Sam takes to the course in the latest from Microsoft.
Computer sport games – eh? What’s the point of that then? Why use something that has cost you the better of a grand to simulate the experience of something you can most likely do by slipping on a pair of trainers and some shorts and venturing out into that big cold, bright room outside your front door. In the case of motor sports I can understand the logic as a racing bike or formula one car is well beyond the financial range of all but the most jammy. But golf? The game can be played with three clubs which you could probably buy from the classified ads at the back of your local paper for less then fifty quid. The game is also primarily about physical stance and form with a side order of knowledge. So why have golf games been a mainstay of computer gaming ever since the home computer first appeared over twenty years ago? Maybe because the computer golf game, like say the Tony Hawk franchise, is a form of entertainment derived from the original sport yet turned into a totally different experience, one which allows you to enjoy the competitive thrill of the game without the physical hardship and discomfort that us chair-bound sportsmen tend to do our best to avoid. Okay, now I’ve got that cleared up lets look at the newest golfing game to appear on the PC, the newest generation of the oldest and most venerable series on the PC, Links. Links 2003 has a ream of features to play with, including internet matches, a course designer, full career mode, a decent selection of courses and some rather impressive and comprehensive tutorials. It naturally also includes spruced up graphics and some rather amusingly poor sound scripts from such golfing luminaries as David Toms and Anika Sorenstam. Yeah, me neither. I’ve only played the real thing three times, once shivering round some tinnies on a course up here in Scotland in November, the other times whizzing around on a buggy on sun-bleached courses in Florida. The buggies were the best bit, followed closely by the mannie in another buggy who came round offering cold beers and sarnies. But golf games, well I’ve played many, with my fondest memories being attached to Leaderboard on the C64. Well, Links 2003 hasn’t replaced that old favourite but it does a good job, and is fun to play. The presentation is equal to that of the only other surviving golf series, the EA PGA games, but is done in a Microsoft stylie which in fact makes a nice change from the homogonous appearance of the EA Sports titles. The menus are simple to navigate and are well layered, and the aforementioned tutorials really help you learn the game from the simplest stroke off the tee to the most complex lie in a gale force wind. After digesting as much or as little of this help as you want it’s time to swing. The main game window is nicely laid out and any changes you might want to make to your stance, club selection, shot style etc., can be done without any tedious swapping to other screens. You can choose from four different ways to pretend that you are hitting a real golf ball, from the old style triple click method to the more recent ‘move your mouse back and forth over the pad in a straight line’ which Microsoft has dubbed the Real Time Swing. It’s all a matter of personal preference of course but there is a good choice. I prefer the RTS method, and fortunately it works just as well with an optical mouse as a ball mouse. There are plenty of difficulty settings to ease you into the game, and again plenty of practice options and various aids to assist your game. All in all the wealth of options in Links 2003 is most impressive, but how does it play? The first Links games blew away the PC owners of the time with incredibly ‘realistic’ colour! Graphics which unfortunately took an age to render. And about ten years later, they still do. My system is pretty good; an Athlon XP 1700, 512 of RAM and a GeForce 3 Ti200, but each screen redraw took about five seconds. Fine for the first few swings, but as it dawns on you that over a normal round of eighteen holes you’re going to spend about six to seven minutes waiting for the course to reappear, your patience will probably drain away like mine did. Now while a convoluted argument about this being a good inducement to improve your game could be made I still found it more the a little wanting, especially as the courses are completely devoid of any life – no crowd, no caddies, no other golfers in the background, not even a single bloody duck. Now if you have a really tasty system this will undoubtbly be less of a problem, and you could even find yourself turning on more of the multitude of different extra cameras but for me it just got too tedious. Then again I am known for my impatience. The actual golfing is fun as the courses are varied and present many different kinds of challenge. There is the compelling nature of the game where you can never be sure of how your ball is going to fly and where it will end up. All of your stats are recorded and you get personal feats which you can try to improve. I found the putting rather tricky and as a result my best putt was a measly five metres, but all in all Links 2003 does a very good job of the computerised game of golf. The redraw rate is the biggest flaw of this title, which is very unfortunate as the rest of the package is superbly done and has more depth than the most vicious bunker. I really got into the career mode and even started an email match with some poor soul who got on their own after a few holes. But I just got too annoyed that a simple golf game slowed my system down so much. Now I could have played it in 800x600, but if I wanted to do that I’d buy a console. Then again, I have played it some more, and even with the slow times it is a very good game to dip into for an hour or so, and will get dug-up for another try if I can ever afford a new graphics card. And it does come with the added thrill of scouring the internet to try to attach a name to the very competitive folk on the cover.