Review: Links 2004 (XB)

I have a special spot for video golf. Of course, I seem to have a special spot for every type of game for one reason or another, but I digress. After the Dark Times, when the Odyssey2 was rotting in one of our closets and I first rented an NES, one of the games I rented with it was Nintendo Golf. Up to this point, I think my parents had kind of hoped I would grow out of this video game “phase” or something. We were already getting inundated by stories in the press about violent video games, back when those violent video games consisted of Contra and Rush’N’Attack, and I think my folks were starting to buy into it a little bit. But that weekend, I convinced my Dad to play some Nintendo Golf with me; and, lo and behold, he had FUN.

Fast forward about 8 years, when they bought their first, and to this point only computer. If Mom wasn’t on playing Lemmings, Dad was on playing Microsoft Golf. I think they may have just figured out that I’m more likely to stay around the house during holidays and talk to them if I have a video game to keep me occupied, and that they get even more face time if they play with me. Then again, maybe my propensity towards video games wasn’t spontaneously generated after all, and my parents really dig it on some level.

We recently spent a day in Oklahoma City, visiting Roni’s aunt and uncle. I spent most of the day playing Tiger Woods 2004 on the PS2 with the uncle. We hadn’t really connected on anything up to that point, but by the end of that day we were laughing, trash talking each other, having a fine time.

Golf games have always been a nice diversion from the stereotypical video games people are used to hearing about. As much as I like running over hookers and shooting up shopping malls, sometimes I yearn for the genteel and sanguine atmosphere of the links, whether they be real or virtual. So, I was not displeased when I was told I would be reviewing the newest entry in the console golf world, the Xbox version of the venerable Links golf franchise, Links 2004. Given the popularity of “¦ that other golf franchise I mentioned two paragraphs ago (I’m vowing not to mention it by name for the rest of the review, if only to keep from making this into a “why isn’t this more like “¦” type of review, which I am too quick to do sometimes.), I wondered how Links would distinguish itself.

STORY

As with all sports games, not so much a story as it is a career path. Links is a bit more linear than “¦ others in this regard; but there’s a method to the madness. True, you start out with the option to do Tours or Challenges, but the Tour events you do are carefully regulated, so that you’re never completely over your head at any event. That’s not to say they aren’t challenging; the controls are sensitive enough to not make anything a gimmie, but we’ll get to that in a later section.

When you start your character’s career (a virtual certainty with this game, unless you want to play single rounds with Sergio and Annika for the rest of your life) you begin walking through different Tours.’ Now, these aren’t tours like the actual PGA or LPGA, but collections of challenges and tournaments designed to hone your skills and raise your “ranking” before unlocking the next tier. At first glance, this would appear a bit childish next to the full-up PGA tour of the “¦ other golf franchise; but, like I said, there is a method to the madness. The point of all of this is that the single player games effectively train you for online play, which is the real draw of the game.

And you’d think online golf would be like TV golf: slow and boring. But it’s not. Most of the games online are in the “fast stroke” format. This is a format where everybody playing starts a hole at the same time. You don’t have to wait for anybody else’s strokes; you just keep hitting until you’re out. The only evidence of other players on the course are color trails of their shots which draw themselves through the air while you’re playing. The result is an 18 hole match concluding in under half an hour.

The other type matches, the ones where you watch people hit, do run longer, but if you’ve all got Xbox Communicators (which most everybody does at this point), that just leaves more time for kibitzing and making “Caddyshack” references. I got into a Skins game with a guy from Chicago and got destroyed. By the end of the round I was making jokes that I had to win just one hole so I could have cab fare for the ride home. We had a fine time, even though the result was never in doubt, and I won my cab fare (hole 17).

Relying so heavily on the online aspect isn’t all a good thing, though. Up until last week, I didn’t have Xbox Live, and if I just had to play the offline modes, I would’ve been a bit disappointed.

Story Rating 6.5/10

GRAPHICS

Wow. Just “¦ wow. Most of the shots would appear to be live action to the casual observer — the environmentals are so well done here. Roni actually made comment that she didn’t know if I was watching golf or playing it (Right. Like I ever watch golf). Trees and bushes are modeled extremely well, even up close (and I regret to inform you that I got to see a LOT of trees and bushes up close with this game), and collision detection is probably the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a golf game. You really have to worry about how a ball will bounce when it lands. I’ve had a couple of times where I just cleared a sand trap, thinking I was going to bounce onto the green, and instead had the ball hit the near side of a rise and bounce backward into said sand trap. Of course, I cursed it at the time, but I learned to appreciate the nuance. Thank you, sir. May I have another.

