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Links 2003 (PC) Review

Background Info
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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 late?

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 photo-realistic.

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 Links' customizability.

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 each section.

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 flagstick.

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.

By: Chris Johnson 10/26/02

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