Reviewed: December 4, 2003
Released: November 11, 2003
Earlier this year I got to review Links 2003 for the PC; in fact, it was one of my very first reviews here at GCM. Those of you that read it might remember that I wasn’t particularly fond of the direction the series had taken. I took refuge in the fact that I still had my trusty copy of Outlaw Golf for the Xbox to quell those urges to knock that annoying white ball around lush landscapes, but even that game lost its appeal after a few months.
It’s been nearly four or five months since I’ve even touched a golf game. Tiger Woods was certainly an option, but I have pretty much despised that series since its inception. In the back of my mind I knew that Microsoft had to be preparing an Xbox version of Links. After all, Microsoft owns both the system and the franchise ever since they purchased it from Access Software back in the day.
Links 2004 has finally arrived on the console and not only is it one of the absolute best golf games I have played on any system (including PC), it makes the most of the XSN and Xbox Live features allowing you to structure organized tournaments much like the ones PC gamers have been enjoying for several years. Golf is an experience that is best shared with friends and competitors, and since EA refuses to support Xbox Live with any of their products Tiger fans will not get nearly the enjoyment from their game as Links players will experience with Links 2004.
Links 2004 blasts onto the console scene with a whole new look, plenty of flashy effects, and some of the best graphics and gameplay you are likely to find in a golf game until next year’s crop. In some ways gameplay has become simplified but not so much to alienate the legions of PC fans that are likely to at least check out this new version.
How you swing your club is the core of any golf game and Links 2004 adopts the analog-style swing made popular in the Outlaw Golf game. I was mildly annoyed that the left stick was used rather than the right to swing the club, but I quickly adapted. Swinging is definitely an analog affair and requires a rhythmic tempo for maximum effect. It also comes into play for putting, allowing you to back swing the putter as slowly as you need to hit that perfect power mark.
As always, you have the power meter that goes from zero to 100% power with a section for over-swing. Choosing to swing harder than 100% may get you a few extra yards but also increases the risk of magnifying any discrepancies of that swing sending your ball slicing or hooking off the fairway. Those wanting to play it safe and hit the 100% mark will find it nearly impossible to flub a shot unless you totally screw up and push the stick way off center.
If you do find the need to force a draw or fade you can use the right stick to put some spin on the shot. Other precision shots are available by pushing the B button to bring up the “Gizmo” then pushing the stick to choose Blast, Flop, Chip, or several other types of precision shots. At the easier skill levels these selections are made for you along with club selections.
The simplified controls and ease of hitting a straight shot might have the more discriminating golfers a bit upset. Links 2004 is definitely easier than its PC counterpart and ultimately comes down to a game of wind analysis and club selection and accuracy of hitting the proper power level, but then again, that is what computer golf has always been about whether you are playing with a mouse, keyboard, or gamepad. I’ve never found any golf game truly representational of the sport except those places you visit where you hit the ball into a giant projection screen. For me, playing electronic golf is about having fun with friends and Links 2004 does exactly that.
Links 2004 offers a variety of skill levels that don’t really affect the difficulty of the gameplay but rather take away a lot of the visual aids that help you to play the game. The effects of wind and the curvature of the greens are significantly enhanced in the harder levels but the big change is the removal of the “preferred power mark” on your swing meter and at the hardest level the swing meter is removed entirely leaving you to judge the power by the visuals alone.
Putting is the other side of the golfing coin. I’ve never been a good putter in real golf or computer golf and Links 2004 only emphasizes how much I suck despite plenty of visual aids. Outlaw Golf allowed you three peeks at a “travel line” that showed the path of the ball based on the aiming pole, the curvature of the green, and the power of the stroke. Links 2004 gives you this same line with no restrictions, although the length of the line does shorten based on your chosen skill level. You can bring up a grid overlay to show terrain changes, but this isn’t nearly as helpful as you might imagine. You can also hit the X button to have the camera follow the current path the ball will take. With so many visual aids I still found myself two-putting a lot of holes. Often these visual aids were just plain wrong (or lying to me), as the ball would miss the hole by a foot even though the blue line showed that it would drop in the cup. Thank goodness for mulligans.
There are plenty of game modes to choose from; skins, stroke, match, etc. and you can play single games, multiplayer local or multiplayer online. You can also create tournaments on your PC and monitor your global rankings. This will certainly make a lot of PC veterans happy who were previously involved in online tournaments. The entire process is now much more organized and accessible.
There is enough unlockable bonus material to fill a small clubhouse. You can get new licensed clubs, bags, clothes, balls, and of course plenty of new courses. You also get to create your own golfer and slowly improve their stats by buying attribute upgrades for power, accuracy, putting, and recovery. Upgrades are very expensive and increase in price the more you upgrade. It will take you months to max out your player skills.
One of the coolest features is being able to pick from a lengthy list of nicknames for your golfer that are actually spoken during the commentary. This is a great way to personalize the gameplay and in some cases add a bit of humor. My only complaint with the entire create-a-golfer experience is that you must pick a skill level and stick with it. If you find the game too easy or difficult down the road you will have to create a new profile.
