When it comes to golf simulations, the one constant is Microsoft's Links series. We've seen Tiger Woods-emblazoned alternatives from Electronic Arts, an array of erstwhile competitors go the way of the bunker, and all the while Microsoft has polished and buffed its prize simulation to the extent that it really is golf through and through. But such a perfect simulation needs a beautiful shell to give it life, and unfortunately Links 2003 comes up short in that department.
As far as the yearly updates go, Links 2003 is probably the most significant change in over five years. Significant development effort has resulted in the real-time swing, which aims to compete with the likes of Tiger Woods. The new swing system simulates a golf swing through movement of the mouse - rather like Virtual Pool simulated cue movement. Simply select the club you want and point yourself in the right direction, then click the club icon and control the swing in real-time by pulling the mouse back and thrusting it forward again. The system works very well and takes a lot of work to master - the ideal inclusion you might say.
Well, yes and no. Of course it mimics that which has gone before, but that can't be helped. Its inclusion is admission that those systems worked well and that they deserve a place in Links. What really irks is that MS hasn't included a horizontal swing option. However accurate; however brilliant the back/forward system is, there should be an option to move the mouse side-to-side instead, which other games have been doing for a while.
However, the real-time swing setup does come with an excellent feedback system, which highlights faults in your swing and teaches you the best way to thwack the ball. The game's suggestions actually correlate to what you'd be told on a real golf course, and that's a theme which runs throughout - Links 2003 is staggeringly realistic. The ball movement and physics are almost perfect, and the golf engine allows for almost every variable - we couldn't think of anything it doesn't do.
Perhaps disappointingly, there are only six new courses on offer (with a separate course pack available for a few extra quid), but five of the six are based on real courses, and all six are very challenging. You won't waltz into the record books on these courses - you'll have to fight to hit the green in regulation, particularly on the harsh back nines. As for AI opposition - it knows how to play, and will definitely keep you going for quite some time. At the time of writing we've only hit the clubhouse below par on a few occasions, and that's playing from the middle tees with conditions in our favour.
Sadly though, the conditions - and the environment in general - are Links' biggest failing. The rebuilt graphics engine features fully 3D player models, thankfully spelling the end of motion-captured golfers, and player movement and animation is spot on, helping to give the game a more organic feel, but this attention to detail at the tee-end of the game hasn't extended onto the fairways. The problem is the backgrounds, which is all the courses are. In the foreground we have the golfer, but once the ball leaves the club it lands somewhere on the screen, as the camera sits and waits. There is no zooming to follow the ball, no clever camera tricks, no moment of excitement as you watch it fall handily. The engine just doesn't support it.
What you do get is a few seconds of waiting while the game simulates the ball's path and then renders the next screen in sequence. It's very boring. When you consider that the golfers spend time onscreen taking practice swings and stretching between shots, the idea of a completely unmoving course seems a bit alien, but there you have it. Links is and always has been like playing into a postcard, and these days that won't wash.
That's not to say the backgrounds aren't a sight. Beautiful isn't the word - these high resolution scenes are almost photographic at times. It's just the feeling of detachment from reality that causes problems.
Audio is equally uninspired. Beyond the meaty sound of walloping the ball and the swooshing noise the club makes, there is virtually nothing. Oh, each of the golfers has a sound file which includes a few choice witticisms and comments, and canned applause can be turned on, but there is no ambient noise whatsoever. On the whole the game feels lifeless to play, even though it's one of the most calculating and downright realistic simulations of any sport to date - a real shame.
However easily the most damning thing about Links 2003 is the lock-up bugs. On more than one occasion (four, actually), our rounds were cut short by a hard lock-up, which left us with no option but to reset. It's seemingly random, and it happened on two separate machines - one Athlon and GeForce3-based and one P4 and Radeon-based.
Moving back to the plus side though, Links does go one better than its opposition with an online multiplayer mode. Although Tiger's console-based hot-seating multiplayer is still a clear winner, the ability to pick a fight with rival golfers around the globe deserves to be taken seriously. You can even compete in tournaments via email...
And if all that still bores you, you can create your own entertainment with Arnold Palmer's Course Designer 1.5, provided as a bonus on CD3. It's quite tricky to get the hang of, but with a bit of work you can create some really challenging and entertaining holes. Packing them chockfull of hazards is usually a safe bet.
All things considered, if you're a fan of Links, 2003 offers a very nice update to your favourite golf title. Indeed, even if you're not, this is unquestionably the most realistic golf simulation ever offered on any platform, but the question you need to ask yourself is, is that enough for me? After a few hours we found ourselves longing to be playing Tiger Woods on the PS2 once again, with its remarkable production values and attention to detail. The results it produces may not be quite so precisely correct, but it's a lot more 'fun'.
Links 2003 is a postcard from the game engine revamp Links 2004 will hopefully deliver. If it does, it will be unstoppable. Until then, it's same old same old.
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