When Microsoft picked up Links as its own franchise after releasing a
rehashed MS Golf on their own, everyone thought they were more or less
crazy. What could a company, whose greatest titles were arguably
Solitaire and Minesweeper, know anything about hardcore gaming, even the
fringe area of a golf game? It turns out someone at Microsoft must have
had a broad long-term vision back then and it's paying off in dividends
now. The company is trying to re-establish itself as a sports vendor,
more specifically a game publishing powerhouse. Already in its stables
are veteran titles like the Links franchise. Like any veteran on a
sports team, the Links franchise continues to set directions for its
peers and ably pulls down its job without any significant hiccups.
Many titles have gone on to the television style presentation of golf.
Links 2003 stays with a tried and true look. It has reduced a lot of
the clutter though. Gone are the little windows and menus, replaced
with a chic minimalist layout. Right click on the swing area, for
example, and you'll be able to select your type of shot and which club
you're using. Move your mouse over the menu button on the lower right
icon and ancillary menu functions will scroll up. Links 2003 liberally
borrows from Microsoft's GUI efforts elsewhere, lifting scrolling menus
Another thing Links 2003 carries over from Microsoft products in general
is a wizard-like aid that is able to anticipate when or when you don't
need help. If you're switching from one swing to another and you're
chipping for the first time, the wizard will pop up a concise
illustrated dialogue box to show you how to play the shot. Likewise, if
you find yourself in a putting fit, unable to put the ball in the hole,
Links 2003 will pop up pointers to help you get your golf game going. I
only wished something like that existed in real life and it comes in
handy too, even for veterans of the Links franchise.
In anthropology, the ability to anticipate denotes a form of
intelligence. Luckily in Links 2003, there are lots of intelligent and
thoughtful comments from its field of AI players. If balls are hooking
to the left, for example, you'll see golfer animation pushing their
clubs to the right to urge the ball to go the other way. It's
completely futile to a computer and only something a real live person
would do but it illustrates how Links 2003 is much more alive than in
previous editions. It's helped by the new animation system, which not
only perfects the showing of golf swings, chips and putts but it also
has golfers gesturing at the camera, stretching or taking practice
swings on the side. I was wholly impressed, from verbal comments, when
the marquee players knew they were hitting too far or too shallow on
approach to the pin.
Unfortunately, the number of aids you get is not so intelligent,
particularly the caddy system which is supposed to recommend the best
clubs. Maybe my golfing knowledge has progressed but I thought the
caddy had a tendency to recommend too powerful of a club on approach
shots in or around 100 yards. For example, in a situation where an 8
iron was recommended, I took the shot down with a pitching wedge and
still had excess distance. It could be because I was using the real
time or power stroke swings but I imagine the caddy should adapt to
whatever playing level I'm achieving at the moment.
Often times, when you're stuck in the rough or even in the sand, the
caddy has an affinity towards the 3 wood. That's the risky kind of
stuff that you would only expect from Tiger Woods; not necessarily for
my amateur player. Needless to say, switching to irons or wedges netted
me far better performance. During tricky situations, the caddy is also
unable to recommend punch shots, draws, fades or flops.
Links 2003, however, brings a lot of conveniences. In addition to
fine-tuning the mechanical aspects of the game, scoring and play, you
also get aids like the break-reader, which single-handedly solves 99.9%
of your putting problems, provided you get a good putting stroke going.
It's a fascinating tool and while purists will think it's cheating, it's
a more visual tool in helping determining elevations.
I also liked how merely right-clicking before the swing ended would
result in an automatic mulligan so I could re-do the shot. That was
something that could be done without too much pause or delay.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game proceeds at a sluggish pace. If
you're thinking of turning up the details, you better have a speedy
machine to handle it. Links 2003 continues to use sprites for the
spectators, trees and fauna. They're fairly pixilated, even at
resolutions of 1280x1024. It's a little jarring because the terrain, by
contrast, looks immaculate. And while the golfers themselves aren't
picture perfect, they exhibit a fluidity not seen in the franchise
before. Like I mentioned before though, the picturesque scenes don't
come without a cost: this game renders and loads after every shot.
Even the overhead map requires a little rendering.
These factors turn every full (and productive) 18 hole golf game into an
hour or so. Mixing in AI players will make the game even slower because
the AI players spend an inordinate amount of time thinking. While you
simultaneously play alongside live human players, you can't play in
tandem with the computer, which prolongs golf games unnecessarily.
Anyone who has played a round of golf will know how delays can frustrate
anyone's best day on the links.
Links 2003 lets you develop characters based on a few pre-set templates.
You can launch a virtual career going through Q-school and make money
through tournaments. Unfortunately, the online virtual tournament from
previous editions is gone so you won't be able to post insanely low
scores all across the world. Online matches, however, are handled by
Zone.com, which is pretty good at pairing golfers together.
Perhaps the best thing about customizing is the ability to choose
different swings. The classic tri-click mode is still present but a new
real-time swing truly turns the game of golf on the computer from
something passive to something proactive. Casual observers always
comment about why people ever bother to take up golf. The golf swing,
in particular, is frustrating, dependent on minute actions of the body.
While the real-time swinging options in Links 2003 theoretically makes
your virtual golf skills take a turn for the worse, it also offers the
potential to get that one picture-perfect PGA pro shot that you've been
practicing forever to get and it is that that Links 2003 is able
to convey. Unfortunately, playing the ball for draws, fades and
backspin is still a little too sophisticated for the real-time swing.
Hopefully, that will be rectified.
All in all, Links 2003 will not disappoint. It's a very easy to grasp
golf game and it continues to set the standard for photo-realism. In
action, however, Links 2003 tends to fall in on the slow side,
technically and during play. Oddities, like the inability to use the two
best features of the game together (dynamic camera and real-time golf swing) is
a little disturbing.
Sergio Garcia has effectively replaced Arnold Palmer as the spokesperson
for the Links franchise. The player selection is a little thin across
the board. Garcia is good for iconic recognition but David Toms and
Jesper Parnevik are a stretch as replacements for Zoeller and Palmer.
On the LPGA side, only Sorenstam is present (but she arguably is the
best female golfer of this generation). Links 2003 continues to feature
Palmer in the golf course editor and you'll still be able to play a
multitude of past Links courses. This compatibility will pretty much
ensure that Links fans will stick with this product. It's hard to pan
Links 2003 because it's not anywhere close to a horrible game but at the
same time, there's room for improvement. With what I can see so far, I
think there's still light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise.
It may not have the gusto and domineering presence as it did before but
a little competition has undeniably sharpened this golf game.