Apparently all the commotion over the antitrust lawsuit kept some of Microsoft's packaging staff from staying completely focused on their jobs the last couple of months. How else do you explain seeing a box that says "Links LS 2000" on the outside, but has Links LS 1999 on the inside?
OK, I'll admit I might be exaggerating. Just so I don't get sued, I'll say this up front: Links LS 2000 is indeed a different game from its predecessor. But its additional features are so unimpressive both in quantity and quality that there's simply not much reason for owners of the previous version to get excited. In fact, Links LS 2000 feels more like an add-on course bundle than anything else, though five courses for around $40 (after the rebate) is admittedly a pretty good deal.
Two of the five new courses are from St. Andrews, the New and Jubilee Courses (the Old Course was already available to Links LS owners). The other three include two from Hawaii (Hapuna and Mauna Kea) and Covered Bridge in Indiana. Though the three locations are definitely unique in appearance and in the challenges they offer, this variety can't quite match PGA Championship Golf's array of eight courses. Furthermore, the LS 2000 graphics engine looks to be the spitting image of LS 1999 (which was an awful lot like 1998); about the only major difference is an option that lets you choose a "skyscape" - which basically means you can set how cloudy it is when you play.
Of course, the graphics in the Links LS series have usually been highly regarded by fans, so it's not that much of a slam to say things haven't changed between this version and the one before. But compared with the beautifully rendered 3D landscapes of PGA Championship Golf or Jack Nicklaus 6, the digitized images of LS 2000 are starting to look dated even at a high resolution. There's just not much sense of depth when you're standing at the tee looking down the fairway - it simply looks like a photo and doesn't feel like a golf course.
Aside from the courses, about the only other additions as far as offline play goes are a scant four additional golfer animations and commentary from CBS golf analyst David Feherty and CBS sports announcer Craig Bolerjack. The golfer animations are fine - Fuzzy Zoeller's one of the new computer players, replacing Arnold Palmer as "king of the impossible birdie putts" - but the commentary is a different matter altogether. At first, I wondered why Microsoft chose to not make the sound script with the two broadcasters' dialogue the default choice for both tourneys and single games. But after hearing the so-called commentary - complete with huge gaps of silence followed by failed attempts at humor or insipid post-shot observations - it's not surprising that it's buried in the game's labyrinthine setup menus. Someone let me know when a golf game gets audio analysis right.
New players will appreciate the inclusion of a nice set of tutorials explaining all aspects of gameplay - and hopefully they'll learn enough to avoid the temptation to use the new one-click shot type. Five new modes of play have been added, including Fuzzy Zoeller's Wolf Challenge, but since LS 1999 let you design your own custom modes of play, this seems like more of an afterthought than anything else.
LS 2000's most important change is in the game's new multiplayer support options: Now you will be able to compete on the MSN Gaming Zone, as well as compete in the Links LS Online tour. This should be welcome news for any Links fan who didn't care for the heavy ad content on Mplayer, home to Links LS '98 and '99 ('99 is also supported on the Microsoft Gaming Zone), and there's usually no scarcity of opponents even for quick, casual games. But performance might be an issue for less patient gamers: Unlike the impressive speed of play in the Jack Nicklaus Online Golf Tour (thanks to all players shooting simultaneously in real time), Links LS 2000 can suffer from considerable delays as you and your opponent pick clubs and set up shots. But it's definitely a great experience when things are going smoothly, and the LS Online Tour has tons of online tournaments open to every skill class.
Links LS 2000 naturally has everything that has made this the best-selling golf sim series ever: great physics, offline tournaments, in-depth shot-customization options, and an existing library of more than two dozen of the world's most renowned courses. In short, this is probably the version of Links LS you should buy, provided you don't already own a recent version. But thanks to games like Jack Nicklaus 6 and PGA Championship Golf, the days of simply assuming the latest iteration of Links is the best golf sim around are long gone - especially if the series doesn't begin to evolve more quickly than it has in the past couple of installments.