System Requirements - Pentium 133 or equivalent 32Mb RAM 80Mb hard drive space 4x CD-Rom drive
As the summer months make a long-awaited appearance, the number of games being released slows to a crawl. People take holidays, enjoy the great outdoors, maybe even play some sports, one of the most popular of which seems to be golf. I totally fail to see why - whoever it was that said golf "ruined a good walk" was spot on...
If you are unfortunate enough to be a beginner, your first game on the course is little more than a nightmare. As you fumble ineptly with your clubs, pretending to know your 3-wood from your putter, the seasoned players look on with glee, laughing moronically as you sink your seventh ball of the day into the water hazard.
As well as this, the cackling golf-nuts will be dressed in clothes featuring colours that simply don't occur in nature, and hats that must have looked ridiculous even to the poor sap that designed them. No, you can stick golf as far as I'm concerned.
But what if you could enjoy the swinging without suffering humiliation at the hands of these sporting jesters? What if you didn't have to trudge around a course for several hours just to play a few minutes of actual sport? What if you didn't have to pay £10 for a beer at the clubhouse bar?
Enter Sierra's "PGA Championship Golf 1999", recently re-released on their budget label, Sierra Originals. This was one of the top selling sports games of its day across the Atlantic, but has it stood the test of time, or has it become as embarrasing as the garments favoured by golf players? Let's tee off and find out...
Par For The Course
One of the most hotly debated subjects in the PC golfing world is the control method. Some games favour the three click mechanism, where you operate the swing through a series of mouse clicks to determine the strength and accuracy of your shot, while others choose the True-Swing system, using your mouse as a virtual club, allowing more realistic control of the shot's direction and power.
Sierra has sought to please everyone by including options for both. The tri-click is certainly easier for the beginner, and can allow you to play decent rounds as soon as you start. But True-Swing is more realistic, has a proper golf-like feel to it, and as you improve you can play some superb shots and gradually become a seasoned pro. The choice is yours.
Of course, sports games are built on choices, and Sierra's PGA series is no different. The wealth of camera options available are unbelievable, and the range, pitch and height of each camera is easily changed. There are dozens of different modes of play, and you can create and customise your own golfer, complete with plaid trousers.
Eight real-life courses are painstakingly recreated in game, including the world-famous Coeur D'Alene and Pete Dye courses. You can even create your own with the Course Architect, a rather daunting tool which takes a long time to completely figure out. But if, like me, you can't be bothered crafting your own St. Andrew's, there are already plenty of extra courses available online.
There is even online play available through WON.net. It can be a little hard to find a suitable game, especially during off-peak hours, but it's fun to play alongside others and see their own styles of golf. You can even set up cameras to track the movements of your opponents, monitoring their shot scores and pitfalls. A LAN mode is also available, as well as a "hot seat" mode to allow multiplayer on the one PC.
Sights And Sounds
Each of the courses is recognisable as its real life equivalent, and you can point out all of the bunkers and lakes in-game, with your choice of course coming complete with a short video advertising its main features.
The graphics are a strange hybrid that doesn't really look "right", a mixture of the occasional 3D structure and trees and other features in "glorious" 2D isn't the prettiest of sights. The game was first released in 1998, and this does show in the graphical quality.
A number of cosmetic features help bring it up to date though, including the ability to animate your golfer in reaction to his shots. For example, he can fall to the ground and bang his fists if you misplay a drive. It's not exactly sophisticated, but it is particularly fun to see it happen in a multiplayer game.
The commentary is commendable as well. I'm more used to the slap-dash speech of soccer games like ISS and FIFA, where announcements take can place minutes after the incidents they refer to, and are more often than not just plain wrong. In PGA the commentary is always accurate, sometimes even informative, and keeps you up to date with the changing winds and the difficulty of holes. For once the speech isn't just something tacked on at the last minute for the benefit of the advertising material, it's a valuable addition.
It's also really satisfying to hear a commentator say "He'll have a hard time getting this one onto the green", just before you chip your ball out of a troublesome bunker and it settles next to the pin. Lovely.
Fair Or Rough?
Of course, all of these options and fancy extras are nothing if there is no gameplay to back it up, and I'm pleased to report that there is. The ball physics are sound, and the wind, gradient and course conditions really do make a difference. Play one hole in dry, calm conditions and then adjust the green to wet and the wind speed to fast, and you will really have to rethink your strategies.
This isn't to say the game is perfect though, and the lack of a decent tournament mode is my first gripe - it would have been nice to chart my player's progress over the years, earning money and playing invitationals. Still, online gaming allows these to be organised over the internet, so if you are so inclined and have the time to spare, by all means go for it.
As well as this, you can sometimes find yourself cursing at the awkwardness of some of the controls. Swinging, selecting play modes, setting up options and the like are all fine, but semi-complex tasks such as removing your ball from the water and placing it on the ground aren't easy to execute, with little help from the instructions.
Still, there is enough good in the game to negate these slight problems. The control systems are fully customisable, and selecting your club, stance and shot style are all done with a few clicks of the mouse. No confusing menus or reams of text - the GUI handles it all. After a few hours of play I was confidently selecting things like punch shots and lazy stances without my eyes widening with confusion, although many of these aren't adequately explained in the manual for beginners.
As golf games go this is certainly one of the more successful efforts, and I prefer Sierra's effort to the long-running Links LS series, which seems to be favoured by purists. I'm not a huge golf fan in real life, but I found the game enjoyable nonetheless.
If you can tolerate the simple graphics and lack of single player depth, this could be for you. The budget price is definitely a bonus, and the online play and support provided by WON.net and Sierra is excellent. Just remember that the tartan shorts are optional!