The Jack Nicklaus golf series has been a critical darling since it reemerged several years ago with the superb Jack Nicklaus 4, but that hasn't helped it fly off the shelves any faster. It and its sequel, Jack Nicklaus 5, received rave reviews but flat sales, leaving a cash-strapped Accolade to sell its crown jewel to Activision. The core design team, lead by Jack 4 creator Mike Franco, stayed with the product line when it jumped to Activision, and has created the superlative Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge. Maybe with a fresh start at a new publisher, this game can finally find the audience it richly deserves.
Jack Nicklaus 6 is fundamentally very similar to its predecessors, but improves on it in many important ways. The game follows the pattern of not only offering a cutting-edge golf game with multiple courses, but also a stunningly powerful course editor. This mix makes it far and away the greatest value and most replayable golf game on the market. (Since many stores, like CompUSA, are selling it for only $20, it's even more of a value.) Owners of previous Jack Nicklaus games will see some familiar options and menu items, but once you get in the game, it becomes clear just how much has changed.
Jack Nicklaus 6 is a more streamlined, better-looking game. The minute you see that beautifully rendered fully 3D Nicklaus waggling at the tee, you can tell the visual benchmark has been raised. There are ten meticulously crafted, motion-captured, hardware-accelerated 3D golfers. Their fluid motion and animations look very natural, and they work perfectly in the 2D game world. Terrain is as sharp and photorealistic as Links, with excellent object modeling and amazing terrain effects and sloping. Some small animations, such as divots and flags, help bring the course alive with a minimum of fuss. Hardware acceleration is not mandatory, but it greatly smoothes the terrain and makes the golfers look spectacular. Without it, there is some slight pixelization; and even with it. there are some of the odd smoothing effects that tend to make hardware-accelerated graphics look a touch fuzzy at the edges. But overall, this is one fabulous-looking game.
The main screen and in-game options have been optimized to highlight this natural beauty. There are myriad preset camera angles (low, medium, high, and aerial from different angles) that can be viewed full screen or in moveable windows, including the hole map. You can also move and aim the camera anywhere on the course to create any view you like or set the game up to switch angles automatically. You can set the game up to view that 3D club from a tee's eye view, from the gallery, or from anywhere else, and you can shoot from these angles as well. The putting view is handled in the best manner I've ever seen. Instead of just using the traditional contoured grid, the developers have color-coded the grid so you can read the slope of the green with great accuracy. Add in some new (although repetitive) color commentary from Jim Nantz and Gary McCord as well as great flyovers and audio tips from Nicklaus, and you have a very full audio-visual experience.
All this eye-candy is brought together by excellent club control and physics. You can use two-click, three-click, or dynamic mouse swing interface, and each works just fine. Shots can be shaped very precisely, with the gamer in total control of the amount of fade and draw as well as trajectory. With one notable exception, physics are exemplary. Sand, rough, wind effects, and sidehill lies are all perfect. I did, however, struggle with the putting. Even with clobbering the hell out of my ball, all my putts fell short. I couldn't figure it out. I would even extend the aim line far beyond the cup and not make the second click, maxing out my power, and the ball would still fall short. It feels like a bug.
In a real switch, Jack Nicklaus 6 also incorporates some of the golfer profile elements from the Greg Norman and Microsoft Golf games. When creating your golfer, you can allot points to power, accuracy, bunker, short game, and putting to create a profile that will effect how your computer golfer performs. This doesn't mean good clicking skills are less important, but it does give the golfers more personality and create a more balanced variety of golfers. The only problem with the point allotment element of the golfer profile is that it's tied to the swing type (faster or slower). You get fewer points if you use a slower swing meter, which may stack the deck against novices.
The course designer has remained largely the same as in previous versions: You have complete control over the look and shape of an entire golf course. It's still a hole-based designer, so you must design one hole at a time instead of a course that shares features (like a river or mountain), but it's so damn good this hardly matters. The games ships with six courses, but literally hundreds of user-made courses can be imported with no graphical loss whatsoever. This instantly makes Jack 6 the game with the most courses by a considerable factor. Add in the best, most stable Internet golf play going, and you have the most full and well-rounded golf game on the market. Since you can find it for $20, this is far and away the beast deal in computer gaming.
If you have to buy only one golf game this year, make it Jack Nicklaus 6.