While the game of golf has stayed fairly static since its creation, the game's most major change has probably come about because of advances in club technology. There's no doubt that hitting a ball with a modern age driver is a far different experience than whacking at it with a wooden stick. As the golf club has evolved, becoming stiffer, lighter, and made from space-age materials, the way the game is played has also been transformed. While the idea of hitting a 300-yard drive once seemed like fantasy, it's now an all too common event. Whether this change in the game is a good or bad thing is a matter of personal opinion—much like the ongoing debate about how newer tennis rackets have changed that game—but one thing is certainthe way the game of golf is played has been forever changed.
Videogame golf has recently undergone a similar transformation. For years, golf games invariably relied on the three-button press swing system. Games like Hot Shots Golf refined this interface to the point where it became the golf game standard. However, with the advent of dual analog stick controllers, things have changed. Now, instead of simply pushing buttons to make the onscreen player swing, players will actually control the swing and its tempo by pulling back on the stick for the backswing, then driving it forward to hit the ball. To say this new approach has made videogame golf more realistic is an understatement. This is a transformation of the way the game is played in much the same way that club technology has changed the real game.
The latest title to utilize the analog stick swing system is Microsoft's Links 2004. Links 2004 marks the first appearance of the venerable PC golf simulation title on a console, and while it's certainly nice to see an old and familiar face on the Xbox, some things have certainly been lost in the translation.
Perhaps the most disappointing element about Links 2004 is how the game has been compromised in an attempt to compete with other console golf titles (namely EA's Tiger Woods franchise). The Links of the past were hardcore golf sims that catered to serious golf game fans. The casual hacker could pick up the game and give it a go, but would often give up a short time later out of frustration—Links required precision and a keen understanding of how golf was played. It was a lot like the real game.
As the title has moved to the Xbox, a lot of the finer nuances have been compromised in favor of a more user-friendly and arcadey gameplay style. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, except it's such a radical departure from what the series has always been. While there's little doubt that Links influenced the Tiger Woods games, the reverse seems to be in effect here. This wouldn't be a terrible thing (particularly since Tiger Woods 2004 is a fantastic game in its own right), except that Links 2004 tries to straddle the fence between being a hardcore golf sim and a player-friendly arcade experience, never really succeeding as either. The game lacks the hardcore golf elements of the earlier entries in the series and doesn't offer up even a fraction of the options found in Tiger Woods 2004. The end result is a game that hits the rough nearly as often as it hits the fairways.
Boasting a measly nine courses (several of which have to be unlocked—even for multiplayer matches) and a definite dearth of player customization, Links 2004 lacks the variety of EA's game. One of the joys of Tiger Woods 2004 is being able to create a videogame avatar of myself (right down to the red dreadlocks) and set him on the path to fame and glory. Everything in Tiger Woods 2004 is customizable—players can wear rings, watches, headbands, eyeglassesyou name it. Conversely, the customization options in Links are paltry. Choosing a professional as your avatar limits the choices for making the player unique even further
However, this is a golf game—and not some sort of online shopping experience. Links 2004 gets things back on track once players hit the tees—sort of. The game features three difficulty settings: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Beginner is for players who've never played any kind of golf in their life. It's so easy it's almost not fun—skip this one unless you're totally new to the sport. Intermediate and advanced are more challenging (advanced in particular, since it takes away all the little swing gauges that help the player hit the right shot), but there's still something missing. The problem seems to be that the game is just too forgiving. It's actually hard to hit a bad shot in Links 2004. Yes, players will overshoot a green at times, or miss a putt, but actually messing up the analogue swing is nearly impossible. Shanking a shot or hooking a wicked slice takes effort and as anyone who's ever played golf for real knows, that simply isn't the way the real game is played.
This toned-down difficulty continues on to the greens. For some reason, the greens all play slow in the game. While putting is a bit stiff overall, the greens are so slow that it rarely matters. Putting is the weakest element of my videogame golf game, and yet even I was sinking some thirty and forty footers in this game with relative ease (which is something I rarely do in Hot Shots or Tiger Woods).
All is not below par in the game though (and it is a Federal law that every game reviewer works a par pun into a golf game review). The graphics are nice, with detailed character models and some very smooth animation. The only shame of it is that the game runs at 30 frames and not 60, but it doesn't ruin the experience by any stretch of the imagination.
The real bonus of Links 2004 is the online play. When players get tired of beating the tar out of computer-controlled professionals at the various tournaments and skill challenges, they can hop online through Xbox Live and take on real human opponents. The game works quite well on Live, and my favorite feature by far is a speed golf setting that allows each player to hit at the same time. This makes a round go much faster than having to stand around and watch each player take his or her turn. My only real complaint with the online element is that players can't play team matches—or if they can, I couldn't figure out how to make it happen. This is a minor quibble at best, though—this is another game that benefits greatly from being Live-enabled.
Links 2004 is not a bad game by any means-it's simply one that tries to be many things to many different people and it doesn't quite succeed at any of them. While my preference would have been for Links to stay as the hardcore golf fan's sim of choice (leaving the arcade styled golf to the Tiger Woods and Hot Shots Golf games), MS has chosen to take the franchise in a new direction. Where this will ultimately lead remains to be seen, but for a first step into the console arena this game lands firmly in the fairway.