Sports games have always been rare on the Mac, owing largely to the economics of development — such games are expensive to make, so you need a big audience to justify it, and the Mac install base has never reached the critical mass for sports titles. Golf games are something of an exception, however, with several Tiger Woods, Links, and Jack Nicklaus releases for the Mac on the commercial end, coupled with a dozen or so shareware titles in the past 15 years.
Nova Golf fits more in the spirit of the low-budget shareware games of old, and it comes at a time when the only other real options for a golf simulation on a Mac are the latest Tiger Woods Cider port, World Challenge Golf 2011, or GL Golf — Nova Golf’s award-winning predecessor. It’s a solid game, but it’s also disappointing in its current state.
Nova Golf has all the essential features of a good golf game — several courses, Career Mode, loft/punch, draw/fade, and solid simulation of the mechanics of the sport. You can create your own golfer (and up to seven others) or stick with the default one, customizing gender, clothes, hair, shape, size, and skin color. There are five skills to level up: Power, Accuracy, Putting, Recovery, Spin. These affect the random element of shots — higher ratings mean a greater likelihood that the ball will go where you want it to, no matter what the lie — and the speed at which the shot-bar moves, along with the distance you can hit or the amount of spin you can apply. You start with 200 experience points, to distribute as you see fit, then earn more by scoring at or below par on a hole.
The shot mechanics roughly follow the same basic procedure that’s been more or less standard in golf games for over a decade. You first set up your shot with up to five levels of draw/fade and/or loft/push, a theoretical trajectory, and an appropriate club. Click the mouse or tap the spacebar to start the first slider, then again to stop it at the power level you want. A second slider comes up for timing/angle of swing. You need to position this one in the center for a clean hit; anything to the left of center will go to the left of your target mark, and vice versa on the right, with reduced power.
The Front Nine
Nova Golf looks great on a small screen, but the graphics don’t hold up to a lot of scrutiny. The courses and golfers scale up nicely enough at higher resolutions, but I’d argue that the visuals are only a little better than those found in 1997 golf game Jack Nicklaus 4. Granted, Jack Nicklaus was not rendered in full real-time 3D — it used a number of tricks to give an appearance as such — and it was a commercial release. But don’t go into Nova Golf expecting mind-blowing graphics, because you’re sure to be disappointed. They are adequate, pleasant, and run at a smooth frame-rate — no more.
While I found the swing animations generic, there’s plenty of charm in the reactions from your virtual golfers when you miss a putt or score under par on a hole. They’ll groan, drop their club, and throw their hands up in disbelief or triumph. Other sounds give a reasonably authentic feel of being on a golf course — balls bounce with a satisfying thud while ambient wildlife noises break the silence. You also get treated to a jaunty musical soundtrack, although I ended up turning it off in favor of listening to podcasts.
The Back Nine
Career Mode offers you a chance to start as a lowly amateur and work your way up to being the best golfer in the world. You earn credits as you progress, which can be used to buy better balls and clubs — you upgrade clubs by the family (driver, wedges, woods, irons, putters). Credits can also be purchased with real money, giving you a fast-track to awesomeness. It may seem insidious to have in-app purchases on a paid app, but I think this is a fair way to do it. Nova Golf is a game of skill; it rewards you for doing well and working hard.
Many other games — including EA Sports’ Tiger Woods series — similarly allow you to skip the hard work of developing your golfer by spending extra money, and this is no different. A cynic will tell you that it’s money-grubbing, but it ensures that there’s a clear incentive to play the game and improve — it keeps things challenging, in other words.
There aren’t many courses to play through, and Career Mode may appear short, but it could easily take you a few dozen hours to complete everything and max out your character stats. There are seven tournaments in the current version (1.03), of which the first three have special qualifying rounds, with more on the way as new courses get released.
You can also brag about your successes through earning achievements. These include the mythic Albatross/Double Eagle, Green Under Regulation, and saving par after missing a green in regulation. Mountain Lion users can have these achievements and their scores posted on the Game Center leaderboards; Lion and Snow Leopard users have to settle for bragging the old fashioned way.
Trailing the Lead
It’s inevitable that when you have a golf (simulation) game, it’ll be compared to current market leader Tiger Woods PGA Tour. On that front, Nova Golf is fighting a losing battle. Nuclear Nova don’t have anything like the resources of EA, so there are no licensed golfers or courses. You’re looking at just two game modes, rather than several, with a much simpler career mode and far less detailed graphics. If such things are important to you, look elsewhere — Nova Golf’s actual golfing simulation seems better sometimes, but it falls short on every other point in a comparison with the EA Sports juggernaut.
More interestingly, it’s in many ways a step backward from GL Golf — the previous Nuclear Nova golf sim. Nova Golf has no match play or multiplayer (although these are meant to be coming soon), nor are there weather options — GL Golf allowed up to four players to tee off, at night and during winter if they so desired. There are fewer courses. A dedicated backspin button has been removed, although that’s a move to greater realism — backspin in real golf comes down to skill, equipment, and clever use of loft/punch technique.
On other counts, it comes out ahead of its predecessor. In particular, the visuals are markedly better, Career Mode keeps you returning for more, and the new swing mechanics add realism and greater challenge.
Taps in for a Bogie
I spent a lot of time with Nova Golf, trying to find more to it; hoping to see enough that I could recommend it ahead of Tiger Woods or GL Golf. But in its current state Nova Golf misses the fairway, undershoots the green, and then two-putts for a bogie — all despite good shape and technique. Given the developer’s track record (GL Golf has been actively developed since 2003), I’m confident that it will be a great — albeit clearly low-budget — golf game. But it isn’t now, and you may need to pony up the cash for a number of in-app purchases to get those extra features when they’re ready.