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Game Over Online ~ Sid Meier's SimGolf

GameOver Game Reviews - Sid Meier's SimGolf (c) Electronic Arts, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Sid Meier's SimGolf (c) Electronic Arts
System Requirements Windows, Pentium II-300, 64MB RAM, 300MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 90%
Date Published Monday, February 11th, 2002 at 12:53 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

When Sid Meier and Will Wright announced a jointly developed title, PC gamers knew they were going to be in for a surprise. However long SimGolf has been in development though, it certainly comes at an odd time. Surely everyone has heard of the smorgasbord of tycoon games, which I should add, was pioneered into a de facto standard by none other than Sid Meier himself. In the midst of Ski Resort Tycoon, Zoo Tycoon, Golf Resort Tycoon and others ad nauseam, SimGolf rolls out with what superficially looks like a similar design. Perhaps this is a quid pro quo from EA: buy more Sim titles so we can finally bring you The Sims Online. In this title, you are let loose on an empty plot of land as you try to construct your own set of links. However, as you delve into the game, you will see that SimGolf has a long pedigree. In its focus on the development of a single golf pro, you are essentially merging a less technical version of a traditional golf game (of which Maxis used to produce under the name SimGolf) and the quirky attribute system of The Sims. On the other hand, its emphasis on transforming landscapes into a compelling golf course is, in principle, not unlike what we find other tycoon games, most notably Rollercoaster Tycoon. Furthermore, the economics model is rather like Peter Molyneux's Theme Park. Although it isn't as sophisticated, with price setting, stock trading and employer relations, there are quite a few economic decisions to juggle with during the course of the game itself.

While other titles of this nature string a loosely connected series of goals you must achieve, SimGolf has none of this and rests itself on the naked strength of golf course building. You are given a radial interface much like The Sims to control finances, terrain landscaping, building construction and personnel management. To construct a hole, you don't really need to do anything except to start building. SimGolf provides ample instructions on what each item actually does and does a fairly competent job in identifying or explaining terms like a dog leg right or what the placement of water does to the actual course. Like a good theme park design, you have to watch your placement of golf courses. Initially when you cannot field golf carts, you will want to reduce travel time by controlling the flow of the golf course. I'm sure even the most casual golfers know how frustrating it is to walk halfway across a course to get to the next hole. On the other hand, if you make your holes too close together, there will inevitably be backlog. These very real concerns are also prevalent in the game and SimGolf challenges you to find interesting things to solve these problems. Do you risk shutting down a few award- winning holes or redesign them to reduce backlog? Do you hire a course marshal, whose salary will be a constant drain on your budget, to speed up play? Or alternatively, you can build a snack bar and hope that people will trek there to rest on chairs so as to make traffic more manageable.

All of these answers are right but some are obviously more right than others. Because of the dynamic nature of these problems, it creates an infinite amount of replayability. Certainly, Will Wright's passion to solve problems manages to crop up here. SimGolf is really a very subtle title. As I mentioned before, there aren't any artificial objectives like achieving some sort of money on your balance sheet. You can still run into debt and get fired by your company's board if you lose money consistently like a badly run dot-com company, but the goals and challenges are up to you to set. Like Civilization, you choose the type of victory that you want. Some people may opt to focus on grooming a local golf pro. On every milestone you achieve, either in course building or in actual play, the game will grant you a series of experience points on which you can add to your golfer. You can allocate these amongst a wide range of golfing techniques. If you have constructed an executive or short golf course, you will opt to concentrate on strengthening your irons. If you have a longer course, you might want to concentrate on the driving aspect. For a course rife with tricky greens, putting may be a good option. The actual golf game is quite intriguing on its own. You can aim for fades, draws, and backspins. Like in real life, whether you pull it off is another matter altogether, but that is not to say the golfing is unsophisticated. On a 2D landscape, it certainly looks simplified compared to titles like Links or the Tiger Woods franchise. However, the usual dilemmas that confront a golfer are present here too. Do you shoot before a river for a lay up or do you hope to drive past all the obstacles? Do you risk a draw to avoid a sand bunker or do you aim for the bunker and avoid the hassle of your draw getting stuck in the trees? Although this isn't a golf simulation, it certainly is not a simple point and click affair. Other than putting and the choosing of clubs, you control your golf pro to play through the entire course.

As a golfer, you can always do a practice round on your own courses. Moreover, you can take him to courses that may be downloaded through the net. You can challenge local pros that usually net you some cash as the challenges are based on who wins each hole and who wins the overall game. You can also opt to participate in tournaments. Doing so brings out the obligatory leaderboard and lets you play a game with an assorted number of players for an ultimate purse prize with money doled out to second, third and so on. The more tournaments and challenges you manage to win, the stronger your opponents will be. If anything else, tournaments are a great way to get some seed money into your company's budget.

