Reviewed: April 26, 2003
Released: October 1, 2002
Golf has always been one of those games that is considered more of a hobby than a real sport, unless you are one of the rare few who are good enough to turn it into a money-making pastime. Unfortunately my skills with metal clubs and tiny white balls are much better realized on the computer than traipsing around barren golf courses in hundred-degree Texas sun.
I probably play about 6-10 real games of golf a year. It’s usually an excuse to go drinking with my buds or schmooze with business associates, and it’s a great source for comic material. Computer golf, on the other hand, occupies a significant portion of my gaming life. I’ve been playing on the virtual fairways and green dating back to the LINKS 386 game when the title was still being masterfully created by Access Software. And you known you have a good product when Microsoft comes along and snatches up your product. Those guys are probably rich beyond our wildest dreams and play golf 24-7 these days.
Links 2003 is the latest in a lengthy line of yearly updated golf titles in what has become the benchmark for all computer golf games. Sorry Tiger, but EA still hasn’t done your name justice with a decent golf game. While Microsoft continues to tweak their franchise to perfection and introduce new ideas, everyone else is left to imitate the best they can. With the exception of a few good console golf games (Outlaw Golf being my personal favorite) there is nothing to hold a candle to the Links series.
So what’s new in 2003? Courses of course; six of them to be exact with more available online and a converter to bring your existing library over into this game. A few new famous golfers have been added to the roster and the online game experience has been optimized and enhanced. There are even a few subtle additions like a Green Analyzer and Putting Assistant that might be useful to novice players.
Golf is one of the hardest games to simulate on a computer mainly due to all the intricacies that go into the actual swinging of the club. Sure, you can program the ball physics, the wind direction and speed, the friction of various types of terrain and how it affects the ball, blah, blah blah, but nobody has truly been able to capture the essence of golf with the exception of that infrared swing controller a few years back that actually let you play Links with your real clubs. I’ll tell you now the only way to get yelled at more by your wife than going to play golf with your buds is to get caught swinging a 9 iron in the computer room. I think that little device is still in my garage or perhaps it has taken up residence at the local landfill by now.
Links uses what is called the Real Swing method that lets you swing the club by moving your mouse back and forth to determine swing strength and accuracy. This makes about as much sense as driving a racecar with a joystick but at least it introduces a level of skill and possible error that is closer to the real sport. For those who simply don’t like this new control scheme you can still opt for the classic two or three-button click swings that we’ve been using since the dawn of the genre. You know the system, click to start swing, click at 12 o’clock for max power, click at 6 o’clock for accuracy, tweak as necessary to over swing or force a fade or draw. Admittedly, the click swing is more about timing and reflexes than your ability to slide your mouse in a straight and unerring line, but none of the swing methods are truly representative of the game of golf.
I haven’t played a Links game since 2001, but I had played every version prior to that since 1990 so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going into this review, or at least I thought I did. Links still offers the traditional line-up of modes including practice games and championship play. You can choose match, stroke, skins, and you can customize golfers. You can organize tourneys, host online games, join online games, play by email, and even create custom variations of existing modes. It’s all highly detailed and as configurable as you could ever want.
But once you’ve played the “composite sketch artist” game and created your Links persona you have to deal with the gameplay, which I found terribly disappointing compared to past experiences. My biggest problem with Links 2003 is the terrible performance. My system decimates the required stats by a factor of six yet this game plays like a series of movie clips that you must search for before viewing. The problem grows exponentially if you start adding view ports to watch the game from additional angles. Even sticking the Top View window in the corner is going to make your game drag to the point of emotional pain.
Most of this is graphically related stuff and should probably go in the next section, but since it affects the gameplay so prominently I must discuss it here. The load times for each scene (and yes, that is exactly what they are) can range from 5-10 seconds. If you rotate your golfer to get a new angle on the shot you get to wait all over again as the screen literally draws in the same picture from the new angle. Make sure to add additional seconds to the clock if you have additional views open.
