Dangerous Golf Review
Par for the unstoppable force
Gather around, dear munchkins, and allow me to tell you a tale. Once upon a time, in the distant yesteryear of 2004, after a great deal of work and toil, a company called Criterion Games released the most mid-2000s video game ever to be created: Burnout 3: Takedown. It had face-melting speed, it had awe-inspiring slow-motion destruction, it had a soundtrack you could sing along to—as long as there wasn’t a single living soul within earshot, I mean—but most importantly of all, it had a mode where you could plough into a busy intersection at high speed and see just how many people’s morning commutes you could absolutely ruin. Such was the juvenile genius of this mode that Criterion Games opted to seal away its creators in a cryogenic chamber deep beneath the Siberian wastes, knowing that one day physics engines would be advanced enough to realize the true potential of their destructive creativity.
Unfortunately, thanks in part to a lack of funding from EA, the cryo units lasted just over a decade before expiring, and the team destined to create the ultimate intersection pileup game in 2104 instead emerged blinking into the sunlight to find that the remote part of Russia they had been buried in had been transformed into a multi-billion dollar golf resort for eccentric wealthy businessmen. Trapped in an endless pastel-green hellscape, stumped by the language barrier and held back by their lack of official documents, the team came to the inevitable conclusion that they were living in a golf-obsessed future dystopia where cars had been outmoded and the only pastimes were those that fitted the formula of hitting balls into holes. Things seemed grim, but this team had given up everything to be there, and they weren’t about to let a minor setback like this stop them from taking advantage of the future’s mighty technologies. Armed with a copy of Unreal Engine 4, and the catalogue computer in the back of the pro shop, they began the long and arduous task of creating a game that would please their new overlords while still realizing their vision. Such is the story of Dangerous Golf. Maybe.
In a way, that tells you everything you need to know about the game you see before you. It’s not exactly the most intricate of formulas; line up your shot in an area full of valuables, give it a mighty thwack, and watch as an invisible insurance inspector tallies up the collective value of all the chintzy crockery in the room getting smashed to pieces by a flaming sphere of fury. If, like me, you occasionally fantasize about relieving stress by laying waste to a room full of fragile stuff with a sledgehammer and a bottomless reserve of furious berserker energy, then Dangerous Golf is the destructo-porn toy for you. Fruit splatters, china shatters, glass breaks, shelves collapse, wood splinters, stone crumbles, porcelain fractures, and anything that doesn’t break is likely to be sent ping-ponging around the room, along with your ball and a veritable whirlwind of debris. The joy of breaking other people’s belongings consequence-free is a simple one, and many games have explored it adequately in the past, but it’s no less satisfying to see it done here.
I didn’t make that Burnout 3 comparison for nothing, unfortunately. Quite apart from some very suspicious design parallels—bits of the menu are so strikingly familiar that I half-expected DJ Stryker to start rattling quips off about destroying private property over the sound of Franz Ferdinand—Dangerous Golf is also a game that doesn’t always seem to know quite how to handle its own ideas. For instance, what do you do about holes? However tenuous the resemblance to actual golf may be, the basic principle of knocking a ball into a cylindrical hole with a flag in it has been retained, but it’s a somewhat precise task that’s rather at-odds with the game’s unpredictable physics chaos. There’s a lot of not-entirely-subtle trickery in place to make the ball more likely to ricochet or curve in just the right direction for those audacious trick shots to succeed, but it’s still easy to put yourself in a position where the odds of sinking the ball in the required number of shots are second to none, leaving you with a disappointingly heavy penalty on your final score.
Then there’s the whole business of the crashbrea– smashbreaker, sorry. This is another core mechanic in Dangerous Golf, allowing you to inject some much-needed energy back into your ball after it’s rolled to a halt and bounce it around the room, which in turn enables you to single out high-value targets and bowl them over in glorious slow-motion-o-vision. It’s a fun little way to give you a bit more agency instead of just punting the ball and hoping for the best, and if you want scores that won’t get you thrown out of the clubhouse, you’ll have to make good use of it, too. Unfortunately, altering the course of a supersonic sphere as it erratically rockets around is no easy feat—partially, I suspect, the reason why Sonic the Hedgehog has been living the downward arc of a washed-up drug-addled rock star for the last decade—and the control that Dangerous Golf grants you feels too loose and awkward for the level of precision you'll find yourself in need of.
Yes, given enough space, time, forethought and heavy use of the slow-motion button, the humble suggestions you give to the ball's arc are usually technically enough to get it where you want, but this is complicated by the camera. Not only is it locked to a horizontal plane—giving you all the depth perception of Big Boss trying to play ring-toss after downing a bottle of vodka—but it regularly follows the ball into confined spaces, where your efforts to work out what's going on will be thwarted by a faceful of debris and particle effects. You can readjust it, of course, but since the game shipped with no sensitivity options and no mouse controls—seriously, it's gamepad or nothing—you'll find that it rotates with a truly glacial lack of urgency. Moreover, since you’re only ever allowed to push the ball directly away from the camera, sometimes the only way to get the ball out of a tight spot is to dig your perspective further into the corner and blindly give it a shove.
