Ah, the late 80’s, early 90's. I'm old enough now to look nostalgically back at those days. The VGA board had come out for the PC, finally giving it the at-the-time almost unimaginable capability of displaying 256 colors. Intel had just about reached the limits of Moore’s Law by cranking 33mhz out of the 386 chip. Beer, computers, and computer games were finally affordable to me, I had plenty of free time, and a company named Access had developed the ultimate PC golf game, Links. I’m a little fuzzy concerning the actual release date of the first version of Links (remember: I could afford all the beer I could drink, and I wasn’t shy about exercising that ability), but I do clearly remember that it came on 5 ¼” floppy disks. That really brings back the memories: floppies were actually floppy back then.
Back then, Links was a DOS-based game. It knew how to do one thing: straight stroke play golf. That said, it did it very, very well, albeit slowly. Considering the limits of the hardware, it’s amazing how good it was. Me and some buddies would get together every week or two for what we called “Golf ‘til You Drop.” We started out with stroke play, but it soon became apparent that as guys would fall behind by enough strokes they’d lose interest and bog down the game. We switched to a Skins game format. Everyone chipped in (heh heh, get it?) $18 at the start, so the was a $4 skin for each hole. As I mentioned, back then Links didn’t know how to score a Skins game, so we had to track that for ourselves. There was no way to “pick up” after the hole had been decided, so everyone still had to play out the hole. These were minor issues, though. There was no other golf game (it was so good, I could also call it a simulator) that even came close in terms of realistic game play, graphic quality, and just plain fun-factor.
Then I got married, most of the other guys moved away, Links got bought by Microsoft, and “Golf ‘til You Drop” was history. Throughout the years I’ve come across downloadable demos of various new Links versions and give them a cursory look, but never got back into it in any meaningful way. I noticed that there were new game variations such as Skins, match play, Nassau, etc. The graphics improved from year to year, but at the end of the day, it was still the familiar and well-loved Links.
Late this year, Microsoft released Links 2004 for the Xbox. This is no mere port from the PC version, though. Microsoft claims that Links for the Xbox has been completely rebuilt from the “ground up.” The most significant aspect of this promises to be a robust online multiplayer capability. I think the reason I never purchased Links between the bachelor days and now is that I didn’t have any live opponents to play with. Golf is a very social game; it is exceedingly rare to see someone golfing alone. Face it, it ain’t no fun to ask yourself “Hey Alice! Does your husband golf too?” or point out to yourself that “it’s still your turn.” If nothing else, live opponents are required so you have someone else’s game to diss. Now that Microsoft has a vested financial interest in promoting online multiplayer with Xbox Live, it’s a sure thing that anything they release for the Xbox is going to have a strong multiplayer component, and that it should be as easy as slicing your favorite ball into the water to find live opponents. A secondary given is that the graphics will be top notch as Microsoft clearly benefits whenever they can demonstrate the awesome capabilities of their platform. So, when offered the chance to take a look at it, I leapt in with both feet. I thought it might be fun to see what has changed over the last 15 years.
Starting at the beginning, it is obvious that there is a lot more available to do in the game. In the Links of old, you played golf. In this new version, there is a Career mode, a Challenge mode, and single and multiplayer modes. Career mode is pretty self explanatory: you start out by playing in small, local tournaments with the hope of developing enough skill and making enough money to move up in the rankings. Challenge mode presents you with various goals, such as getting the ball on the green in one shot from different locations on a course, or getting within a certain radius of the hole from a sand trap. Beating enough challenges unlocks more golf courses and equipment options. For me, the challenges acted as a good practice feature. I could concentrate on chip shots, for example, by selecting the Chip Shot Challenge.
Before getting into any of the game modes, though, you have to create a golfer profile. In the older versions of Links, you chose from a very small selection of generic golfers to use as your on-screen proxy. You now can select from a list of well known professionals such as Sergio Garcia (complete with his extremely time consuming pre-shot gyrations??), both male and female. There are also generic players of both genders, although the female players were obviously modeled after Lara Croft (note that this is an observation, not a complaint!!). You not only select your golfer, but you outfit him/her as well. There are multiple options available for shirt/blouse/obscenely revealing halter top (still not complaining!!), hair color, shoes, gloves, hats, etc. When first starting out, you can only select the basic equipment, but eventually you earn the privilege of selecting name brand clubs (Ping, Calloway, etc.), balls, and other stuff. With this level of golfer customization, everyone should be able to put together a golfer that meets his/her secret wish of who they’d rather be. It is important to note that this is where you will select your golfer’s ability: Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced. These settings determine how much assistance you will get from the game when it comes to hitting or putting the ball. These settings do not seem to have any impact on how well the AI golfers will play against you. It’s important to give a little thought to this setting because unlike in earlier versions, the difficulty level for your golfer cannot be changed later.
