Just a few years ago, playing a golf sim head-to-head over the Internet was little more than a fantasy. Now there are more ways to do it than there are types of oversized drivers: Microsoft Golf, Links LS 1998, and Jack Nicklaus 4 and 5 can all be played for free over the Net.
So if you can play those games for free, why should you pony up $9.95 a month to play Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour on GameStorm? There are a couple of good reasons that immediately spring to mind - the software is free, and the $9.95 monthly fee gives you unlimited gameplay in a slew of other games. But the most compelling reason is that Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour provides the fastest and smoothest golf action on the Internet, along with a wonderful community of friendly players.
The game uses the Jack Nicklaus 4 engine (which I personally prefer to the JN5 engine), but it's been enhanced specifically for online play. The initial download can be a monster - if you're starting from scratch it's something along the lines of a 38MB file - but the advantages it brings to online play are well worth the time. Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour has been designed so that you don't have to play in "serial" fashion, with each golfer waiting in a cyberline to take his shot; instead, you take your shot at the same time everyone else is taking theirs, and the front-end software arranges the shots in proper sequence.
That might not sound all that impressive, but it makes for some pretty exciting action. The moment your shot has landed you immediately see how your partner or opponents fared, and in less than a minute or two you're addressing the ball again. It also means that a foursome can finish 18 holes in an amazingly short period of time.
And speed is a very good thing if you're in the mood to sample all the courses you can play here. Jack Nicklaus 4 enthusiasts have used that game's excellent course designer to pump out scores of courses (most authentic, but a few fictional), and they're all available for download and play on Online Golf Tour. Grabbing all these would take a long time for players connecting via modem, and naturally there's an issue of disk space as well (I only have five courses on my hard drive and they still take up 37MB of disk space). But you'll figure out which courses get the most play once you've hung out at the clubhouse for a while, and then just keep four or five of the most popular ones if you're pressed for storage.
It's great that all the Jack Nicklaus 4 courses can be played on Online Golf Tour, but it does mean that Jack Nicklaus 4 owners have a distinct advantage: They can practice off-line on all 18 holes of every course, while Online Golf Tour members who don't have the retail version of the game are only able to play the first three holes of each course off-line. (Online Golf Tour is also limited to stroke play, while Jack Nicklaus 4 features standard variations like best ball, scramble, and bingo bango bongo.) It's true you can use the gallery feature to watch someone else playing holes you couldn't online, but that's not much help when you step up to the tee box yourself on a hole you've never played.
The limitation is understandable: If GameStorm allowed non-JN4 owners to play all 18 holes off-line, they'd basically be giving the retail game away free. Still, it does mean that newcomers to the tour can wind up with poor stats because their practice rounds will go into the big Online Golf Tour data bank, which lists the 50 players with the lowest average score (minimum of ten rounds played).
You can sort those top 50 players by a slew of stat categories: rounds played; handicap; averages for putts, birdies, and pars per round; total number of aces, eagles, and double eagles; and length of drives. Unfortunately, there's no way to see which courses these guys played the most. It's a lot more impressive to shoot 10 under at Country Club of the South, for instance, than on the relatively tame English Turn Country Club.
GameStorm places an emphasis on creating a sense of community for all its online games, and Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour is no exception. In its first month or so of competition, all the tournaments have been organized by members, and while there currently aren't any types of prizes, you can at least count on almost always finding some type of tourney going on. And all the members I've chatted with and played against have been friendly and ready to help if I had any questions.
All in all, it's a great PC golfing experience. Aside from minor issues such as download times, disk space, and off-line practice, about the only shortcomings of Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour are the absence of a manual in WordPad or Acrobat format (it's all online in HTML format, which makes it hard to find specific info quickly) and a lack of actual prizes (Mplayer's Links LS 1998 challenge features $5000 in cash and prizes, but it costs between $9.95 and $14.95 to compete, and the Internet Gaming Zone's Golf '98 Tournament of Champions awards two winners with a free trip to San Francisco). As good as Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour is, it would still be nice to see GameStorm step up and offer some types of prizes, even if they're just a putter or tickets to a PGA event.
The good news, of course, is that Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour is an online game, which means it will evolve over time - and with golf action this compelling, it's definitely worth the wait.
Editor's Note: GameSpot content is licensed for republication by GameStorm and appears on the GameStorm web site. This relationship is traffic based, and GameSpot does not derive direct financial benefit from it