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.
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.