A link to the past.
Tennis legend and crybaby John McEnroe recently went on a tirade against the newfangled gear of contemporary pro athletes. He argued that tennis players gain ridiculous advantages using futuristic titanium racquets, which, when coupled with ultra-modern training techniques, lead to uber-jocks who defy the basic logic of the sport. In essence, he claims, they take sports out of the hands of athletes and jeopardize the honest pursuit of record-breaking.
Few want to agree, but the guy has a point. Just witness the lack of classic serve-and-volleyers, or the recent rash of massive home run hitters in baseball, or even the unbelievable play of current pro golfers.
Not to take anything away from Tiger Woods, of course, since the guy is clearly as talented as anyone who has ever picked up a club. In fact, he'll likely obliterate every record in the sport when he's done…if his video game is any indication.
In a few short years, the Tiger Woods golf games have all but erased the memory of the classic Jack Nicklaus of the genre, Links, due in part to the fact that until now it has been a PC-only series. And while its first shot on a console makes the cut, it just can't compete with the new kid on the block.
As a PC product, the Links series was all about authenticity. The folks at Access Software built terrific engine after terrific engine, focusing on depth and realism rather than arcade hi-jinks. Much to the chagrin of my Cal professors (read: hippies with glasses), I spent most of my sophomore year in college glued to Links 386. My GPA sucked, but I averaged a 64 game. Sweet.
The biggest change in its move to the Xbox is obviously in its control, but luckily Links 2004 does a decent job with its take on the analog swing mechanism popularized by you-know-who. The right stick is used to determine draw and fade, a nice touch that gives it some extra oomph and doesn't relegate your entire future to how minutely off you happened to drag back the left stick for the shot. Putting is also handled well with a nifty fading aim indicator and the ability to bring up a grid. You can hit a variety of shot types, from flops to blasts, and things generally feel good.
Too good, in fact. Regardless of the difficulty setting, Links 2004 is oddly forgiving. Within an hour or so you'll be hitting the ball perfectly straight nearly every time and sinking 20 foot putts routinely. While the wind and weather will affect your shots pretty significantly, it's just really not a hard game. The short iron game is especially simple thanks to what can only be a small Leprechaun hiding in your golf bag.
With solid mechanics, though, this is a good golf game. However, it comes nowhere near the depth of Tiger Woods 2004, a point made most obvious in the Career mode.
Compared to Tiger's outlandish player creator, the one in Links feels far too basic. You choose from some preset golfers, including some pros and a bunch of random guys and gals. You cannot tweak the face at all. The clothes come with the player, so don't expect to put your "Mark" model in "Ben's" shirt. You can also select one animation set and the clubs in your bag as well as the manufacturer, but these make no difference aside from looks.
Then off you go, whacking your way through five levels of golf: Rookie, Pro, Champion, Medal and Legend. Each has a number of Skill events and Tournaments; winning these will give you cash and increase your world ranking, eventually opening up the next level. The cash is spent on player skill points in four categories: Power, Control, Putting and Recovery. You do not buy any gear whatsoever.
I guess that saved the folks at Microsoft a pretty penny on licensing fees, but it just makes Links look like Tiger Lite. Considering the wealth of pro gear, clothing and accessories you can earn in Tiger (not to mention the awesome animations and nearly endless array of face types), this game pales like Colin Montgomery after a year in Scotland.
There are other ways to play, of course, including Stroke, Skins, Match and the cool Stableford style, which gives you points based on your bogeys, pars, birdies and eagles. You can play up to four players in any match type. There are only nine courses here (Tiger has 19), though more could theoretically be available for download. Pretty basic stuff, with really none of the extra fancy modes you'll find in that other game.
However, Links 2004 features one big mode that won't be found in any other Xbox golf game – online play. Getting online and swinging against the world is easy and fun and the game is featured as part of the XSN lineup, which allows for sweet tournaments and stat tracking. If you want to play against anyone other than the guy sitting on your couch, Links 2004 is the way to go.
It's also made incredibly quick by way of Links 2004's very fast game engine. Holes load up in a jiffy in every game mode, so you won't be waiting around for the slowpokes in front of you to finish up. The downside to that is that the graphics are fairly basic. Character models aren't very well detailed and the animations are a little fake. While the courses mostly look fine and the game does a nice job with its lighting, some textures look cheap, particularly the sand and rough. The game attempts to add some pizzazz with occasional slow-motion, Matrix style automatic replays of swings, but by and large it won't wow you.
And the sound definitely won't. The announcing team led by Ken Venturi and Jim Nelford is horrible, repeating themselves constantly and sounding totally canned with these awkward undulating tones. "What a…BIRDIE…by…The Man!" That, by the way, was my nickname, which you are forced to choose in Career mode and which they will constantly utter. Stupid observations like "It's important to hit your shot in the fairway on this hole" and "A birdie will help here" makes you want to cram your putter up someone's nose. The crummy guitar rock is, well, crummy, though you can always just rip your own tunes.
Despite this, Links 2004 isn't a bad game. Its online play is unique to the genre on the Xbox and the gameplay itself is decent. But the lack of compelling game modes, the underwhelming Career and the somewhat bland delivery make this old classic just look old. Considering Links is his only competition, Mr. Woods need not worry about winning Player of the Year honors.