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.
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