Once you’ve created your golfer and selected a game and course, it’s time to tee it up and let it rip. I was expecting the graphics to be exemplary, and they are! I think the descriptive term “photo realistic” is overused because I have yet to look at a console game and think I was seeing live TV, so I won’t go there with Links. That said, the graphics are very well done. The players move very fluidly, and the course themselves are gorgeous. I remember back in the early Links days that it took a long time for the course to draw on the screen. One of the most despised things you could do during a Golf ‘til You Drop game was cause the screen to refresh. That problem is no more. The rendering of the course is so fast as to be unnoticeable. I was particularly impressed with the water and surf effects on some of the coastal courses. The background sounds also add a lot to the experience.
Anyone who has played the older Links versions, and most of the pale replicas, will be familiar with the old “click – click – click (curse!)” swing control scheme and will be happy to learn that Links 2004 has replaced it with a real-time swing control that uses the left and right analog control sticks. The left stick is used for the swing, and the right stick is used to control ball spin. It’s a very intuitive motion and it took very little time to become comfortable with it. It feels so much more like actually swinging a club than the button presses ever did that you eventually start to feel a rhythm in your swing. The addition of a ball spin control is also very compelling. Any hacker who has gone through the emotional roller coaster of planting a 200 yard shot right on the green only to see it roll off the back will get a kick out of being able to control the ball spin like the Pros do. Prior to the swing, you can also select a shot type such as chip, flop, punch and blast to handle special situations you may have gotten yourself into.
So, you makes your swing, you smacks your ball, and off it goes. In the old days, the camera view stayed right behind the golfer and you watched the flight of the ball pretty much like you would if you were actually on the course. Links 2004, on the other hand, has Matrixified golf. After you hit the ball, the camera will follow the ball through various locations until it lands. The ball is very easy to see as it is now trailing some sort of comet tail, and every now and then you will even be treated to a bullet-time view, replete with concentric shock rings as the ball flies past your viewpoint. I have to confess that I really hate this, and was very disappointed to find that while I had hundreds of options as to how to dress my golfer, the ONLY item under the Graphics Options was Brightness. Along that vein, I also noticed that the entire game is far less configurable than the early versions. Another example of this is Automatic Club Selection. This is a feature that will avoid the abject embarrassment of you stepping up to your ball, 30 yards to the pin, and slapping it about 250 yards past the hole because you forgot to change clubs and tried to chip with a driver. In early versions, you could turn this feature on or off. In Links 2004, you can disable this feature for the current hole only. I get the strong feeling that part of the re-write to the Xbox platform involved dumbing the game down a bit. Personally, I miss the level of customization that was available in the early days. It feels like a step backwards to have had so much more control then than now.
The improved feel for the ball brought about by the real-time swing control carries over to putting as well. There are a number of aids to help you read the break in the green, and with a little practice you should be able to sink any putt in no more than three strokes, and most in no more than two. The graphics of the ball rolling towards the hole, and sometimes lipping it, are top notch. Just as in real life, putting will make or break your game, and in the case of Links 2004 they definitely hit the mark. The tension when faced with a 10 ft. tester to win the hole is just about right – you know you can make the putt just as well as you know you can miss it. Whether you choke or not comes down to your ability to set the pressure aside and execute the putt – just like the real thing, and isn’t that what sport simulations are all about?
With a few notable exceptions I found Links 2004 to be a fantastic golf game. In addition to the minor disappointments with the lack of configuration options, I also question some of the AI golfers strategic decisions. For example, I was 6 feet from the hole, lying 2, on a Par 5 during a Skins game with an AI player. I was closely watching him as he lined up for his 2nd shot, knowing that he had to ruthlessly attack the pin to have any hope of even halving the hole. He laid up!! It was a total Tin Cup moment, and frankly quite disappointing. Golf is not a purely tactical endeavor; there are times when a player needs to understand the situation he is in and manage his strategy accordingly. I have yet to see anything other than mindless golf from the AI players. Maybe this is another attempt to encourage players to seek out human opponents on Xbox Live, or it may just be a sloppy implementation. Either way, kinda sad.
Still, the Links title has a respectable history going back more than a decade. Links 2004 is really a first (and excellent) effort for the Xbox platform, and having seen how far the franchise went in the PC realm, I have every confidence that any weaknesses in this version will be corrected in subsequent versions. It is a very accessible and enjoyable game in its current form, and will likely get even better in the future. Tee it up, and golf ‘til you drop!
More On:Links 2004
Weâ€™ve been playing Links in one form or another for more than a decade. For their own console, Microsoft has gone back to the first tee and let rip with a brand new version. While not a hole-in-one, itâ€™s pretty darn good!