Whenever a new golf sim is released, the first question on everyone's mind is whether or not it's got the stuff to be rated in the same class as Jack Nicklaus 5 or Links LS Pro 1998. That's admittedly a lofty goal for any developer, considering how long Accolade and Access have been polishing their respective golf sims, but that's just the way it is.
Now, with the arrival of Fox Sports Golf '99, that question is being asked again - and as with every other golf game released in the last six or seven years, the answer is once again in the negative. But the good news is that while Fox Sports Golf '99 doesn't have enough of the features that truly make you feel like you're out on the course, it does deliver its own brand of excitement and challenge that could make it an excellent complement to Links or Jack Nicklaus 5.
Fox Sports Golf '99's shortcomings range from niggling to perplexing. Take the choices available to you when customizing your golfer, for instance. There are no female golfers in Fox Sports Golf '99's lineup, nor do there seem to be any pasty-faces: skin colors range from light to dark brown, and there's only one face on which to slap those four skin tones.
Fox Sports Golf '99 ships with eight courses, but only three - The Oxfordshire, Carnoustie Links, and Kiawah Island Ocean Course - are based on real-life courses. That might sound a little on the chintzy side, but it's really not when you consider the caliber of the real-life courses: Kiawah Island, for instance, was designed by the world-renowned Pete Dye and was the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 1997 World Cup of Golf, while Carnoustie will host the 1999 British Open. Actually, the fictional courses are a real kick to play - the designers stretched their imaginations to provide a wide variety of challenges, from the narrow and unforgiving tree-lined fairways of Orange Rock Golf Course to the wet, windy links of Royal Glen Golf Club.
Fox Sports Golf '99 offers all the usual interface options (two-click, three-click, and mouse swing), and aside from a somewhat ugly swing meter, things work pretty well - until you get on the green, that is. Simply put, the putting interface is one of the most frustrating ever seen. The reason? There's very little difference in the distance on the swing meter for, say, a 50-footer and a 10-footer; in other words, the difficulty of a putt increases as the distance to the hole decreases - the exact opposite of real golf. I always leave gimmes turned off, so you can imagine my surprise when I missed several putts of 20 inches or less because the power meter moved so quickly I wasn't able to time my clicks properly.
With practice, I was able to master putting - until my computer opponent walked in front of my golfer while I was making a putt! Yes, it's amazing but true: Your opponent will walk around, in front of, and behind you as you're focusing on making that crucial putt. Being able to see your opponents is one thing; to have them interfering with your concentration is altogether another, and totally unwelcome.
For the most part, the ball physics in Fox Sports Golf '99 seem about as sound as any golf game: The hole seems to have a little suction action going on that'll drain anything close (don't all golf games?), but aside from that, the only real puzzler is why 99.9 percent of shots that land in a bunker are plugged. Even drives that land in a bunker aren't always plugged in real life, but they are in this game. But at least it does make shooting out of the sand a challenge: If you don't time these shots properly, you might be looking at a shot that traveled only four or five feet.
The same goes for the commentary by Peter Alliss and John Walls. Occasionally you'll be treated to a real zinger, but expect to hear the phrase "That was a competent swing" about two dozen times per round, along with truisms such as "If your shot from the tee is poor, it can cause problems for the rest of the hole." And then there are anomalies like "Just look at that shot - that's safely on the green" after you hit the pole on a chip shot and the ball comes to rest 9 inches from the hole. Most annoying of all, the announcers insist on saying your opponent's name before every shot and after the hole is completed - and if he's in the lead you get to hear it one more time. That means if your opponent's the front-runner, and he bogies a par 5, you'll get to hear his name seven times just on that hole.
The only way you can compete against the "pros" (fictional players) is by getting your handicap to zero in amateur tourneys. Thankfully, these tourneys only last one round, and it only took me four rounds to be able to go up against the real competition. The requirement that you shoot scratch golf takes the place of difficulty levels: Every player sees the power meter move at the same speed and is penalized equally for miscues on power and timing on the downswing.
Regardless of whether you're an amateur or pro, stats are tracked in several categories - but strangely only stats like money winning and holes-in-one are tracked, instead of stuff like greens and holes in regulations and average putts per round. To make matters worse, you have to scroll through a long list of golfers just to view your stats instead of being able to see yours from the get-go.
For gamers using a video card with a 3Dfx chipset, the graphics are simply wonderful: You don't get the photo-realistic details of a Links or Jack Nicklaus 5, but from a distance, the fairways look stunningly lifelike, and the digitized images of mountains and clouds add immensely to the realism. Background objects such as trees swaying slowly in the breeze, hot-air balloons rising into the sky, ducks floating on rippling water - all lend an indescribable air of authenticity to the proceedings, as do ambient sounds such as the mooing of cows.
And what makes Fox Sports Golf '99 even more engrossing is all the types of shots you can attempt. Yes, you can try draws and fades by clicking at the appropriate points on the power meter, but you can also choose from shot types including Low Punch, Long Chip, Long Chip and Run, Bump and Run, Backspin, and many others. In short, Fox Sports Golf '99 gives you the highest degree of control over your shot type that I've seen in a golf sim.
Fox Sports Golf '99 supports all the usual multiplayer modes - network, serial, or modem play - but I can't begin to comment on how well any of them work: The game bombed on me every time I tried to launch a multiplayer game. It doesn't speak highly of Fox Sports' technical support crew that a full week after e-mailing them with complete details on the error (including specific messages and exact system configuration) I hadn't heard back from anyone - and I wasn't going to make a long-distance call over something that could have been handled adequately via e-mail.
If you've only got the inclination or hard-drive space to have one golf sim on your PC, Fox Sports Golf '99 isn't the best choice. But if you're looking for an addictive golfing sim that looks and plays unlike any other, it's definitely worth a look. At the very least, Gremlin Interactive should be lauded for an extremely fine first effort at breaking into one of the toughest genres in PC gaming.