Review: Real Golf 2011 HD
Licensed by Nokia, initially just for its N8 flagship, RealGolf 2011 HD would have been well worth snapping up even if not already free. Though not perfect (putting is fiddly, too much help in shot power, and loading screens are slow), it's still one of the best phone or handheld-based golf games I've ever played and, as you might expect, I've taken great delight in playing through it in considerable detail below, while writing my review, here on AAS and Ovi Gaming.
As with any golf game review, before going any further, I have to confess a little history. Back in 1992 (the dawn of time), I made my name with a golf game called 'Pitch and Putt' for the Psion Series 3 - this became Fairway and 'Series 5 Golf' in various evolutions and guises over the next five years (example screen below!) My golf games got me started on Mapper and other projects, including the 3-Lib shareware library, and I quickly went full-time and gave up my day job. And the closest thing I have to a day job, 18 years later, is writing for All About Symbian and for its Ovi Gaming sister site. Which, I guess, takes me full circle!
My Psion game 'Fairway', adapted for the Nokia Communicator, circa 2002!
With that confession out of the way, I hope I've established that I know what makes for a good golf game. I've reviewed many over the years, on Nintendo DS, on the iPhone, and, of course, on Symbian smartphones. And Real Golf 2011 HD is one of the most ambitious and one of the very best.
I should, however, point out that the emphasis in Real Golf 2011 HD is on 'golf' and not 'game'. If you're expecting multiplayer action or even scoring in tournaments against virtual computer players then you're going to be disappointed. This is all about the golfing experience - it's you against the course and conditions.
Yes, there's a 'Leaderboard' high score table - showing the lowest rounds across the world for each of the eight courses supplied - can you come in under par and compete with the best players? - which is good to have, but the in-game experience is pretty solitary - there aren't even any spectators dotted around the course to cheer you on.
Which is odd, because the digital soundtrack has (in addition to swing, wind and extraneous sound effects) both a commentary from an American golf broadcaster (so you know he's 'watching'!) and plenty of clapping and cheering, from the - ahem - invisible masses. In fairness, Tiger Woods on the Wii console has the same set up, i.e. a solitary 'good walk spoiled' but with commentary and clapping coming from invisible 'others', and probably a number of other mobile and console titles, but I'm just sayin' - a few people dotted about would have been nice, Gameloft?
Real Golf 2011 HD has two basic game modes: Instant, where you get assigned five random holes from the various courses on offer, and Tournament - the main event - where you try to go round in as few shots as possible (naturally).
The set up screens are pretty and full animated. Club head highlights glint, the backdrop pans smoothly, and so on. As you pick a player to play 'as' and as you pick a course to play on, the (audio) commentator gives a TV-style accompaniment. In fact, this TV theme pervades Real Golf 2011 HD, to its credit. As with the very best golf titles on the consoles of today, arty camera pans, close-ups of your player's expressions and generally 'interesting' camera angles are very much represented. Even the statistic graphics animate as they would in 'TV' coverage.
Now, the fact that Real Golf 2011 HD takes a good 30 seconds to load up fully and there's another 10 seconds between holes would normally be considered a downside to the title - and indeed it is. But it's also an indication of just how much is being done, graphically. You'll remember that this is only available on the Nokia N8 at the moment, in this form. So there's an unspoken reliance on the new graphics acceleration chips in the new Symbian^3-powered hardware. When I coded my 'Fairway' game for the (now very primitive) Psion palmtop, I had to keep everything 'flat', i.e. the layout of each hole was strictly 2D, so that I didn't have to worry about hidden-line-removal - objects being higher or lower than each other, I didn't have to worry about dips and slopes and elevations. And my trees were simple 2D bitmaps. And my bunkers were all rectangular. AND my holes were made up and artificially simplified in many ways.
In this game, as on consoles like the Wii, each hole is accurately modelled after the features on the real course. So gradients, irregular object boundaries, protrusions, lakes with vertical banks, shrubs and trees are all here, all modelled in the course data and rendered in real time. Yes, real time. There's enough graphical power on these modern phones that all of the above can be rendered from the underlying mathematical databases in real time, even in the midst of a hole preview/fly-by, or as part of an arty camera move, or as part of 'following' the ball that's just been hit as it careers towards the hole. And all without any stutters or freezes, it's just incredibly smooth and impressive.