Character animation is okay. With all of the effort put into the rest of the graphics, it kind of puzzled me that they would let the swinging animations be jarring. Just don’t watch replays of the shots, I guess. Otherwise, that would be the celebration and reaction animations, the character animation is very smooth and realistic “¦ especially the frustration animations. You know, the ones after you hit a BAD shot. I’m waiting to see someone pitch their clubs into a water hazard.

Create-a-character isn’t really deep. Isn’t deep at all, really. You have a few set models and you can play with the clothes colors and that’s about it. I don’t think the fidelity of the “¦ other franchise was necessary, where you can edit the cheekbone depth and texture, but being able to change hairstyles would’ve been nice. Still, I can’t knock it too much, since you can create left-handed golfers.

One little thing I really liked was the highlight section after each round, where your good shots are replayed for your enjoyment with TV voice-over commentary. Just a nice little feature.

Graphics Rating: 8.0/10

SOUND

The commentary is short, more accurate than most, and conveys a real TV-analyst atmosphere. Understated. No “¦ repetitive “¦. Somewhat annoying “¦ but at least not omnipresent. The comments themselves are not bad. It’s just that you’ve heard them all by your second tournament.

As for other sounds, like I’ve said before, there’s only so much you can do with sound in a ________ game. (insert: golf) This game does them.

Sound Rating: 5.0/10

CONTROL

Fancy this, you actually have to have a little SKILL to be successful at this game. Now, you don’t need much, but you need more than “¦ the OTHER game, that’s for certain. The ball is more easily hooked or sliced here, but not so much that a straight shot is impossible, or even improbable. You just have to watch yourself. Early on, you have to watch yourself REALLY CLOSELY. My first couple of Xbox Live games I was slicing more than the guy at the butcher’s counter. Although, I have to admit that I appreciated how closely my virtual self mimicked my actual self in this regard. I especially like the instances where I sliced my tee shots so bad that they landed on the adjacent fairway; and the fact that this wasn’t considered Out Of Bounds by the game. I still made the green in regulation, so there.

The controls are similar to “¦ other golf games. Pull back on the left stick to backswing, push forward to swing through. Timing is critical, variation from the centerline is death as you watch your ball arc into the next zip code. Switching clubs takes place with the triggers, and the shot type is governed by a menu you bring up with the B button. In addition to normal shots, you can punch, flop, chip, blast, fold, spindle, and mutilate shots among doing other nasty things to them; and you will use those shots. The shot power indicator estimates how much oomph you’ll need to hit the desired target, but it doesn’t account for wind or altitude, or the fact that the ball runs like Ben Johnson on THG on the greens, so some personal finagling is in order. This carries over to the greens, where the line indicator gives you a better idea of the break, but not a perfect one. On big breaks you’ll have to overshoot the hole in both angle and power (relative to the indicators) to get the ball to break into the hole.

There is also spin control available, but I have to admit to not using it much. It’s just a personal preference I guess, but most of the time I think of spin control as playing with fire. It’s a good way to make a good shot into a not so good shot.

Control Rating: 7.5/10

REPLAYABILITY

When I first started this review, I thought the only real reason for replayability in this game is to pump-up more characters, much like many other games of this ilk. Then I played on Xbox Live and I had to amend my thinking. No, the primary reason for replayability is to pump up your character so you can do better online; a small, but significant difference.

This seems to be a trend among an increasing number of games (most of them Xbox games, go figure); the single player aspect of the game is primarily a training/development tool to prepare the player for online play. Notice the progressiveness of the goals. You aren’t thrown in the deep end right off the bat anymore. You’re trained regularly and methodically so that your character stats, and your own manual skills, are at the point where you can compete competently with your peers. Whether this is the next step in video game evolution or simply part of Microsoft’s plan to enslave humanity to its will is yet to be seen. As is right now, I’d say that it’s a Good Thing. Of course, I’ve always been easily brainwashed.

Replayability Rating: 6.5/10

BALANCE

Much like the “¦ other franchise, Links 2004 features a nice array of game modes: different styled tournaments, challenges, etc. that make the experience less arduous than just plowing through 18 holes over and over again.

