Not Exactly Par for the Course
Bandai Namco and Webzen are out to capture an often overlooked segment of the gaming community, namely sports fans of the more cerebral type who enjoy a round of golf – only this time, of the virtual sort. Winning Putt is hardly the only golf game on the market, but it is a title that not only appeals to sports fans, but it also brings some interesting mechanics to the genre in its MMO and RPG features, though at a cost, and a high one too.
As with most MMOs, Winning Putt begins with character creation. Male and female models are available as are some pretty nice customization options for them, though in the long run, most characters look pretty much the same. Players can opt to play as Power or Accuracy. Each archetype has its strengths and weaknesses, most notably in the expenditure of Stamina and Mentality, the resources needed to hit the ball and sink putts. Stamina will see players utilize brute strength to power the ball down the fairway, while Mentality will be more precise, but perhaps hit for a lesser distance.
The tutorial system is well done and offers players a training academy experience to introduce Winning Putt’s mechanics including how to shoot out of the rough, how to ‘read’ the green to mitigate the terrain, how to adjust for wind or weather effects and so on. Once finished, players end up in the main lobby of the game with some nice rewards for finishing.
Hitting the ball is accomplished through a Swing Meter that is divided into backswing and follow through. The goal is, of course, to make predictions on how hard the ball needs to be hit, what natural effects need to be mitigated and how much power a player may need to expend to accomplish the best swing possible. Players aim for the “sweet spot” as the meter rushes back to the left. The narrower the sweet spot, the more likely it is that the ball will veer off to one side or another or land in hazards that include sand traps and heavy rough. The meter’s speed can be influenced by a lack of mentality or by clubs that slow the follow through down for more careful aiming.
Quests are assigned automatically and are generally ramping up in difficulty or giving new players a chance to hone their skills. Most quests end with a reward of some type that can include better clubs, crafting materials to improve clubs, clothing items that can enhance game play, caddy companions, sponsorship contracts and more. Each one brings its own way to improve a player’s game.
All of this is important, of course, as the elder game consists of “PvP matches” that pit players against one another very much as golfers compete against one another in real life. Players can take part in Friendly Rounds, Betting Rounds (level 18), Challenge Rounds (level 10 and on completion of Junior Pro testing), Ranked Rounds, and Tournaments after level 20.
The courses in Winning Putt are beautifully designed and present challenges to even the most seasoned player. Courses start off relatively benign with few obstacles or hazards and gradually ramp up in difficulty over the course of a player’s move through the game.
MMO and RPG players will enjoy the progression found in Winning Putt as well. Playing earns experience to advance the player’s level and skills. Additionally, most quests will reward gold that can be used to purchase new clubs, clothes, caddy contracts and consumables.
All in all, Winning Putt is a fun game – to a point. The unequivocal truth is that the game is definitely pay-to-win. The more money a player sinks into the game, the more likely they are to blow the competition away, particularly those who have chosen to play for free or who have opted not to spend much cash.
The Winning Putt premium currency is Platinum that can be bought through the in-game shop or online in several packages with 5,000 Platinum for $10 up to 57,000 Platinum for $100 (Platinum can also be earned in tiny amounts through game play). While that sounds like a lot of currency, it’s fair to say that players do not get much bang for the buck. For instance, a pack of limited use golf balls for low-level players can run anywhere from 1,495 to 2,495 Platinum. Of course there are also golf balls that can be bought for gold, but they have fewer uses and lesser boosts to stats. The shops for clothing, clubs, bags, consumables, etc. are packed with a metric ton of things for sale, most at a premium. And there is simply no getting around the fact that the more a player spends, the better they will do overall. Competitive play really suffers in this regard.
The most egregious example of the pay-to-win slant of the game is through the sale of Mentality and Stamina potions that can only be purchased using Platinum. There are no other even lesser alternatives to players opting not to spend money. Remember, the lower Mentality or Stamina (spent through the use of skills), the less likely a player is to score a Power Shot or Accurate Shot making achieving par or better on most courses nearly impossible. In fairness, scoring a birdie or par on a hole does refill all or part of a player’s resources but it’s nigh impossible to get that, especially on higher level courses.
Let’s just say that hurling clubs should also be an available skill for progression.
The bottom line is that Winning Putt can be a lot of fun and a challenging game for those who like both progression-based classes and a good game of golf. In small doses, and in particular at lower levels, Winning Putt is a lot of fun. When the time comes (and it surely will) when the game becomes nearly impossible to play without investing real world cash, it’s perhaps time to take a break for a time. With far less costly alternatives out there, players will surely drift away for good.
Disclaimer: For the purpose of the review, we were given a Founder's Pack that contained several game-enhancing items.
Gameplay: 5 While fun in small doses, there is little to no variety in the way that each and every hole on the course…and in every other available course…is played. Every hole requires the same mechanics to complete: Drive, fairway, green, putt, rinse and repeat. While there are a variety of ways to play the game, all in all, they are so much the same.
Visuals and Sound: 7 The courses are gorgeous and beautifully designed and while there are pretty decent options for character customization, most players look pretty much the same and, to be perfectly honest, move really weirdly when walking in the common area. The sounds of hitting the ball, weather effects and all are good too, though the music gets annoyingly repetitive.
Polish: 8 Winning Putt is a very polished game with little to complain about other than lag at times.
Longevity: 5 How Webzen and Namco Bandai choose to handle the obvious pay to win aspect of the game will largely determine how long the game lasts. While fun in small doses, the game is pretty far down the list of “go to” games on the list. The more pay to win it feels, the less likely it is to have a long life.
Value: 4 Yes, it is technically free to play and, yes, things can technically be earned in game including the premium currency. But the amount of grind to earn enough to buy even the smallest Platinum item is punishing in the extreme. The return on invested dollars for Platinum is abysmally low and the prices of items for sale in the various shops is astoundingly high.