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Links 2004 Xbox

Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by Microsoft Game Studios
Released - Out Now
Price : £39.99

For as long as I can remember the golf game of choice on the PC has been Links. Originally developed by Access Software the golf game series has always been famed for it's accurate ball physics and it's attention to detail when it came it it's courses. Of course back in the old days, it was a 2D affair and was dubbed as 'picture postcard' golf because of the flat nature of the games graphics. Microsoft was to acquire Access Software and set about bringing the Links series up to date. By the time Links 2003 arrived the game was completely 3D, golfers and courses, and a mouse swing system that actually worked was included. Now the series makes the move to the Xbox and the mouse swing is replaced by the analogue stick swing. Let's take a look at the game and see how it compares to the venerable PC series.

Moving onto the Xbox is certainly no guarantee of becoming the best gold game on the console. About a month ago we reviewed the latest Tiger Woods game and as a single player game it was excellent. Unlike Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 though Links caters for offline and online play. Links 2004 also has 3 difficulty settings, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Beginner level shows the full power and putting assistance and goes easy on wayward shots. Intermediate doesn't show the recommended power on the swing gauge, punishes wayward swings to a certain extent and offers limited putting assistance. Advanced comes down hard on all accounts, there isn't even a swing gauge to measure the power of your shot. If Tiger Woods 2004 has a fault it's that once you've mastered the game it can become a little easy (although this will take months of play before it would happen) but with Links 2004 having the punishing Advanced difficulty setting it's highly unlikely that the game will ever get too easy. The only caveat here is that once your character is created and you've chosen a difficulty setting you can't go back and alter the difficulty. If you want to move up to Advanced play you'll have to start from scratch with a new character.

The single player game in Links 2004 offers a choice of career play, single round or challenges. A single round can be played either as a single player game or against human opposition. You can pick from 13 different modes of play including stroke, skins, nassau and match. The challenges are various golf situations that will challenge your ability to play well. There are four groups of challenges called copper, silver, gold and platinum. You'll have to do various tasks such as having to make a birdie, hit the ball into a certain location, play against AI opposition to see who hits the ball nearest to the tee etc. If you complete the task you'll be awarded 3 balls. Once you've collected enough balls you will be allowed to access the higher level challenges. Four of the five locked courses can also be unlocked in challenge mode.

The heart of the single player game is the career mode and this is very important, as this is the character you'll be taking online. After you've created your golfer you'll be given $30,000 to buy skill points. Your golfer has four skill categories, power, control, putting and recovery. You begin with no skill points and each one will initially cost you $10,000 to purchase. As you buy more for a category though, the price severely increases. You earn extra money by winning events and performing tasks such as getting a birdie, reaching the green in regulation and performing various streaks (such as doing three one putts in a row). After you've attributed the skill points to your chosen categories, you'll have the chance to take the tutorial. You can skip the tutorial but you earn $40,000 for completing it, which means increased skill points to begin the career mode with. The career mode itself is broken up into five tours. You begin with the Rookie tour and then you'll progress through the Pro, Champion and Medal tours before finally arriving at the Legend tour. Each tour is made up of skill events (which are very similar to the aforementioned challenges but you'll also be able to get hold of special equipment once you've completed certain skill events), tournaments and championship. As you complete events your world ranking will increase and when your rank reaches a specified level, you'll be able to access the next tour. The single player game is very good but it's not as comprehensive as what's on offer in Tiger Woods 2004.

Of course the main attraction with Links 2004 is going to be online play and the game definitely does not disappoint in this department. Links 2004 has full support for the XSN Sports gaming network so you'll be able to set up a stroke or match play tournament for between 4 - 64 people. Xbox Live play certainly is excellent and it's great to see a simultaneous stroke play option where you hit the ball together rather than having to wait your turn . Links also supports system link play for up to 4 players.

None of these features matter a jot of course if the game doesn't feel right but thankfully the controls in Links 2004 are spot on. Microsoft has kept Links real though and there are no gimmicks like being able to make the ball spill whilst in mid-air. As you would expect with a game that's exclusive to Xbox. the controls are perfect. The swing is carried out by the left analogue stick (you can't use the right analogue stick as that's assigned to putting spin on the ball). The triggers change your clubs. Pressing the 'B' button allows you to select you shot type (and they are all here chip, blast, flop etc.). The 'A' button is used to place the camera in the aim and this makes aiming your shot (which is done with the d-pad) all the more easy. The 'X' button is context sensitive and can display the putting camera, top view and show replays depending upon the situation. The control system is wonderfully easy to become accustomed to.

If you're a longstanding player of the PC version you might be wandering if the game feels as realistic as the PC versions. Well I'd say it's about 90% as accurate when playing in advanced mode. Personally I feel that the ball movement on the green is slightly less realistic and I dislike the way you can not turn off the auto-gimme feature. If you play at beginner level the auto-gimmes will occur at 2' feet or less, intermediate is 1' or less and even less on advanced level should they still occur. In Tiger Woods 2004 you could turn them off and it should be that way in Links 2004. For a game that is very accurate (especially for a console golf game) it's crazy that an arcade feature such as this should remain.

Links 2004 definitely has the edge over Tiger Woods 2004 when it comes to the quality of the visuals though. The trees swing in the breeze and the water actually moves unlike the static water in Tiger Woods 2004. You also have a slow motion of your golfers swing when they do a particularly good one but otherwise there isn't anything too jazzy to offend the more conservative Links fan. What you'll notice if you've played Tiger Woods 2004 is just how much more quickly everything loads up. Links 2004 has obviously been optimised for the higher specification Xbox and doesn't have to consider the memory restrictions of the PlayStation 2 or GameCube. The player models and animations look good but I was disappointed with the lack of them. You can't create your own unique golfer either and you're stuck with the default models. The courses look really good but once again the amount of them is poor. Initially there are only four available with a further 5 to unlock. Courses are supposed to be made available as downloadable content in the future but the key question here is will they be charged for them?

Links 2004, like most sports games comes with commentary and also like most sports games this commentary is not subtitled. For the most part this commentary is there to simply add additional atmosphere but there are occasions when some useful advice is given out by the commentators and this is not shown to deaf gamers. The tutorial is not fully subtitled either. The text instructions are sufficient but are only around a half of the information that is actually spoken. Still you will be able to follow what's going on, so it's not all bad news by any means. Communication in Xbox Live games is via speech but if you play with the communicator headset then your opponents will know that you are unable to talk to them. Text chat really needs to be made an option in Xbox Live games in general though and support for a keyboard would definitely be a plus for deaf gamers.

Is Links 2004 the best golf experience on Xbox? Well if you're after both a single and multiplayer experience then the answer is yes. Assessing the single player game and comparing it with Tiger Woods 2004, it's more difficult to give an answer. If you want the game as real as possible then the advanced difficulty setting in Links 2004 wins hands down. If you want longevity and virtually limitless competitions and a wealth of courses then Tiger Woods will suit your needs. After all is said and done they are both excellent games and golf fans should have both titles in their collection. The fact that Links 2004 is the first console version of Links and plays so well speaks volumes for the developers.

Overall Game Rating: 9.1/10
Links 2004 is an absolute cracker of a golf game and sees the top PC golf game make an excellent debut on the Xbox. The single player game isn't as comprehensive as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 but it is more realistic and offers excellent online play too.

Deaf Gamers comment:
The tutorial is not fully subtitled and the commentary is not subtitled at all, but the game is still fine for deaf gamers as all of the important information is shown in text.