Now, I like overachieving as much as the next person; I’ve even built a life philosophy around it. But sometimes the games are just too easy, even before I jack stats up to deity-like levels. That “¦ other golf franchise? It’s like that. I love the features, I love the unlockables, I love the depth of the create-a-character, but when I’m shooting in the 50s, without even having maxed my stats out yet, it’s too easy. You damn near have to have Parkinson’s to shank a tee shot in that game, and where’s the reward in that? So what if you can peg the flag every time on that par 4 if everybody else can do it every time too?

Thus the beauty of Links 2004. Shot accuracy is NOT a given. It gets easier as the stats get better, obviously, but you still have to concentrate to get the ball to fly reasonably close to straight. And the shots don’t break down to simply “straight” and “shanked.” There’s lots of subtlety; lots of variation in how shanked the shots are. I’ve hit shots straight as the proverbial arrow, faded (warning: euphemism) shots so slightly that I narrowly missed the green and landed on the fringe, or shanked the shots so bad that I had to take my next shot from the tee box of the previous hole. I’m not kidding. Most of the time I found sand traps, though. Just for the record.

And it’s not terribly easy to level up in Links. I played through the entire Rookie’s tour and I was able to raise my stats by 2 points total. Not two points across the board but two individual points; and it looks like there’s a long ways to go before my character is maxed out. But with the single-player modes and the increased competitiveness online, it’s easy for someone to find a challenge to fit their skill level, or at least have fun while they’re getting demolished.

Balance Rating: 7.0/10

ORIGINALITY

The only really original thing about this is the online play aspect. Everything else has been seen before in other golf games. That does count for something, but since there’s a big part of the world out there that doesn’t have broadband yet, it doesn’t count for a lot.

Originality Rating: 5.5/10

ADDICTIVENESS

This was one of those games where, once I got pulled in, I was in for a while, but it took something to get me to play it in the first place. It doesn’t have that addictiveness that pervades your thoughts while you’re away from it, let alone the withdrawal symptoms that come about after going cold turkey from Viewtiful Joe. Still, the online play really lends a compelling air to the game. The closest thing I can compare it to is the actual desire to go hit the links and improve your REAL golf game, so that you’re not embarrassed at the next company golf tournament. It’s kind of obsessive/compulsive, but drowning in so much reality that the buzz gets killed fairly quickly. Still, I can see myself putting in an online round or two a week “¦ after the wife and kid have gone to bed “¦ maybe I could find a regular foursome “¦ or get into a scramble tournament “¦multiplayer skins is always fun “¦

Such is the insidious nature of golf.

Addictiveness Rating: 6.0/10

APPEAL FACTOR

Unless you seriously have a problem with that “¦ other console golf franchise, I don’t see anybody NEEDING this game, even within the niche. That is, unless you have a pathological need to destroy people around the world. In that case, you’re in luck.

There’s really nothing here that’s going to draw non-golf fans in. Not much in the realm of mainstream appeal. What it may do, however, is cut a big swath in that golf niche, with the more-sensitive controls and the online play capability. Even with all of the bells and whistles of the “¦ other franchise, I could see this evolving and growing as to edge it out as the top golf console game, if the powers that be at Microsoft treat it properly

Appeal Rating: 6.5/10

MISCELLANEOUS

Links 2004 is a good game. I would even call it a really good game. Is it a classic? Hardly, but it has HUGE potential to become a classic within an incarnation or two. It all depends on how the Xbox Live experience goes down. If people love it and can’t wait to meet up and play a round online, that will help. If Microsoft keeps issuing new content for it, new courses or characters and such, that will help as well. The game itself is well-done enough and challenging enough on it’s own. What it’s missing is a really deep single-player experience. You can’t live out your fantasies of owning the PGA Tour here like you can do with the “¦ other golf franchise, and that hurts Links a bit. Of course, that’s not to say that Microsoft can’t offer that option in the future, or take the PGA Tour online. There could be Q school to qualify for the online Tour. There could be different tiers of Tours. I’m going to stop before I get too ahead of myself, but you can see the possibilities. I’m betting on Microsoft seeing them too. They’ve never been known for letting good features die. Of course, they’ve never been known for letting ANY features die.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7.0/10

Story: 6.5/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Sound: 5.0/10
Control: 7.5/10
Replayability: 6.5/10
Balance: 7.0/10
Originality: 5.5/10
Addictiveness: 6.0/10
Appeal Factor: 6.5/10
Miscellaneous: 7.0/10
Average Rating: 6.5/10

With reviewer’s spin: 7.0/10