The Golden Bear is back, and he's better than ever. Accolade's Jack Nicklaus series hasn't had a new incarnation in almost five years, but in all that time its position as THE leading game for course design has not been supplanted. Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition Courses are still made and traded widely on the Internet, and a bevy of course designers are already using JN4 to crank out more.
JN4 is the work of Accolade and Cinematronics, and it's a fine piece of work with only a couple minor flaws. There are two parts: the gameplay itself and the course designer. The game easily competes with anything out there, while the course designer is in a class of its own. The game is a handsome, full-featured golf sim with all the bells and whistles you could want. The resolution scales up to 1600x1200 in a full 16.7 million colors, with nice, wide vistas on the course. The courses are sharp-looking and second only to Links LS in sheer beauty: quite an accomplishment considering JN4's fast redraw times and need to accommodate a course designer. Water and sky textures are quite good, but unlike the original Nicklaus game, there's no in-screen animation: the price of hi-res.
While there's a viewing window with plenty of height options - from one meter to 30 - you can't keep multiple views open at the same time. An optional ball camera automatically reverses angles to show where the ball lands, but this causes one of JN4's minor hiccups: a three to five second hitch in golf swing animation. With the landing camera turned off, the golfers are animated immediately and smoothly, including Jack himself, whom you can play against but not as. Opponents are recorded rather than AI, which means you get a few canned golfing partners rather than a series of constantly changing opponents.
Play control is quite good, with a three-stage power bar that feels much better than that click-and-release of Links. You aim shots with an aiming arrow, and then adjust trajectory and draw/fade effects with the control and arrow keys. It's all very well implemented with a smooth power bar. Ball dynamics seem pretty good overall, although uphill and downhill lies don't seem to have a lot of effect on a stroke. There are plenty of play and scoring modes, including tournament, skins, match, stroke, bingo bango boingo, and sudden death. Full and smoothly implemented Internet, LAN, and modem play is supported, with up to four people on any connection.
Five courses come with JN4: Colleton River Plantation, Country Club of the South, Muirfield Village, and Cabo del Sol. The most interesting may be Winding Springs, which was created by Nicklaus' own design team expressly for JN4, using the course editor. Talk about your fantasy course! All courses are excellent, and look great with the lush colors and good hazing effects of the game.
Things really come alive in the course editor, which is a fabulous, powerful piece of world-creation software. Wizards help you with routing, distances, and pars if you like, and then you can edit each hole however you want. Holes are edited individually, which means you can't create a large canvass, say a mountain range or lake, and then route a course around it. You need to adjust the water and terrain levels for each hole, and then fit them together. A potent set of tools lets you raise and lower terrain to shape a hole. Terrain types range from sand and rough to fairway, tee, green, and all manner of ground types in between. There are well over a hundred different objects to place on a hole - trees, bushes, rocks, benches, and even sounds - all of them scaleable. The horizon is handled with panoramic images that can be rotated, so they look right when placed on the course. It all comes together spectacularly in a 3-D window that lets you watch as the course takes shape.
There's always the desire for more. Some PCX or BMP importation utility would be nice. A custom object builder like that found in previous JN games. A forest mode would make it possible to slather a hillside with dozens of trees at a time rather than place them one at a time. Elevations are handled rather too simply: You are only able to raise or lower them by increments instead of being able to set a particular height or width. Plus, due to the complexity of these courses, a single course can take up to ten megabytes of space, which will make downloading them tough.
All these criticisms are more in the form of a wish list for future versions than attacks on this one. JN4 is a superb piece of work: powerful, full-featured, gorgeous, and fun. Since it has the ability to bring forward all previous JNSE courses - and there are hundreds of these - it hits the market with more playable course than any competitor. (Cruise some of our links to get an idea.) It will undoubtedly rule its category for some time to come, just like Jack himself ruled the game for thirty years.