With a bit of elbow grease and enough horrific sleepless crunch nights, perhaps such things could be fixed, but more than anything else Dangerous Golf just feels like a game that came up with an absolutely cracking idea and didn't really know how to handle it. One would think, given that the game's hardcore fetish for destruction of private property is its main appeal, that it would put its best efforts towards showcasing your handiwork in as stylish a way as possible, but if smashing pottery is a kink, then Dangerous Golf is the equivalent of an unfocused poorly-framed camcorder video where it's genuinely difficult to tell who's boinking what. There's no replay feature, for instance, which seems like a strange omission given that you're usually too busy to focus on the chaos while actually playing, so all you can do is gaze upon the settling aftermath of your devastating tee-off via the game's swooping predefined camera pans.
The other big problem with a concept like Dangerous Golf is that it's fundamentally the video game equivalent of popping an enormous sheet of bubble wrap: fine for killing a few minutes, or for dragging out a lazy Sunday afternoon, but in dire need of a splash of variety here and there. It's clear that the level designers have done their absolute best to make every careful arrangement of breakables unique and interesting, but there are only so many assets you can squeeze out of an environment artist before they model you a hand flipping the bird and storm out the door, so instead the game rapidly turns to gimmicks to keep itself afloat. Some—usually those that introduce explosives of some kind into the equation—are a welcome new toy, but the vast majority just put unnecessary restrictions on the levels that really don't seem to take the nature of the game into consideration. Why add a timer when there's no meaningful way to be more expedient? I know we’ve strayed a little bit from the beaten path here, but this is still a matter of golf at heart. What am I supposed to do? Putt more frantically? Spend less time smashing shelves? I already tee off with enough force to break the sound barrier, what more d’you want?
Then there are the levels with ‘hazards’; designated items and areas that you’re not allowed to touch or else. You can sort of see where Dangerous Golf is coming from with this—turning the formula on its head, trying to make you perceive the environment as more than just a series of things to thwack a flaming apocalyptic sports ball through—but scattering instant fail states around the room is an iffy enough decision even before you factor in the chaotic little gremlin that is the physics engine. All too often I’d find myself being yelled at because I wrestled control over my ball too late, or because a piece of errant debris decapitated the statue I was supposed to be avoiding. Some levels just ask you to putt into as many holes as possible within a time limit—a task that essentially asks “how quickly can you aim at a nearby flag with our crummy unresponsive thumbstick-only controls?”—while others are trick holes that rely on you finding a special warp zone or completing some obtuse objective beforehand. I’m all for finding ways to reuse a simple, flexible formula, but Dangerous Golf’s attempts to put a fresh spin on its gameplay only serve to slice it straight into a pond full of very narked-off koi.
Finally, while physics engines may have evolved sufficiently for the revived members of Criterion to realize their vision, that’s not to say that Dangerous Golf isn’t without the occasional performance heart-attack. In a game about pushing Unreal Engine 4’s fancy new baubles to their limits in ways they were probably never intended to be used, the occasional moment of chugging is a fundamental part of the experience—let’s face it, if you never crashed Garry’s Mod by creating a mountain of ragdolls and explosive barrels and lighting the whole thing on fire, you were probably a wimp—but sometimes the framerate just dips into the unplayable zone for entire levels before you’ve even picked up the controller, which I’d wager—given that most of them start off buttery-smooth before the rubble starts flying—isn’t entirely the fault of my creaky old i7. I don’t know what the game’s doing in the loading screens either, but every single time they appear, Shadowplay gets a nosebleed and starts shivering uncontrollably.
It’s a universally known fact that no matter how deeply you bury them in their chained, rune-inscribed jade sarcophagi, it’s impossible to prevent game critics from hearing word of what other people think of a game post-release. The one universal sentiment that I heard about Dangerous Golf—whispered in my ears by the scratching of a thousand beetles against the coffin lid—was that it’s an unfinished game, but with the exception of one or two glaring missing features, I’m not sure I agree. Dangerous Golf is a modest game. It’s a game that a lot of people are liable to boot up, play for five minutes and ask “is that it?”, but that doesn’t make it incomplete. It’s a game about nothing more than smashing a golf ball into an old lady’s antique collection and watching the fine china fly, which is something it does rather well, bloody stupid gimmicks aside. Dangerous Golf is a simple pleasure, and like all simple pleasures, it’s not going to have the longest run or the leave the most lasting of impressions, but that’s okay. What matters is that it’s there when you really, really need to break something.