The modelling includes your player too, with decent representation of some of the world's top players, and animation of their swings, twitches and basic emotions. So, again, you get a TV-style view of the player after a hole has gone well - or badly. Additional subtleties like lens flare are applied correctly when the camera's aim strays near the sun*, and shadows of trees are fairly realistically calculated (or at least depicted - I don't think the sun actually moves in the game!)
* Because it's always sunny in Real Golf land. A good thing because the sport's never rained off. And a bad thing because there's no fighting some decent English weather. I remember in Touch Golf on the Nintendo DS that there was modelling of various outrageous weather, right up to, and including a snowstorm. Well.... it made each hole even more 'interesting'....
If this all sounds a little effusive then I'm glad, because it represents a recognition of the amount of work that Gameloft has put into this game - it's no token port to Symbian, the interface and graphics look like they were designed for nHD resolution - even if they probably weren't: game engine design has come a long way in the last decade or so.
And so to actually playing Real Golf 2011 HD. A hole overview on the right of the display is too small to really get to grips with, but that's OK because it's just a big button really. Tap it and your view of your upcoming shot (and intended ball landing zone) is zoomed right in, flying through the (virtual) air, so that you can adjust the landing spot by tapping left or right, as needed (to allow for slope, wind and degree of risk, for example). Then tap the overview again to return to your golfer.
Top left are the score summary and shot no. confirmation, below left is the current club selection, and top right is a read out of wind direction and speed. Bottom right is the 'tap here to get going' action spot.
The basic mechanism is the familiar 'three tap' system, to start, determine power and then timing, although there's a nice modification here in that the second and third taps can be left until you're 'sure' what you want, i.e. the power (or timing) bar bounces between its limits and you just tap when it gets to the right point in the cycle. The golfer animation on the screen is loosely tied into this and somehow manages to swipe at the ball at the instant you perform your third tap.
Although there's obvious no way to impart spin on the ball using the 'three taps' (the timing part just seems to influence how well you impart power), while in the air you can swipe away on the 'ghost' ball icon that appears, imparting spin in any direction you like. For example, if you know that you underhit your shot slightly, you can compensate to some degree by applying top spin while in the air, so that at least the ball will bound on ahead when it hits (terrain permitting - this obviously won't work in the rough or in a bunker/water etc!).
Applying topspin - note the camera has already switched to a random TV-style 'arty' angle, complete with lens flare effects
The system works well but I do have a gripe, as a seasoned computer golfer. You see, part of the skill of playing each hole should be to include club selection, depending on what the wind's doing (e.g. you'd go 'up' a club if playing into a headwind and go 'down' a club if there's a tailwind to help the ball along), whether you want to 'punch' the ball or 'loft' it, whether you're playing from the fairway or from the rough, and so on. In theory, for a decent golf simulation, some or all of these factors should be part of the decisions you make when setting up a shot.
And the trouble with Real Golf 2011 HD is that you never need to worry about any of these factors. The wind seems to vary randomly in strength but always from side to side, so that you never have to vary club choices to compensate. And shot distance doesn't seem to be affected much by lie - I've been able to play a 200yd drive with an iron from a bunker - something which would be impossible in real life. You don't even have to look at the distance remaining, look at the maximum distance possible with the current club and then estimate what fraction of full power to use - since the game helpfullly does the calculations for you and shows a little marker on the power bar, a target to try and tap 'on' for your second 'tap' of three. The net result of all of this is that some of the skill of traditional computer golf is negated and Real Golf 2011 HD loses a number of score points here for this aspect of its gameplay.
A 3 iron? From a BUNKER? Really?
However - there's still the navigation around the various real-world-modelled holes, with bunkers, lakes and areas of scrubland and out-of-bounds, plus there are cross winds to allow for and the challenge of trying to 'hit' the suggested power mark and also getting the shot timing perfect. Plus, throughout, there are the sumptuous graphics to enjoy in what is (loading screens and missing spectators apart) an immersive experience.
