With a distinguished pedigree that goes back well over a decade, Links is one of the oldest and most respected series of computer golf games. Yet Links 2003 does not rest on its laurels -- this simulation is designed to offer classic Links gameplay while bringing new features such as multiplayer matching, a Green Analyzer for improved putting, and high-res three-dimensional golfers.
One of the more major changes in this year's edition is the change from digitized (essentially 2D) characters to 3D polygonal golfers. Not only does this allow in-game golfers to appear more like the athletes in other contemporary sports games, but it also allows the user many more options for customizing the on-screen persona. The ability to also fully customize the comments the golfer makes (and when he or she makes them) should allow dedicated virtual golfers to put themselves in the game like never before.
Multiplayer features are meant to be easy to use, allowing any networked Links 2003 player to start a tournament with friends and family members. A "Match Maker" service helps single players find a game, and the Links Tour has been revamped to offer detailed statistics and lively message boards. As in past editions, a number of pro golfers are included to play as or against, such as Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik, and Annika Sörenstam.
Tiger Woods might be the number one golfer in the world right now (of all time, for that matter), but Links is clearly the champion of computer golf sims. If that title was in doubt recently, especially with EA's rapidly improving Tiger Woods series giving the Microsoft's two-year-old Links 2001 a serious run for its money in the features department, it certainly isn't anymore. With the release of Links 2003, Microsoft re-establishes itself as the long ball hitter on the PC tour.
The new features that stand out the most are Links 2003's new 3D golfer animations and a much overdue "Real-Time Swing" feature. While it's true that both of these elements were readily available in Sierra's PGA Championship Golf over two years ago, it doesn't change the fact that -- when combined with the franchise's unparalleled ball physics, comprehensive online gameplay, entertaining new career mode, powerful "Arnold Palmer Course Designer" utility, and massive library of upgradeable courses dating back to 1997 -- Links 2003 currently blows everything else away on a feature-by-feature basis.
The marvelous new Real-Time Swing completely transforms the game from tee to green. Microsoft's Links team (formerly Access Software) has always maintained that it wouldn't implement such a feature until it was satisfied that it could do it up right and, with Links 2003, it has been honed to near perfection. Although the classic two or three-click swing is still available (as well as the absurdly touchy-feely horizontal powerstroke routine and a single-click easy stroke option for newbies), once you've whacked a few balls down the fairway with your on-screen character mimicking every move you make in real time, you will never go back to that unrealistic clickfest that defined the Links experience in years past.
The actions involved are as natural as breathing. You simply draw back on the mouse to initiate the backswing -- the distance you pull back determines the percentage of power you wish to apply -- and then smoothly push forward to execute the shot. Any deviation from the straight and narrow can result in a hook or a slice and the fudge factor here shrinks considerably at the higher skill levels (the game has four selectable difficulty settings). The speed that your mouse travels has some effect on the shot strength -- albeit not as much as the windup -- and advanced players can even add fades and draws to their shots without the need to resort to a cumbersome popup menu. After a few practice rounds you will be whacking balls down the course and sinking putts with such effortless precision that you will question how you ever played computerized golf any other way. Never before has the real golfing experience been so faithfully recreated on a PC environment.
The 3D player animations are equally impressive. At up to 7500 polygons per character, the computerized golfers look every bit as good as the old digitized players but with the added ability to match the player's every movement in real-time. Links 2003 isn't loaded up with as many star players as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002 -- Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik, David Toms, and Annika Sorenstam are the only pros featured in this version -- but the smooth motion capture animations and extensive golfer customization options still add plenty of variety to the proceedings. As with previous Links versions, you can select from a variety of on-screen personas and clothing styles, and even add in your own custom WAV files to the game's extensive list of prerecorded sound scripts. On the downside, some of the post-shot reaction audio clips don't always jive with the on-screen actions of your golfer and there is no TV-style commentary offered during the game's career mode tournament play.
The absence of commentary notwithstanding, Links 2003's spanking new single-player career mode adds a great deal of replayability to the game. Three pre-installed seasons with varying difficulty levels can be entered -- from "Qualifying School" to pro and semi-pro "Invitationals" -- or you can create your own custom tour.
The extensive graphics overhaul goes well beyond 3D player enhancements. The game engine now supports 512 x 512 textures (double that of Links 2001) which, when combined with the new seam-blending and T&L-enhanced shading effects, dramatically improves the overall look of the game. From the individual rake marks in the sand traps to the realistic-looking tree and vegetation shadows, the visuals in Links 2003 continue to set the standard for PC golfing simulations. In fact, about the only thing that still needs work on the graphics front is the game's decidedly static water renderings, which sorely need to be jazzed up with some convincing splash and wave effects. Perhaps Microsoft should consider sending the Flight Simulator 2002 crew down to Utah to show the Links development team just how that's done.
Six unique courses are bundled with the game -- the Gleneagles Centenary Course, the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, Kauri Cliffs, Cambrian Ridge, The Tribute at Otsego and a fantasy African course on the Skeleton Coast -- but stalwarts will be glad to know that all of their original Links LS CRX course files (dating back to 1997) can be converted over to Links 2003 CRZ format with the game's built-in "Course Converter" utility. More significantly, the title also ships with Arnold Palmer Course Designer 1.5. First introduced in Links 2001, this standalone course architecture program permits you to build your own custom courses with the same tools that were employed by the Links dev team.
Of course, the game wouldn't be a card-carrying member of the Links family if it didn't also boast the most realistic ball physics in the business. Combine this with a new practice course, a nifty "3D Green Analyzer," color-coded "Putting Assistant" and twelve interactive lessons, and even the most challenged of computerized duffers will find something to keep them coming back for more.
EA Sports definitely has a lot of strokes to make up when it releases Tiger Woods 2003 if it has any hope of cutting into the massive lead that Microsoft has just carved out for itself. As for now however, Links 2003 is in a league by itself.
People who downloaded Links 2003 have also downloaded:
Links 2001, Links LS 2000, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Jack Nicklaus 5, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, Links LS 1997, Links 386 CD, British Open Championship Golf
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