The Links series is one of sports gaming's long time showcase products.
Few titles, if any, have as large a group of devote followers. Links
is one of the first titles that showcased just how much fun PC sports
gaming could be. It introduced the "tri-click" method of hitting a golf
ball and turned casual fans into cyber-golfing tour pros over the
years. There's a lot of history surrounding the Links franchise, including
Microsoft's assimilation of the original developers Access Software.
Microsoft's spotty record with the Links franchise left many people
questioning the company's commitment to the series. While advances were
being made by other competing golf games, Links seemed to grow a little
stale. The photo-realistic graphics always set the standard for visuals:
however, game play features in other games were slowly chipping away at
Links' status as the premier golf simulation. The first real sign of
life came when Links included a new golf course architect designer.
Most other golf games had huge libraries of fan created courses and Links
kept to its old course add-on disk model - for obvious financial
reasons. Links 2001 was the first sign that Microsoft planned to fight for
its turf and the 2003 version promised significant game play additions.
Links 2003 delivers on this promise, but is it a case of too little too
Presentation/Graphics : 85
One of the biggest changes in the Links series that will be evident
immediately upon viewing a course for the first time is that the era of
photo-realistic motion capture graphics is dead. The new course graphics
are quite impressive. Microsoft describes the graphics in Links 2003
as "photo realistic", but they are highly detailed 3D rendering as
opposed to the old-style photo redraws that fans have come to know and
love. This is particularly evident in the radically changed golfer
graphics. The theme in Links 2003 graphics is more detail. It has higher
textures, more detailed shadows, and improved course detail accuracy.
Taking a page from racing simulations, Microsoft used GPS to get the
modeling just right for the six courses included with the game.
Unfortunately, while the course detail is quite impressive, the overall
course atmosphere is not quite as good as found in competing products
like Tiger Woods 2002. There is very little movement on the courses
other than the flags on the greens. Galleries show up to watch some of
the events, but they are two dimensional and motionless. The gorgeous
water effects and interactive galleries in Tiger Woods 2002 are nowhere
to be found in Links 2003. In this sense, Links 2003 is too
Camera angles are nicely done in Links with one huge exception. If
players choose the "classic" swing mode (more on different swing types
below), multiple camera angles are available including a snap camera angle
that follows the path of the golf ball. Those that choose the new
"RTS" swing mode will find a much more limited set of camera options that
greatly detract from the visual experience. Microsoft's decision to
exclude the dynamic camera from RTS mode is very odd. Other competing
products provide all sorts of nicely-done dynamic cameras (my favorite
being the one found in Tiger Woods 2002), so it doesn't make much sense for this exclusion in Links 2003.
Presentation/Audio : 75
Links 2003 includes "3D audio" that, well, isn't very
three-dimensional. There are very few ambient sounds on the golf course. The audio
fails miserably when it tries to re-create the atmosphere of a tournament
event. The most glaring errors occur when the game attempts to react
to events that occur on the green. There were times when I four-putted
and got a rousing ovation from the gallery. This may have been out of
sympathy for my poor putting skills, but there were times when I hit an
eagle or birdie put and there was no gallery reaction at all. I'll
never forget chipping into the hole from 30 yards away and the only
reaction to this shot were my own shouts of joy. The gallery must have
headed for the beer tent because there was not a peep from them at all.
Finally, there are no commentators available for the tour events. This
isn't a big negative, but some golfers like to hear this type of banter -
others not so inclined might find this omission to be a big positive.
Interface/Options : 88
Significant work was done to improve the options available to Links
fans. The nicest addition is a new career mode that is complete with a
"Q" school that allows players to qualify for professional tournaments.
Once qualified, golfers can choose to play in semi-pro or professional
tournaments and win cash prizes in multi-day events. Even the AI
golfers themselves can be customized to various difficulty levels.
While the career mode is a pretty exciting new addition to the series,
Links still excels in the number of rules available in the game. There
are dozens of modes from the traditional stroke play to the not so
traditional Hawk. Not only are there many ways to play a round, but each
can be customized with new rules. Not satisfied with the included
variations? Create your own unique mode of play. Nobody can complain about
There are four swing types available in Links 2003. The traditional
tri-click "Classic", double-click "Easy", and "PowerStroke" swings are
joined by a new "Real Time Swing". Players that feel comfortable playing
Links old-school style will feel right at home. Those who are more
adventurous will want to try the Real Time Swing. Each style provides a
different golf gaming experience and those new to the series will want
to experiment with each to see which feels more comfortable.