Then you swing the club. Click…click…click…….going to get a Coke……going to the bathroom……walking the dog now……..SWING! Woohoo! Of course I’m exaggerating, but the lengthy gap of anywhere from 3-7 seconds from the time you complete the swing to the time you see it happen is unforgivable. None of the previous games have ever exhibited this phenomenon and there is nothing that much better about this game that would cause such a delay. I’m guessing the program is doing all the calculations and rendering the play before it actually runs the animation but my 2.4GHz machine should crunch the numbers faster than this.
Once the ball is in motion an exceptional physics engine takes over. Links 2003 manages to improve on the physics of the earlier games (it may have done so in 2002 but I didn’t play that release) and it is certainly better than the quirky and unpredictable Tiger Woods game from EA. The ball is much more in tune with the virtual world including a terrain model that would make a civil engineer envious.
Once Links achieved photo-realism back in the 90’s it left little to improve upon yet they still manage to add a little sumthin’. sumthin’ each year. I remember when they offered large animation files for the golf swings. Those were the days when the golfers were actually FMV images stuck into the virtual golf course. They looked great in motion but they were always shot at medium resolution and when you stuck them into a game running at 1600x1200 they looked a bit stretched and fuzzy.
Links 2003 now offers 3D golfers that mesh with the game environment a bit better. You can customize these guys in just about every way conceivable picking faces, clothing, and accessories.
The courses are just as stunning as always but this year’s crop of six all look remarkably similar. None of the new courses have anything really defining that make them stand out. No one is going to look over your should and say, “ Oh, you’re playing Cabo del Sol again”. Where is my variety? I long for the days of the classic and beautiful Firestone, Pinehurst, Cog Hill, Bountiful, or any of the other dozens of courses in the Links legacy. Everything in this edition looks like Mauna Key.
The menus and overall interface is very nice. The HUD is informative yet manages to stay out of the way. You will actually look right through it, much like how a HUD is supposed to function. The swing meter is a bit fancier; no longer a circle in the middle of the screen, but an oval to the right with a new style of tick mark that is still as unintuitive as the previous games. The manual even goes as far as to show you where the various power stops on the meter occur and none of them are actually on the dots that line the meter.
There is a new dynamic camera that give the game a much more broadcast-like quality and the optional pro tips before each hole and the shot summary after each stroke rounds out a nice golf presentation. I was severely disappointed in the total absence of “life” in this game, whether it be animated crowds standing around the greens, trees swaying in the breeze, or even a bird or Goodyear Blimp circling overhead.
Sure, Links is picture perfect but playing the game is much like thumbing through a book or collection of photos from any of the courses you are playing. I think it’s time to give up the photos and switch to 3D were you can render entire scenes and let you rotate without lengthy delays and animate those tree textures so I know which direction the wind is blowing without looking at my wind indicator in the corner.
Golf is pretty much a silent experience when you remove the smack of the ball, the thunk when the ball falls into the cup or the occasional comments from unseen spectators. I miss the cheers and applause of the earlier games. I’ve come to accept that fact that no other golf game is likely to ever include a full-feature commentary like British Open from Looking Glass did back in 1997 – even in a tournament environment.
What sounds that are present are all suitably realistic and very well done, but there just aren’t enough of them to breath any life into the game. The audio is just as dead as the visuals.
Is Links 2003 worthy of you gaming dollar? Chances are, if you are already caught up the Links frenzy then you will be compelled to purchase this game regardless of its intrinsic value. The good news is that people who own previous versions of the game qualify for a $10 rebate, which eases the financial strain slightly.
The six courses and nine golfers are a bit limited but you can convert your old course library and create as many new characters as you want, so there is no real end in sight. Considering this is just another one of those yearly updated sports games, I wasn’t expecting a lot and I got just what I expected.
Stroke for stroke, Links is still the best golf franchise going even though Links 2003 might not be the best proof to back-up this statement. After playing a dozen or so rounds of this version I fired up my earlier 2001 version. It ran faster – no surprise considering the last time I played the game it was on a 500MHz PC, and it looked just as nice. There were no delays or other quirks to detract from a near perfect golf experience.
Hopefully, the Links series is merely going through some transition period and 2003 represents some unruly or awkward growth spurt. I can’t recommend this game to anyone other than true fans of the sport or this particular franchise. The new courses are fun the first few times but that’s about all you can take away from this release. Wait for it to hit the budget bins and your dollar will be better spent.