Links 2003 Preview

The next Links game will have 3D golfers and let you make your strokes in real time. Get the details here.

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Computerized golf games may seem like a quiet little hobby for a small group of enthusiasts, but they're actually more popular than you might think. For instance, fans of Microsoft's long-running Links golf series play the game regularly each year and even compete in online tournaments for cash prizes. In fact, the latest Links tournament will take place this summer and culminate in a final round in October that will net the winner a chance to sink a 60-yard putt for a million dollars--a tough shot for a hefty prize. And like many other sports game series, the Links series has tended to expand on previous games, rather than throw everything out and start from scratch each year. At a glance, Links 2003 may look very different, but it will have everything that fans of Microsoft's long-running Links golf series have come to enjoy, plus some new features that should help prolong the series' already successful career and even earn some new fans.

Links 2003 will let you create a custom 3D golfer.
Links 2003 will let you create a custom 3D golfer.

For starters, Links 2003 will look better than previous games in the series, judging from what we've seen from the beta version of the game. The new game will have fully 3D polygonal golfers (rather than the full-motion video golfers) with complete sets of animations--they'll have different swings, different putts, different gestures to express their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at the results of each swing, and even different idle animations. Links 2003's golfers will seem much more lifelike as a result, especially since you'll be able to choose the angle and height of your swing with each stroke, which will cause your golfers to rotate or keep their heads down accordingly. Golfers will also have various sound sets that will play voice samples when making good (or not-so-good) shots, though Links 2003 will also let you import your own photo and voice samples if you prefer. In addition, the game will include four modern-day professional golfers, including Sergio Garcia and Annika Sorenson. You'll also be able to create a custom golfer and change your golfer's appearance--you'll be able to change hats, shirts, pants, hair color, and whether your golfer is right-handed or left-handed.

Links 2003 will also use higher-resolution textures, especially on its six all-new courses (up from a resolution of 256x256 to 512x512). Each course will be carefully modeled after its real-world equivalent, and on some courses, you'll even be able to see individually rendered blades of grass. Links 2003 will also use texture blending to make the different types of terrain on the courses--sand traps, water traps, rough, green, and so on--blend together as they do in real life, rather than be stark patches of white, green, blue, and brown. For instance, the white sand of a bunker will blend into the dark green of the rough. Suffice it to say, a lot of the terrain on the game's courses will look more realistic, overall. Links 2003 will come with a green analyzer that will let you view your course with a grid to measure differences, as well as a full overhead view that will let you quickly check the lie of your course and choose your next club and your next swing accordingly.

You'll be able to control your swing in real time with your mouse.
You'll be able to control your swing in real time with your mouse.

The most notable new feature in Links 2003 will be the new real-time swing, which will let you control your windup and the amount of power and speed for each shot in real time, with your mouse. It may be a bit difficult to control at first, at least compared to the standard Links three-click method, which lets you line up your shot and simply click to choose the power and speed you want to apply to your swing, while the computer handles the actual motion. But according to the developers, actually using the mouse to swing your clubs in a single, smooth motion is much more realistic than a few terse clicks. You'll actually be able to move your mouse right or left to add fade or draw to your swing, and the game will accurately model ball physics accordingly. Still, the three-click swing will be included in the game, and most players will probably prefer to use it for sinking precise shots in competitive play, at least at first.

Online Golf Gets Even Better

You'll be able to play single-player tournaments, or go online.
You'll be able to play single-player tournaments, or go online.

Links 2003 will also have new multiplayer options that should make the game much more interesting and also make it easier to get started. The game will have an improved matchmaking service that will include buddy lists and messaging so that you can quickly contact your friends for an online game. Links 2003 will also have a brand-new e-mail game feature, which will be ideal for players with busy schedules who can't always find the time to meet for an online game. E-mail games will let you e-mail a tournament to your friends, let them play through the courses at their leisure, then e-mail it back to you if you're keeping score. Some Links fans enjoy having bragging rights over their friends, so they'll be able to post their tournament results to their personal Web pages and also brag about their trophy case and winnings in the single-player game.

Links 2003 will have an improved career mode that will take place over three 12-week seasons. For the first week, you'll begin as an amateur who's trying to get into the big leagues at a qualifying school (or "Q-school," as it's commonly known), but later on, depending on your own skill level, you'll be able to choose to join different, more challenging competitions. Each week you'll be presented with three or four different competitions, each on a different course, until you wrap up your career, and these choices will vary each time you play through career mode, so you'll have an excuse to play through more than one career. In addition, you'll be able to create your own custom tournaments and custom courses with the new edition of the Links course editor later this year. You'll also be able to import courses from the previous versions of Links, and for good measure, Microsoft plans to release a course pack (which will contain classic Links courses like Oakmont and Bamf Springs) simultaneously with Links 2003. It's pretty clear that after the game is released, you'll have more than enough courses to choose from, regardless of your skill level.

The putting assistant will help you line up your shot.
The putting assistant will help you line up your shot.

Though longtime fans of the series should have no trouble getting into the newest version of Links, beginners might have at least a little trouble getting used to the new real-time swing, the lengthy career mode, and the new online options. Fortunately, Links 2003 will have a comprehensive series of self-paced lessons--in-game golf tutorials that will help you polish your skills with both the real-time and three-click swing, and with putting, driving, chipping, and aiming as well. When you're playing the game at the amateur skill level, Links 2003 will even activate a putting assistant that will help you line up your shot and also give you a rough estimate of the path of your putt--if the green is sloping in a direction, the putting assistant will indicate where the ball will roll along it. Links 2003 will feature numerous difficulty levels (which can be changed at any time in the single-player game), including amateur, pro, championship, and elite--the higher the difficulty level, the more precise you'll have to be with your shots. Playing an elite tournament using the real-time swing will be especially challenging, since even a small slip of the wrist might make you whiff your next shot.

Links 2003 seems like it will make some interesting improvements on an already solid foundation of realistic golfing and lots of different courses to play. Golf fans of all ages and skill levels will be able to tee off with the next Links game when it's released this September.

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