Once you have created your golfer you can take them through a modest career mode that spans several tiers of difficulty. Each tour includes tournaments and a list of challenges (mini-games) that offer cash prizes that you can use to upgrade your golfer. Some of these challenges are brutal like finishing the last three holes of the British Open at one-under par. There are also some exciting “closest-to-the-pin” challenges and putting events. One nice feature is the ability to fast-forward the post-swing animation by holding down the A button. This is a great way to accelerate games where you must play with computer opponents but don’t care to view their shots.
Links 2004 offers a respectable assortment of real-life and fantasy courses including; Four Seasons Resort Aviara, Greywolf, Mauna Lani Resort, Superstition Mountain, New South Wales, Oakmont CC, Loch Lomond, St. Andrews, and Ocean Mill. Each takes several rounds to learn and even more rounds to master.
Links 2004 is a stunning piece of visual work that the static screenshots don’t begin to do justice to. Starting off with the basics you have wonderful landscape textures and photo-realistic backdrops. Everything is animated so trees sway in the breeze and waves roll in on the seaside courses. Birds will fly overhead and a big bear and two cubs even crossed my fairway during one shot.
Special effects are really nice and integrated seamlessly into the gameplay in such a way that they actually serve a purpose. If you hit a shot squarely you will get this really cool Matrix-style slow-motion replay where the camera swings around your golfer. If you hit the ball at maximum speed you will get another cool camera angle with the ball flying at the camera leaving sonic ripples in the air. Other visual effects include a vibrating “re-entry burn” for a perfect drop onto the green or a series of photo-shutter shots for a spectacular putt. When you see these effects you know you just made a great shot, and if you get tired of them a quick tap of the A button skips.
Textures are excellent with a variety of grasses used for fairway, rough, and greens, and there are nice sand, water, and foliage textures that combine to create postcard-perfect images. Even the textures of the clothing are highly detailed and move naturally around the golfer’s body. This is pure 3D golf in real-time and it doesn’t get any better than this on a console.
Links 2004 delivers a smattering of tunes that crop up from time to time; almost as if the game is detecting that you are dozing off. In retrospect, it seems to be tied into a momentous swing or exciting shot potential like when a guitar riff kicks in before an Eagle attempt. There is some nice ESPN-style sports music in the menus and a decent rock and roll intro that seems oddly out of place for a golf game. I find music in a golf game entirely unnecessary, but at least you can use your own custom soundtracks if you need something to listen to.
Sound effects are perfect from the variety of shot sounds to the thud of the ball landing on the green to the “tink” when it drops in the cup. You also get wind, waves, birds, and all the other sounds of nature to bring the graphics to life. To keep things lively there is always a crowd of spectators to murmur and cheer your success and “awww…” your failures.
I saved the commentary for last since it is the weakest part of the entire presentation. It’s so bad it actually brings the entire game down a notch in quality. The commentary provided by Jim Nelford, Ken Venturi, Jeff Waters, and Rod Zundel reminded me of the first PC games to use primitive speech made up of individually recorded segments then pieced together in real-time. The problem is, even if you can piece it together fast enough there is always some tonal changes that clearly give it away. So you end up hearing something like “We’re here at the…third hole at…St. Andrews”, or “It looks like he’s using a…9 iron, Jim”.
Technical aspects aside, much of the commentary is just stupid. We get real winners like, “Let’s go down to the green for some course analysis. Jim, how’s that green look?” Then Jim responds in a hushed whisper, “It’s uphill.” Wow! Thanks Jim for that insightful bit of trivia. Conversely, the fly-through along with history and shot strategy for each hole is informative and often helpful.
On the plus side, the Dolby Digital mix does a great job of surrounding you in the sounds of nature and putting you on the course. The synthesized effects for the Matrix-visuals is perfect and there is even an uncanny silence when the course officials call for “Quiet!”
Links 2004 will keep the lone golfer busy for a few days. Finishing off the tournaments and challenges isn’t terribly challenging but is certainly fun and good for 20-30 hours of gameplay. The obvious staying power is in the multiplayer potential whether you gather some friends over for a local foursome or take your skills online for an Opti-Match or enter an XSN tournament. On a side note, this is one of the few casual online games you can play and enjoy some conversation using the voice options for Xbox Live. Perhaps this is even the future of corporate golf outings.
At the end of a long day of 56 holes Links 2004 is a solid golf game with some areas that can admittedly be tweaked and improved. What is a great golf game this year is going to be one of the best golf games ever next year. The online component is solid and you are going to have a blast playing this with friends in your house or strangers online.
Those looking for a single player golf game might be better off waiting for Outlaw Golf 2 or resign themselves to Tiger Woods if you are really desperate. Golf is a game that is best when shared and nothing else on the Xbox does it better than this.