By Eric Bodrero
If you're one of those who despise sports games, especially golf, allow me to say a few things about one game that just may change the way you think about golf, period. Links 2004 marks the classic golf simulation's first appearance on a console, and it's a rip roaring first impression.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the Links franchise on the PC, allow me to give you a quick overview. For over a decade now Microsoft's Links has been the standard-setting flagship golf title that allows players as close to a golf course as possible without having to don the funny pants. Now gamers can enjoy the best-selling golf title on Microsoft's own console, redesigned just for the Xbox.
Let me start by saying that this is the prettiest golf game I've ever laid eyes on, and I've laid my eyes on quite a few of them. You'll slice through individual blades of grass, see leaves realistically blowing in the breeze, tree's bending and swaying, birds whistling and flying in flocks in the distance, and raindrops pelting the entire course to the point where I wanted to throw on my galoshes and raincoat. Courses are very well designed after their real-time counter parts, and you have a total of nine of them to traverse, five of which must be unlocked by scoring well in challenges or career play: Aviara, Greywolf, Mauna Lani, Superstition Mountain, New South Wales, Oakmont, Loch Lomond, St. Andrews, and the fictional Ocean Mill.
Before you do anything though, you need to create a nifty player. You can make one up, or you can use real pros. If there's a gripe to be had at all here, it would be the lack of customization to your created players, and the lack of real pro's to choose from. You won't see any Tiger Woods or Phil Mikelson's here, but you do get Sergio Garcia and Annika Sorenstam, who are equally as compelling. You can choose standard items of clothing like pants, shirts, shoes, gloves, hat, skin color, and of course your name. Something I think is rather impressive is you get to choose from a lengthy list of nicknames that the commentator's will use throughout your golfing career, giving it a little bit of personalization. The downside to this is you better like that nickname because you can't change it once you've selected it, unless you create another player from scratch. As is expected in a golf game you can choose your own clubs, and even your brand name, such as Callaway or Ping. You have a limited number of ball logo's you can use to begin with, but more impressive ones can be unlocked by playing well. Truthfully though, this does nothing for performance and is strictly for cosmetic purposes, but just seeing an eight ball or flame ball logo rolling around on the course is just plain cool. Also unlockable are three different ball types, giving you certain advantages like control and spin, or distance.
Okay, enough about all that. Let's get to the meat of the game. First of all, as was mentioned earlier, the graphics are stunning, and the intricately detailed courses are almost as good as being there. Better in fact, since you don't have to actually walk any of the eighteen holes. The animations of the players are like liquid crystal and are extremely well done. However the spectators do nothing more but stand there and clap like robotic cartoon cutouts, which was rather annoying, and is about the most unrealistic aspect of the whole game. Thank goodness you never see them very often, so it's really no big deal.
The controls of Links 2004 are extremely intuitive, simple, and very easy to learn, and those of you who are familiar with console golf games should be right at home here. You use the left thumbstick to control your swing by pushing back to get your power, and forward to hit the ball. You use your right thumbstick to control the spin and direction of your ball while in the air. By tapping the X button you can see a bird's eye view of the course, along with a green line that measure the distance to the hole, helping you select the right club, which is as easy as squeezing the left and right triggers. For added control, you can punch the B button before a shot, and select one of six different shot types to use, each one being used in different situations. For instance, if you land a particularly poor shot under a tree, you would choose the punch¯ shot to keep the trajectory low to the ground, or a blast¯ shot if you find yourself in a bunker. Putting is made easier via a putting assistant, which is essentially a blue line that shows you the direction your ball will travel. It's narrower and longer for beginning players, and wider and shorter for intermediate and advanced players. If you're like me however, putting will still be a challenge.
If you're worried about the depth of career play, don't be. Career play starts with two nine hole tournaments on the Rookie Tour and gets substantially larger from there, ending with the Legend Tour which is a seventy-two hole shootout for first place. There are five tours, over 30 different tournaments, and more than forty seven million dollars in prize money to be won. Not too shabby. To help you win that kind of cash are Skill Events¯ set within career mode to help you hone certain abilities, like chipping, putting, and making par or better.
All of this sounds great just playing by yourself or with a couple buddies, but when you add Xbox Live to the mix, you have yourself one killer golf sim. One of the best features of Links 2004 on Xbox Live is Stroke Fast Play¯, where instead of taking turns, you all play simultaneously, and tracers (the trail¯ left behind the ball as it sails through the air), appear to show all players' shots. A full round of golf can be played in a fraction of the time it would normally take, making the pacing more exciting. On top of this, all nine courses are available to play on Live, and more courses will be added later for your downloading pleasure.
The audio department is about as good as you can get in a golfing sim. My one biggest complaint would be the commentary. At times it gets monotonous, as does most videogame sporting commentary. Hearing the same names over and over again starts to grate on your nerves, and the fact that the commentary sounds so robotic doesn't help. However, you have complete control over it with the option to turn it down or completely off, so it's just not a big deal. The crowd responds to your every shot, good or bad, just like on television, and really adds to the realism of the game. You hear music while surfing the menus and options, and the ambient sound you hear while golfing is about as real as it gets. The sound effects are crisp and clean and what you'd expect to hear on a real golf course, to a tee (sorry). To add to an already feature-rich game, you can import your own custom soundtracks. Now you can listen to Symphony Of Destruction¯ by Megadeth while slicing the crap out of your ball. Fun times.
What it boils down to is this: Links 2004 is one of the best sports games out there, period. If you're a big fan of golf and have been looking for that perfect golf game to bide your time, this is a no-brainer. For those who aren't necessarily golf fans or have never played any kind of golf in their life, consider picking this title up. The simple and intuitive controls combined with super addictive gameplay will have you driving, putting, and chipping for hours on end. With features like Xbox Live, custom soundtracks, stunning graphics, oodles of tours to complete, and plenty of cash to be won, Links 2004 is easily one of the top sports games of 2003, and has something to offer to virtually everyone.