There’s nothing better on a lazy, sunny afternoon (in the summer time- sorry, had to refer to The Kinks) than a game of golf. Nice and warm, a slight breeze, glorious sunshine, a glass of Pimms. Perfect. Look at the ball, step back. Glance down the fairway towards the flag waving sarcastically in the distance. Glance again at the ball and walk towards it. Lay the club head down, and glance again at the flag, which seems to have got further away. Pick up the club head, swing it a bit over the ball, bend knees, arch the back and shake head. Glance one more at the flag; it’s still waving, and now yelling-
“yoo hoo, over here!”
The club head goes down, one last breathe of warm sunny air is taken in, and you pull the club back, as far as your arms will let you, and swing. Swing for the wife. Swing for club and country. Swing for the Golf Championship Cup sitting proudly on your mantelpiece, which you can boast about to neighbors, family and friends every time they enter the house, Sunday lunch or not.
There’s a hard thud, the club becoming harder to swing halfway through the momentum. Maybe you’ve just hit the tee underneath the ball. Nope. You’ve taken half of Texas from the fairway and launched it into the air, leaving a crater the size of “that one” which ended the lives of the dinosaurs. And the ball has veered off to a 45 degree angle into local woodland, followed by the dying cry of a deer. whoops.
In fact, unless you drive a company car along the lines of Rover or Bentley or own a Rolls Royce, chances are you’re pretty crap at golf. The sportswear consisting of tight tartan trousers at the waist which flare at the ankle, loose wooly jumpers, sparkling shoes and a cap are very appealing; the membership fees to a golf club are not. But for £40 you can swing buckets of turf at a sarcastically waving flag all day, from the comfort of your own armchair, thanks to big bad Microsoft. That’s right- feel as rich as the man behind the company. For £40. Marvelous.
The atmosphere here in Links 2004 is apparent from the moment you enter the disc into the big fat disc tray of the Xbox. A bikini clad waitress wearing furry bunny ears doesn’t step out of the TV screen with a drinks tray and serve you drinks for the duration of the game with a satisfying back rub in between loading times (and let’s be honest here- that would be bloody cool), but the whole laid back colours and lay out of the menu screens is just so relaxing. It’s like the perfect wind down from a hard day at work; playing for half an hour soothes the nerves and puts you into talkative mode with the wife for the rest of the night.
Whether a veteran of the Links series or a newcomer, this ball hitting bonanza of a game will leave its mark on your social life, be it hideous smells emitted from the armpits or the moving out of the wife and children, this is one hell of an experience.
Links 2004 is the first of the series to land on Billy G’s Xbox, and XSN Sports have added a number of improvements over it’s last outing on the PC to ensure that console gamers get a face full. We were ensured that “we’d never seen anything like this before”, regarding the courses, and to be honest I never have! Tiger Woods created some impressive backdrops and surfaces to play on, but with Links the courses and holes look more of a part of a gold club than just an individual hole. You really get the sense that you’re really traveling around a course and not just taking on hole after hole.
There is also, of course, Xbox Live play where you can play against those on your friends list and view rankings and such. I must say that the majority of gamers I played against came from golfing backgrounds, in which they knew all the terminology around the sport but weren’t too upper class to scoff and point out that the ‘hole’ was actually called ‘the pin’. In fact, I even picked up a few nifty little tricks and hints from the people that soundly thrashed me, and others have also agreed that the online lobby of Links 2004 really is homely and warm. Which is the way it should be.
Amongst the added features is a new career mode with over 30 tournaments on 5 different tours to compete in, with prize money to win which you can use to buy extra equipment to boost your stats and chances of winning. Winning games also gives you skill points, again enhancing your character, and the aptly named Skill Events offer a chance to earn extra money and points.
The sound used in Links is top notch stuff; you occasionally be lining up a shot alongside a wood, in which you can hear birds chattering and whistling, and on the odd hole or two you can hear bears growling, and even see them walking alongside the hole. Golf wouldn’t be golf without the hoards of spectators, and whilst most choose to gather around the starting position (or tee-off point) and hole location, the noise generated by them when you just miss a putt by inches, hit an eagle of screw a shot into nearby woodland is generally very realistic, with the odd cough now and again to try and put you off driving. Perhaps the cherry atop of the sound effects cake is the commentary, which features analysis by the legendary Ken Venturi, and has over 1,500 proper names and nicknames so your character isn’t just labeled “Player One”. Whilst playing, the commentators often chatter about the problems or advantages from where your ball currently lies, and these aren’t repeated for a good long while either. It’s at last refreshing to have some commentary in a game which adds to the atmosphere and is at least as helpful as it is charming.
Visually, XSN have almost got Links 2004 spot on. The quote “at one with nature” definitely applies here as each course has the atmosphere of being in the middle of the countryside along with the birds and the tree’s. A bit hippy-ish, I know, but standing there ready to take a shot and just looking in awe at the awesome scenery, the birds flying over and the odd bear now and again passing by is immense. This is brilliant. Perhaps the only let down here is the spectators, who look like extras from a Tony Hawks title, and lack the polish and detail from that of the golfers themselves.
The control system is very familiar to that of Tiger Woods, and who could blame them. The days of hitting buttons to line up various bars never felt inline with the sport, yet the whole activity of swinging an analogue stick backwards (and watching the on screen character do it in real time, too) and then vigorously forwards to ooze every little extra bit of power out of the club is strangely addictive. When stuck in a bunker, for example, gamers are taught to slowly raise the club backwards to about half way, and then stab at the ball by sharply jamming the stick forwards. It’s great to do, it’s great to watch, and it feels right.
All of the advanced techniques of golf such as spinning the ball, drawing and fading are here in a slightly more realistic fashion than that of Tiger Woods, in which you won’t be stopping a ball dead by back spinning it any time soon. In fact, it can be said that spinning the ball only produces the desired effect once your character’s spin control ability has risen considerably, which will anger those at earlier levels, but in terms of undertaking a career with the focus on building up your player to win more and more tournaments, it can only seem fair.
If you have only the slightest interest in golf, Links 2004 is for you. The fact that you can hit a decent round without having to rely considerably on spin or other advanced techniques means that new ‘uns to the sport can almost pick up and play Links, whereas veterans can revel in more realistic gameplay than that of the competition, and feel right at home going after the number one spot on Xbox Live, whilst handing out helpful tips and strategies to people like me.
Nine out of ten