Now that the Microsoft Golf series is no longer being developed by Access, it's really beginning to shine. Because Access' contract mandated that the version developed for Microsoft be inferior to the most recent version of Links, previous incarnations of Microsoft Golf were essentially Links Lite for Windows. Since Microsoft switched over to Friendly Software and the engine used for the Greg Norman games for the Golf 98 edition, the series has steadily improved to the point that it has become a real contender in the world of golf games.
Golf 99's improvements are minor, following the current trend among sports games of publishing a new edition every year and only revamping the whole system every couple years. Graphically, not much seems all that different from Golf 98, beyond the golfers themselves. Courses are detailed and finely rendered, though still shy of the quality and detail in Links and Jack Nicklaus. Golfer animations appear smoother, more realistic, and more fluid than ever. The animations are still not synchronized with the mouse control. But in most golf games nowadays, few animations are.
The bigger change is the addition of three excellent new courses: Donald Ross Memorial, Eagle Heights, and Medalist Golf Club. These join Teeth of the Dog, the Links at Casa de Campo, Bay Harbor, and the Preserve 9, for a total of seven courses, which is more than most of the competition is offering. The courses provide a good range of challenges and are offered in sharp detail. Unfortunately, the system is no longer compatible with courses produced for Links, as it used to be, thus limiting new course selection to any future Microsoft add-on discs.
Control is the same as in Golf 98, with four options to choose from: three-click, two-click, mouse-swing, and "sim" modes. The mouse swing is adequately executed, with a wedge-shaped powerbar displaying input strength. It's a little hard to interpret, but it works pretty smoothly and responds to practice. The final mode is a simulation-play option that is unique to Microsoft Golf. Lifted from Greg Norman, it enables you to allot points to different swing characteristics to build a golfer profile. You execute a swing with a single click, which allows you to concentrate on course management over timed clicks. It's not an option most people would choose, but it does radically shift the focus of the game and allows you to experiment with different approaches to a course.
The big changes from the previous edition are supposed to be in multiplayer support and physics. While the former is greatly improved, the latter appears only marginally different. Multiplayer support for single and tournament games is very strong, with competition available via IPX, TCP/IP, direct connect, or the Microsoft Internet Gaming Zone. The Zone, one of the best multiplayer forums out there, provides quick and easy matchmaking and smooth connections.
Ball dynamics don't fare quite as well. Try as I might I couldn't see much improvement in them. Over-striking the ball still yields too little a penalty. You can essentially let it go all the way into the red on the upswing, and most of the time you won't notice any real penalty. Chipping is also supposed to be better, but I found chips from the rough and sand a little too easy, a little too often. That's too bad, since the game has an easy and powerful interface that allows you to set spin and trajectory with a simple click for a more nuanced approach to swings. Microsoft needs to work a little on its balls to bring the system up to par.
The rest of the game is strong, however. There are plenty of options for customizing players, right down to ball type and swing strength. The shot-specific commentary by CBS's David Feherty is good, but his color commentary is hollow and annoying. With the PGA/Tiger Woods series from EA slipping far behind, Microsoft is now clearly the third choice after Links and Nicklaus. Though Golf 99 doesn't feel like a big upgrade from the '98 edition, Microsoft's offer of a $30 rebate to owners of last year's version brings the price right in line. Without the rebate, it would be hard to recommend this one to people who own the '98 edition. For people who didn't buy Golf 98 because they associate the series with earlier, weaker entries, it's well worth a fresh look.