Part of a 'helicopter' flyby of the next hole
And you can change clubs if you really want to, by swiping up or down on the displayed club name. It's just that you won't need to very often.
As you get closer to the hole, timing your 'shot power' becomes more tricky because you'll typically not need to use a full swing. For putting and chipping, especially, the suggested power is often down at around 10% or 20%, so you've either got to be very quick on the 'tap' or wait while the power bar rises, hits the end stops and falls right back down again. Putting is generally pretty tricky, but then the real thing's no piece of cake either, so it's a fair mirror of actual golf.
As with several console games of recent times, judging the gradients around the green are done with a colour coded, animated grid. Red means higher, blue means lower, with green and yellow in between as needed, while little dotted highlights move from high to low to accentuate the information. It's a decent system and judging long putts is made possible but difficult - again, about where the difficulty level should lie.
One of the biggest frustrations of any golf game of any era is getting close to the hole and finding the putting process so fiddly for short putts that you keep blasting the ball past - again and again. Real Golf 2011 HD sensibly takes care of this with an auto-putt-in system. Get closer than a couple of feet and the player is shown putting in for you.
A scorecard after each hole shows how you're doing, albeit in isolation - and you won't know until you've completed the round how well you've done against players from round the world. After completing five rounds, I'd judge the overall difficulty of Real Golf 2011 HD as just right. I averaged two over par but could possibly bring this down with practice.
Not a great round, but then I was spending a lot of time making screenshots for you guys and experimenting...!
Also available after each hole is a 'replay', showing your shots on that hole, TV-style, in sequence. So if you played a blinder you can sit back and enjoy it all over again. In fact, there's also a 'Save' icon - tap this and your play at this hole will be saved for posterity, meaning that you can whip your phone out next week down the pub, head into 'Options>Replay' and say "Look at this eagle I got at the 16th at Kiawah Island!" Well, you could - but that would be a bit geeky. Possibly best to save good holes for your own enjoyment?
Aside from the shot mechanics simplifications mentioned above, another gripe I have with Real Golf 2011 HD is that the commentator audio track is tied in with the general sound effects. So, if you want the wind and club noise and general ambience, you also have to have some idiot proclaiming "Welcome to the fairway" every time you hit a straight drive - which can get irritating rather quickly. You can turn off (or turn down) the TV-style music that plays over each hole preview/flyby - surely a volume slider for 'commentary' would have made sense as well?
One area that Real Golf 2011 HD (and Gameloft) excels is in cooperating with the rest of Symbian^3. So often in the past I've had to say to new users "watch out for leaving games running in the background, they'll suck your battery dry". This is because many games are tightly coded and only really meant to exist in the foreground - but Real Golf 2011 HD performs impeccably here. Let the normal Symbian^3 screensaver cut in or switch away to the main menu or another application and the game puts itself to sleep. Press and hold the home button to bring up the multitasking carousel and there's Real Golf 2011 HD, still 'running' (effectively sleeping). On several occasions I forgot all about the game and was surprised to see it a few days later - on resuming, the game wakes itself up, which takes about six seconds, and then you're off and playing again, with no break in gameplay. There seems to be no discernible processor drain when left sleeping in the background and, with the new Symbian^3 devices, no noticeable RAM impact either. Top marks to the developers here.
At the time of writing, this game is only available for free and for the Nokia N8 (via Sw_update on the device or via Ovi Suite/Check for updates), making it a must-download title if you have this phone. If released as a commercial title at (for example) £3, as will presumably happen for the C6-01 and C7, then I'd still give it my whole-hearted recommendation. Real Golf 2011 HD has its omissions and imperfections, detailed above, but the title still managed to amply satisfy my own cravings for golf-on-the-go - and it did it with consummate style.
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian and Ovi Gaming, 19 Dec 2010
...David Gilson realises that Real Golf 2011 HD isn't available yet for the Nokia C7... He's gutted!!
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at