After a long and fruitful 13-year run on the PC, the renowned Links series of golf simulations has arrived on the Xbox in Links 2004. Not too concerned about flashy presentation or crossover appeal, Links 2004 instead focuses on what it's been known for--delivering a mechanically solid game of golf. It's fairly successful in this regard, but the real standout feature in Links 2004 is its online play, as it's the only Xbox golf game to offer such an amenity.
Links offers its own take on the analog swing mechanic that Tiger Woods has been refining for the past few years by offering the same back and forth motion on the left analog stick to dictate the strength and speed of your swing and by using the right analog stick to control ball spin and shot curve. Though the right analog stick generally determines whether there's a draw or fade to your swing, too much horizontal slop on the left analog stick can cause a botched swing and leave you in the rough. Putting works similarly. You're given a blue guideline that gives you a good idea of where the ball will travel, and there's also an optional grid that's supposed to give you a sense of the green's curvature, though the grid is generally tough to read. The controls are tight and responsive, and though there aren't any of the arcadelike mechanics that the Tiger Woods series has become fond of lately, Links makes for a surprisingly easy game of golf--particularly in the short game. There are three levels of difficulty you can play, and each determines the different effects the wind has on the ball, and each determines the presence of various visual aids. Even on the standard difficulty setting, however, don't be surprised if you're hitting the green on a par five in two shots, and don't be alarmed if you're sinking 25-foot eagles.
The offline gameplay modes in Links 2004 aren't as wide-ranging as those in Tiger Woods, but there also aren't any throwaway modes. Everything that's here is a golf essential and is entirely worth playing. Standard stroke, match play, and skins games can be found in the single-round mode, as well as the Nassau game, which is the same as match play except that the front- and back-nine holes are tallied separately. There's also the Stableford game, which is similar to stroke play, except that you're scored on the number of eagle, birdie, par, and bogey shots you make rather than on the actual number of strokes you take. The most interesting options in the single-round mode are the bestball and alt shot variations of the skins, stroke, match, and Nassau games. Both the bestball and alt shot variations are designed for two-player teams. The bestball games feature both players on a team playing a hole; the best of the two players' scores counts for that team's overall round score. The alt shot game has both players taking turns at hitting the same ball. By adding a team component, these modes definitely add a lot to the multiplayer game in Links 2004, thus making the experience seem significantly less isolated.
All the single-round modes can be played with up to four players, and all of these modes are also playable over Xbox Live, which is one of the biggest selling points for Links (especially since EA has stubbornly refused to include Xbox Live support in any of its sports games, including Tiger Woods PGA Tour). If you want online golf on the Xbox, Links 2004 is currently the only game in town to offer it. Bolstering the online component in Links 2004 is the inclusion of XSN support, which allows for private tournaments, stat tracking, and all the other trimmings offered by this Web-based service. There's also support for downloadable content, which will likely translate into new courses sometime in the future. Hopefully this will occur sooner rather than later, as the game only comes with nine courses out of the box--many of which you need to unlock.
If you don't play well with others, Links 2004 also offers a fairly comprehensive career mode. There's no extensive player creation mode in Links, and, instead, you're given a choice of prefabricated players--including a few recognizable golf pros like Sergio Garcia and Mike Weir--and a few different clothing options. Most curiously, you'll also pick a nickname for your golfer, which the commentators will address you as through the course of your career. Not only is this a weird addition, but it's really horribly implemented, so the game definitely would've been better without it. Once you're in, you'll work your way through a series of tours, each of which is composed of a number of skill events where you're charged with performing under very specific conditions. You'll play standard nine- and 18-hole tournaments, in addition to championship games, where you'll face off against one or two of the top players from your current tour. As you win matches, you'll gain access to harder tours, and you'll also earn cash, which can be spent on skill points that help offset both the increasing complexity of the courses and the increasing abilities of the competition. The career mode in Links 2004 is a fun way to string together a series of different matches, but it doesn't give you the strong sense that you're actually working your way up through the ranks of pro golf.
By and large, Links 2004 is a pretty plain-looking game. Golfer models are realistically rendered and feature some smooth motion-captured animations, though the texturing seems rather washed out, and the skin tone looks entirely unnatural. The courses, while well-designed and believable, also suffer from shoddy textures, with the rough often looking especially bad. The lighting provides some clean, well-defined shadows, but the self-shadowing on the golfers themselves is too dark, which just makes it look like the contrast on your TV is way off. The game does occasionally show a little visual flair--like when you're swinging off the tee or putting for the cup--by throwing in some slow-motion, quick multi-angle cuts and throwing in a little bit of The Matrix-style bullet-time effect. This, however, kind of conflicts with the game's otherwise straightlaced take on golf and comes off as a limp imitation of Tiger Wood's slick visual style. For a game developed by Microsoft, specifically for the Xbox, the visuals in Links 2004 just don't shine like they ought to and, instead, come off feeling a bit dated.
The sound design in Links 2004 is the game's most glaring shortcoming, and, at times, it almost seems unfinished. The commentary, headed by PGA great Ken Venturi and backed up by Jim Nelford, Jeff Waters, and Rod Zundel, is a complete mess. Much of the commentary has been noticeably pieced together from isolated sound bites, giving the speech a choppy, unnatural cadence. Though they'll deliver the straight facts about your game, including some nice bits about your aggregate and average performance on the course thus far, the color commentary lacks any insight at all, and painfully obvious comments like "He'll gain a stroke with that birdie." and "That's a nice lie." are commonly heard. The commentators will sometimes mention action on other holes during a tournament, which adds a bit of television broadcast flavor to the proceedings, but the audio on these comments will sometimes simply stop before the commentator finishes his sentence. The ambient course sounds are decent, and the crowd noise feels especially convincing, though the default settings make the crowd a little louder than it should be. Music is used only to bookend holes and can be found in menu screens. It largely consists of rather generic guitar rock. You have the option of using your own custom Xbox soundtracks, but, like any good golf game, Links requires a fair amount of concentration and focus. Too much extra noise can be a bad distraction. Good environmental sound and believable commentary are key factors in creating an immersive golf experience, and Links 2004 falls distinctly short here.
Despite the game's uneven presentation, Links 2004 is still a good choice, especially for Xbox owners to whom online play is of paramount importance. The game is, fundamentally, not much different from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, but it's generally not as polished or feature-rich. If Microsoft can refine some of those rough edges in next year's game, Tiger is going to have some very real competition on its hands.