creaky windmills that menaced each shot. I delighted in the elaborate chutes and channels that would take a perfectly mediocre shot and whip it into the hole like I was Hale Irwin at the US Open[a].

Then my parents would take me to miniature golf and I'd remember how much I actually hated this stupid, mutant version of an already infuriating game. I'd spend ten minutes trying to whack a golf ball up the side of a tiny pyramid with a hole at the top, only to watch it come rolling back down so that a small child could be involuntarily educated in the myth of Sisyphus. As often as not, because everything in my area was starting to show the effects of Rust Belt decay, I'd hit a ball into one of the chutes and wait in vain for it to emerge on the other side. Then I'd trudge back to the rental office, where a bored clerk would hand me another ball and warn me that a bunch of the chutes were blocked because the wooden structure of the golf course was starting to rot and splinter apart.

All of which is to say that Golf With Friends, from Blacklight Interactive, is a surprisingly good mini golf simulator. In fact, its Early Access status might make it even more authentic, because there are a bunch of little things that should probably work a bit better than they do. For the moment you just have to deal with uneven course design, twitchy controls, and somewhat unconvincing, low-friction physics. Almost exactly like when I was a kid.

The key difference being that Golf With Friends doesn't have to make concessions to reality, economic or physical. Its courses are designed with massive moving parts alternately shoving your shot closer to the hole, or knocking it out-of-bounds and forcing you to make another attempt at a complicated and near-impossible shot.

Right now, Golf With Friends only has two courses: a more conventional "Forest" course and an entirely fanciful Egyptian-themed Oasis course that's as enraging as it is ambitious. I found the Forest to be more enjoyable simply because it was comprehensible: usually, you could actually see the flag you were aiming for, and there were only a few bank-shots and loops to worry about. The Oasis course, on the other hand, is built around the idea that a videogame version of mini golf can be as intricate and preposterous as you want. A hole where you have to whack a ball into a loop-the-loop so hard that it goes flying fifty yards across the golf course onto another, previously unseen part of the hole? Why not! Might as well add a hazard so that even if you make the first part of the shot, you'll still fail if you're the slightest bit off-target on speed and angle.

On the other hand, there are a lot of places where Golf With Friends nail everything that's charming about mini golf. There's a lot of enjoyable frustration as a shot caroms wildly off a bumper, or gets whacked by a giant revolving paddle. I was thrilled when I figured out a way to make one of my shots take a 90 degree turn with the aid of a rotating bridge and a nearby wall. Overall, I'd have to say that Golf With Friends is pretty much exactly like going out to play miniature golf: you and your friends spend 20 minutes or so watching shots rebound on you so hard that you actually lose progress, and occasionally get a hole-in-one thanks to a completely undeserved, flukey series of ricochets.

Some of its impossible features, like speed-boosting ramps or little golf ball-sized rafts that you can use to float your shot down a river of water, point to exciting possibilities for future designs. Golf With Friends might be a lot of random ideas loosely tossed together, but it's also not hard to imagine it turning into some kind of "Portal-but-with-golf". Once the planned-for level editor comes out, this game could provide the kind of fun and variety that Trackmania did in its prime.

What it needs, like the golf courses of my childhood, is a little upkeep and improvement. Right now, the two courses feel like experiments rather than well thought-out course layouts designed to promote both fun and the right kind of frustration. Too many of the holes seem designed around pure trial-and-error where there's no possibility of incremental progress, just unlikely success and near-certain failure. The situation isn't helped by the over sensitive controls, where even a slight movement of the mouse can send your shot rocketing across the course like you just let it rip with a driver.

But Golf With Friends isn't even a month old and is already a lot of fun if you can put up with the annoyances of its rough edges. At only $6, it's actually quite a bit more entertaining and cheaper than most evenings you could spend on a mini golf course, and easier to get friends together to play it. The question is whether Golf With Friends will eventually manage to make miniature golf an entertaining game instead of just an entertaining comedy of errors.

Golf WIth Friends is available on Steam for £4.79 / $5.99. My impressions are based on build 984427 on 22 February 2016.

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