The interface is useable and fans of the series will feel right at
home. Menus stay hidden until movement of the cursor to the bottom of the
screen pops them up. Things are pretty straightforward until a shot
comes along that requires a special position or swing type. Changing the
swing using one of the standard choices is one simple click away.
Getting to the advance shot setup screen requires multiple clicks and makes
you feel as if you're on a computer playing a golf game instead of
playing a computer game that simulates golf.
Gameplay : 80
Lifeless. Links 2003 is all about the simulation engine and not at all
about actually simulating golf. The superb simulation is offset by the
complete absence of a golfing atmosphere. This creates the rather odd
predicament that Links 2003 does some things much better than other
golf simulations but fails miserably at others - so much so that it
detracts greatly from the overall gameplay value.
Let's start with the good news. There isn't finer ball physics
available in any other golf simulation. The ball travels through the air as
expected in real life. Balls can be "topped", those that are in deep
rough will fly out every now and then, and just about every conceivable
situation that exists in real golf is available on the course. On the
green, there's a new green analyzer and putting assistant that helps
players on the lower difficulty levels learn how to play the game.
Putting varies depending on the swing type that is chosen. Real Time Swing
putting is very difficult. The only thing harder is trying to chip the
ball using the "RTS" method. There's very little forgiveness for over
or under hitting the ball in RTS mode.
Fortunately Links boasts one of the most complete help and tutorial
systems available in any golf game. There is a "lessons" mode of play
which includes some comprehensive tutorials about how to use the various
swing types, chip, and operate on the green. Even if you are stuck
during a round of golf, the help system is available, including tips from
pros about what to do in certain situations or how to play the hole. A
series of "tips" pop-up windows usually provides helpful hints and
advice. I was able to sit down with Links without reading the manual and
learn how to use RTS with no problem. The manual itself is pretty
useful. It isn't a massive volume, but it is organized in a way that
maximizes the information it delivers to the reader. Each section covers a
major topic, but there are hints and advice on related topics within
Microsoft is to be applauded for finally including a real time swing
method. The bad news is that this new method just doesn't stand up well
in comparison to other more refined real time swings. The major
problem is that although it claims to be a "real time" swing it really isn't.
The swing can be completely stopped at the high end of the swing and
resumed anytime later without any detrimental result. This same activity
would result in golfers falling over in PGA Championship 2000. The
swing doesn't have the feel of either PGA Championship's or Tiger Woods
2002's real time methods. I found myself constantly trying to look at
the little red bar to make sure I went back far enough during my swing.
In Tiger Woods 2002, I could look at the golfer and feel my way through
a swing in a more realistic manner. Cyber-golfers that feel at home
counting the number of dots to perfect their tri-click swing will be more
comfortable with Links' RTS. Those that fell in love with PGA
Championship's version of a real time swing will find Links' swing limiting.
RTS is an improvement over the click and PowerStroke methods, but not as
satisfying as some of the competition.
Ultimately Links 2003's major limitations are the time it takes to
complete a round of golf and the lack of any golfing atmosphere in the
game. Links provides a rather impressive list of online options, including
a never before seen ability to play by email. Online games in Links
are extremely long affairs compared to other titles because there is no
ready, set, and play option. And the screen redraws are way too long.
I do not own a top of the line machine, but I would expect my 1.3 Mhz
CPU, 256 RAM, and GeForce 4 4600 video card to handle Links. Even
resource hog Tiger Woods 2002 plays a much faster round of golf without the
momentum breaking redraw times. The sterile play on the course is
compounded by the poor ambient sounds, strange 2D gallery interaction, and
the lack of any real movement anywhere on the course except for the
Replay Value : 60
Those that aren't concerned too much with bells and whistles or have a
lot of time on their hands will find a huge amount of replay value in
Links 2003. The single player game provides multiple options to spice
things up. The career mode can be customized so that any number of
events on various courses can be created for each individual season. The
online portion is enhanced by the many options available plus extra
features provided by Microsoft, including a full featured Links Tour.
Throw in the Arnold Palmer Course Designer and fans can create as many new
course as their imagination can come up with. The APCD isn't an easy
designer to use, but it is a complete package.
Overall : 85
Links 2003 is a significant upgrade over Links 2001. There's a lot to
like in the game. The ball physics, course modeling, new swing type,
and huge number of options make this a must buy for Links fans. Tiger
Woods 2002 and even PGA Championship 2000 fans may want to think a bit
before purchasing Links 2003. Both of these titles provide career
options, golf swings that feel more realistic, and provide a better golfing
atmosphere. My normal reaction to a new Links release over the past
few years has been to load it, review it, and remove it from my computer.
This is the first Links title in a long time that will see some playing
time on my computer. It has enough to hold my interest, but your
mileage may vary.