There is, however, a slightly darker side to tournaments. You will have to close down your golf course for the tournament to proceed. Due to the accelerated timing, a lengthy golf tournament can shut you down for a whole year. In this time, you will not be making any green fees; the bread and butter for your revenue. Instead, you will have to hope to land a top spot on the leaderboard or at least recoup your losses for the year through the sale of amenities. Economics, though not as sophisticated as titles like Theme Park, are still very much present in the game. SimGolf also adds a very novel design that really has not been exploited in any other tycoon games. Companies like Club Link like to set up housing projects near golf courses. A lot of us will cringe at the possibility of golf balls crashing through our windows but in fact, there is quite a real estate market around professional golf courses; at least the nicely kept ones. SimGolf lets you sell plots of your land to potential buyers who will construct houses on their dime. The principle is simple: if you want to raise cash fast, this is about as quick and lucrative as putting your company out on IPO. The land you sell is a one-time profit although you can reclaim it any time. However, not all pieces of land are worthy for sale. Some places will require a substantial amount of money to level out the terrain or remove trees. But in general, lakeside resorts and cabins within woods present the highest value. The higher the value of your land goes, the more chance you have in attracting celebrities or stars that increase the profile of your golf course. Obviously scenic landscaping will enhance the value of your land but there is always the question of whether you want to cater to your real estate projects or your actual golf course because more often than not, their interests do not coincide with one another. If your golf course looks as crowded as a public housing project from SimCity, your golfers will gripe and complain about the lack of scenery.

You can minimize griping by pairing up prospective golfers together. SimGolf only allows a party of two, so there is an emphasis on mixing and matching chemistries not unlike The Sims. You can also hire a variety of people and build facilities to enhance a golfer's experience ergo the fact that a tennis court, driving range or putting green will help shift your operation's focus to a resort instead of a golf course. You can hire club greeters or golf celebrities to help raise the moral of your golfers. Where to place groundskeepers and refreshment vendors is another factor to take note of. These work great and although the model is much simpler than Theme Park, it is still acceptable except for one point. SimGolf does not allow you to set an employee, a groundskeeper for example, on autopilot to patrol your entire course. Instead, he/she will provide coverage within a circular radius.

The denizens of SimGolf speak Sim-lish; no surprise there, although translations of their dialogue will pop up above their heads. This is a good thing but it also creates quite a mess especially when you have a massive golf course operation. SimGolf is a very subtle game and though on the surface, it is just like every other 'Tycoon' type game, no other developers have sought to refine or extend the original motif. SimGolf adds little stories through golfers. A good golfing experience will let these stories play out and they include 'will you marry me' stories to the conclusion of defense or weapons contracts. SimGolf's heavy dose of sarcasm also extends to the actual names of people. A rich female donor is called Ivana Richman. Celebrities are called Mel Gifford or Jerry Signfeld. For those who are into golf, some of the tournament players include Sirius Pak and your local celebrity employee is by default known as Chi Chi (Rodriguez, I'm sure).

SimGolf manages to draw upon Will Wright's other Sim franchises. One of these is the addition of statues or monuments similar to the latest incarnation of SimCity. Some of these have bonuses that radiate from them. For example, a certain statue could lead people to putt well within its vicinity. SimGolf also features a hefty amount of customization. You can construct your own courses and upload it to the SimGolf website. You can download other people's courses to use your locally developed golfers on. SimGolf also allows you to install certain themes, which can potentially add characters, terrain graphics or a mix of everything. Certainly, this is a nod to the extensive overhaul people have given to The Sims.

In essence, the SimGolf title betrays the actual substance of the game. SimGolf is so simple to grasp, that it is not really about golf. It works more like the usual Tycoon games albeit with a lot of extras that differentiate it from the recent Tycoon mold. It has elements of The Sims as well. Unfortunately, it carries over a little too much. For example, the anemic camera system in The Sims is still present in SimGolf. This isn't bad, per se but in a constant 800x600 resolution, I didn't expect the game to shutter when scrolling around the map, especially on the closest zoom level (the view you will be using most of the game). The inability to have your view track golfers, including your own, is another major drawback. I'd like to see how these stories play out and how my golfer is doing but there is no provision to do so even though it wouldn't appear to be much of a stretch for the current engine. SimGolf also suffers from some debilitating crashes, especially in the tournament mode but a patch that remedies this is already out and relatively painless to apply. On a more positive note, SimGolf is perhaps one of the best titles for people with dual head displays. It easily supports task switching and you can work on a second pane without worrying about disrupting the game itself.

The lack of multiplayer is really not a concern. Like The Sims, the developers have chosen to integrate the net and connectivity in a different way. Some people who aren't interested in golf will think this is some hard-core golf game. It is, in fact, not that at all. Its open- ended nature lets you mold the game into whatever you want it to be. If you don't like golf, you can focus on developing valuable real estate properties alongside a mediocre golf course. If you think the golfing is too shallow, you are under no obligation to play through all the tournaments or challenges. I started playing this game one night, not really excited because my editor had told me this wasn't a revolutionary title. It was easily four hours later until I actually looked at the clock. The only thing hindering SimGolf may actually be the golf moniker itself. The combination of Will Wright and Sid Meier, though, is a fait accompli. The design in this game is nothing short of an exercise of a craft, perfected by two of the most innovative and creative visionaries in the industry. It does not deviate much from the status quo but does so much to extend what has already been laid out (and in most cases by the two famed designers themselves). Surely there are flaws but they do not obfuscate the fun when we consider the entire corpus. I sincerely hope it demonstrates to the millions of me-too tycoon and Theme Park clones that this is, ex cathedra, how one of those games should be. Emphasis on humorous sarcasm and subtle but in-depth design kicks EA's 2002 off with another stellar release.


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