Links 2004 Review (Xbox)
For year I fell into a very serious, very arrogant, very pompous gaming category. I was a PC Gamer. Consoles? Yeah right! Good consoles died with the Atari 2600. From my earliest “Oregon Trails” days to “Doom” to “TV Sports Football”, I was a PC exclusive gamer. Over the last five years I’ve learned to love and appreciate console gaming for what it brings to the table, but I still maintain a passion for the PC. I’m always skeptical when a classic PC title makes the jump to console. While some have done it very well, it’s hard to replicate the PC original. When I first heard about LINKS coming to the Xbox, I’ll admit, it wasn’t on my “must buy” list. Console golf, contrary to its real-life counterpart, has never been a passion for me. Now Microsoft was rolling out one of my all-time favorites with Xbox Live and XSN compatibility. I was skeptical, but willing to tee it up.
There are basically four made modes in LINKS 2004: Single Events, Career Mode, Challenge Mode and Multiplayer. We’ll tackle Multiplayer it its own section because it deserves it, but the other three are no slouches themselves. But it all starts with the courses. LINKS 2004 features ten courses out of the box to test even the best duffers out there. PGA favorites like Oakmont, Greywolf, and the old classic itself, St. Andrew’s are featured in LINKS as well as a wonderfully challenging Microsoft designed course called Ocean Mills. Each course presents it own unique set of natural hazards and beautiful renderings. This is one of the best sets of courses I’ve seen in a console golf game.
Once you’ve found the course that you like, you can take a swing in a number of Single Events from a simple Single Player round to a full-blown Skins Game against AI or real-life opponents. There is really no limit to the customization you can make to find a round to your liking. You can even use the Stableford scoring method, which is how most of my real scores look now!
If you’re like me though, you love a good Career Mode. LINKS 2004 has a great one. As you would expect, you start by creating a golfer. You’re given a limited amount of money to buy attribute points and a limited array of equipment that you can use. No, the Create-a-Player is nothing in the ballpark of Tiger Woods Golf, but do you really need to choose your watch and necklace? From there you start trying to work your way up the world rankings while accumulating money to buy more attribute points. Starting at the Rookie Tour and moving towards the Legends Tour, you are faced with Challenges, Tournaments, and Championships at each level. And, what’s the motivation for working your way through Career Mode? Well, that’s the player you can take out into the Virtual world in the world of Xbox Live. The way those two modes work hand in hand make for a great motivation to complete the Career Mode.
However, if you’re up for a different type of challenge, don’t miss the Challenge Mode on LINKS 2004. It’s “Console Crack!” Basically, it’s a skills competition that tests your abilities in all kinds of different shots and situations. As your skills get greater, so does the challenge. The payoff is nothing more than unlocking items, but the mode is well worth the time. This mode, while not mind-blowing on paper, will monopolize a great deal of your time.
All that being said, you can have the nicest road in the world, but it doesn’t mean much if you’re driving a Pinto wagon. That’s why the controls and gameplay engine is so important. This is where LINKS 2004 also shines. Using the left-analog stick system that has become the “in” thing for consoles, this game resembles a real golf swing as well or better than anyone else. The swing system is very rewarding and presents the truest game of golf around. Depending on your difficulty level, you’ll be forced to rely on look, feel and timing to varying degrees. I spent most of my time playing in Advanced mode and I’ve never felt the pressure of real golf like you do with this system. Timing and form are everything. Waiver a little and pay dearly. Forget to factor in the elements or the terrain and you’ll end up in a world of hurt. Sounds like real golf, doesn’t it?
Once you’re on the green, the system is similar, but the challenge grows. The Putting System in LINKS 2004 is the best I’ve seen. While you are learning the game, you’ll consider a 3-putt an accomplishment. Just like real PGA events, Tournaments are won and lost on the greens. Practice makes, well, pretty good. Like real golf, does your putting game ever get perfect?
LINKS 2004 just plain feels like golf. When I first took up golf, shooting a 120 was an accomplishment for me. When I first picked up LINKS, shooting a 120 was an accomplishment for me. It’s the closest to the real thing out there!
I’m going to make a bold statement as it pertains to the online Multiplayer functionality of LINKS 2004. This is, by far, the best use of Xbox Live and XSN that I’ve seen so far. Period. Every match and event style is present in the online world and is presented in a variety of different ways to maximize your online experience. Tournaments can be setup through XSN and the brilliant online module allows you to play your rounds whenever you want with whomever you want (in Stroke play events without cuts) with a comprehensive stat tracking engine.
Single matches can be played against online foes using the slick “Fast Play” options, which allow you to play the course hole-by-hole, simultaneously with your opponent. A colored arc tracking the path that their shots take during that hole will represent your opponent’s shots. This mode allows you to play a full 18-hole match in less than 20 minutes (in most cases).
Another great online feature, although some have expressed their displeasure, is the ability to download new courses for single player and online play. So far, Microsoft has made available two courses; The Kapaluna Plantation, home of the Mercedes Championship, and the Ocean Mills: Director’s Cut. The Plantation is available at a download cost of $5.00, but is, arguably, the best course available. The Director’s Cut is an updated version of the MS Designed Ocean Mill’s course that comes with the game. This is a free download and a bear of a course!
I can’t stress enough how much I am enjoying Multiplayer functionality of this game. Of all the online leagues I have belonged to in my life, the LINKS Championship Tour that I’ve been lucky enough to participate in has been far and away the most fun.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO
Though the PC graphics are a tough act to follow, Links 2004 looks great on the Xbox. The courses really give off the right feel through the combination of colors and terrains. Everything is well detailed with loads of textures and nicely rendered environments. The strange thing I did notice is that the graphics have a sort of hazy look to them. They’re almost a little bit dull, which works on the cloudy days at St. Andrew’s, but sticks out more on a sunny day in Arizona.
While the player models are nicely done, you are very limited in variety. The real pros look and act like their counterparts, but you are seriously limited in your look when creating a golfer.
If there is a weak “link” in LINKS 2004, it has to be the audio. The announce team is really unnecessary and grossly misused. While I applaud their efforts in having four different announcers on the course, their commentary gets repetitive by the time you make the turn in your first round. While they do do some nice things in tournament play, such as reminding you how you did on the same hole in the previous round, all in all the announcing is below par (in a bad way). As it has become common on the Xbox though, LINKS 2004 does offer Custom Soundtrack to spice up your round a little bit. There’s something special about making the walk up 18 with Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” playing (What!?!? They were good!).
When MS acquired Access Software, few people doubted that the LINKS franchise would live on in Xbox form. Well, it has, and it’s the game of golf that a gamer will find on any format. A great, yet somewhat short, Career Mode, a bevy of online features, a fantastic Challenge Mode that will drive you crazy with replay factor, great looks, great courses, and the strongest simulation engine that I’ve seen on a console, will keep this title in your Xbox hours and hours per week. LINKS 2004 is far and away the best XSN title and one of the best sports titles that I have ever played on a console.