Gamestyle Archive intro: my lasting memory of this golfing title was the online aspect with Gamestyle regulars meeting in closed sessions to play a round of golf whilst enjoying the refreshments of the 19th hole. It was difficult trying to sink that putt whilst being verbally assaulted.
Published: November 2003
Developer: Microsoft Games Studios
An unwritten video game rule is that conventional and “boring” mainstream sports often make for good games. Tennis was revitalised after Virtua, Madden continues to inspire American Football and Tiger has brought golf to a new generation. Now Microsoft has brought its popular PC series to the tee, as part of its ever improving XSN Sports range to challenge the dominance of Electronic Art’s enjoyable (but multi-format) Tiger Woods title.
Links 2004 is named after the original style of golf course, which began life at St Andrews – only a few miles up the road. However the selection of courses are not exclusively cultivated from the old Scottish links courses. Links 2004 is truly international featuring courses from all over the world; offering a staggered challenge for those who wish to beat the course, as it were.
Gamestyle believes that sports releases are amongst some of the most predictable and frankly blasé titles available on the shelves today. The trick is to differentiate your release from its competitors, and Links 2004 commences at a disadvantage given its bland title. Yes, famous names are included within, but the “brand” is half the battle today and surely Microsoft could have tied up a leading professional golfer to apply the final coupe de grace. In fairness however things begin to happen when you start to play the game itself, but only after that initial purchase.
The inclusion of Xbox Live support combined with XSN functionality offers a unique opportunity for Live users who have become bloated on guns and driving of late. Online play includes a variety of match modes and settings, but only supporting four players. This on paper may seem disappointing, but it keeps matches personal and ultimately more stimulating, as waiting to hit your shot is unbearable enough with three friends. You can even select the Fast Play option, which allows simultaneous play, but removes some of the banter and pressure. The download option ensures Links 2004 will remain fresh enough once the impossible nature of scaling the leader boards has materialised. The plantations course at Kapalua was the first to be available for download (at a reasonable £4.99) but has since been removed for maintenance work.
The one chink in the armour of online play is the reliance on other players having the same default difficulty. When creating your own player you are given the option of Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced. The higher the skill level, the less assistance the player will receive whilst playing. Therefore you have to start all over if you want to move up a notch in difficulty. It’s a shortsighted policy and restricts the game by not allowing it to grow with the user; can you envisage Gran Turismo with three separate games? Imagine all those cars, garages, licenses and parts; things would become impossible to track.
Developing your player and earning cash for those important skill points can be disheartening when the costs increase dramatically. To relieve the work ethic the game includes a series of increasingly difficult challenges, as well as the option to play a favourite course outside of career mode. Success here is not without its own rewards as this in turn unlocks new courses and equipment.
Xbox Live is not the only benefit of being exclusively developed for the Microsoft platform. The hard drive is utilised to provide an uninterrupted experience, as after the initial course is loaded, there are no further delays whilst television coverage, replays or holes appear. The presentation and television coverage is the equal of Electronic Art’s and is flawless, but sports games are about interaction (not passive watching) and sometimes there is too much. Throw in the benefit of playing golf to your favourite music and Gamestyle asks what next for a golfing release?
Control is everything. And with the Xbox controller you are guaranteed the level of control you wish for. Everything in Links 2004 can be tailored to meet your requirements; various types of shots, spin, power, draws and fades are all catered for. The real time swing is implemented with the left analogue stick and is based upon tempo, speed and of course accuracy. Initially unsettling it takes its cue from Mario 64 and builds upon that marvellous control system. Even the usual problem of putting is resolved through a variety of instruments the player can call upon to analyse the green including the camera, which is fully controllable.
Visually each course is simply stunning and comes with extreme attention to detail – even during online play. Nothing has been omitted as trees, luscious environments and shadows only enhance the addictive gameplay. Only the casual observers actually detract from the picture perfect style of visuals; their clunky animation, stocky builds and overriding bad fashion taste detract from the wonder of nature. In comparison, the audio is understated with only the sound effects and crowd samples worthy mentioning.
Links 2004 is another strong addition to the XSN Sports and Xbox Live stable. Golf does suffer from a bad stigma, but here we have a video game here that entertains, challenges and provides a great deal of enjoyment. And at the end of the day that’s what counts.
Gamestyle Score: 8/10