Since its debut in 1996, each installment in the Links LS series has featured upgrades of one sort or another: higher-resolution graphics, better support for online play, more realistic environments, and the occasional addition of a PGA pro like Davis Love III or Fuzzy Zoeller to accompany Arnold Palmer. But last year's edition, Links LS 2000, was so bereft of new features that few players paid it much attention. What's more, the arrival of Sierra's excellent PGA Championship Golf 2000 - created by some of the same people who worked at Access Software when it created the original Links 386 and Links LS - did even more to steal Links 2000's thunder.
The reason for the paucity of improvements was an open secret in the golf-sim community. Microsoft was busy at work on Links 2001, which would be the first overhaul of the Links game engine since Links LS replaced Links 386. Along with much-improved graphics, Links 2001 was expected to finally deliver what fans of the series had demanded for years - namely, a course designer, which would finally let users create their own courses to trade online.
However, now that Links 2001 is finally here, the old saw about being careful what you wish for because you just might get it will spring to a few players' minds. Both the course designer and new graphics engine are undeniably significant and welcome enhancements to the series, but they do have a price. Links LS fans who've accumulated shelves full of add-on courses over the years will be decidedly unhappy to learn that these can't be used with Links 2001, at least not with the shipping version of the game. But Microsoft says that it will be releasing a converter by the end of the year that will let you import your old Links LS - and even Links 386 - courses.
It's not like there aren't some nice venues featured in the game itself. In fact, there are some real beauties available. The Prince course at Princeville Resort (featured in PGA Championship Golf) and Chateau Whistler are the work of the legendary Robert Trent Jones, Jr.; Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay codesigned Aviara, which is enhanced with an abundance of colorful flora; and Fred Couples not only designed but also owns Westfields Golf Club. The Old Course at St. Andrews rounds out the collection of authentic courses in Links 2001.
A wild, rocky course named Mesa Roja has also been included and was apparently designed to show off the power of the game's new rendering engine: High buttes and plateaus loom ominously along most of the fairways and around the greens of this desert course, so much so that at times you might feel as if you should be playing Ground Control or Battlezone instead of golf. Of the real-life courses, Chateau Whistler is perhaps the most impressive; the lush greenery of the surrounding mountains make for incredible vistas, and the undulating greens and narrow fairways combined with gusty breezes can make for some serious challenges.
As for how those courses created using the included Arnold Palmer course designer will look and play: If difficulty of use is directly related to how powerful a designing program is, then this course designer should be able to produce some masterpieces. The Arnold Palmer course designer has a bewildering online help system that offers little guidance in determining basic hole and course parameters. After mucking about with it for a few hours, you might just decide you'd rather be golfing. By comparison, the Course Architect Wizard in PGA Championship Golf can walk beginners through the somewhat daunting task of designing their very first holes.
On the upside, there's a "checklist" feature in the designer that indicates all the steps you'll have to take to mold your creation to perfection. There's also a huge number of 2D and 3D objects available to work with right out of the box. What's more, the course designer even lets you import your own images to be used in course creation. The only question is how accurately users will be able to re-create real-life links: The official Links 2001 courses used more than 500 global positioning satellite points per green to make them very lifelike.
Though the graphics in the last couple of Links LS games looked quite good, they didn't show very much improvement over those in previous Links games. The same certainly can't be said of Links 2001. If you have a decent 3D card, you're likely to be shocked at just how much the look of the game has improved since the last version. Character details such as creases on pants or watchbands on wrists will catch your eye, but those aren't so inspiring because they're merely digitized video footage. What is impressive is how well the new graphics engine handles objects such as trees and plants even when you find yourself right next to them. Lips of bunkers are discernable (and can often come into play), and the background scenery no longer looks flat. Whatever else can be said about Links 2001, there can be no question that it's the best-looking golf sim available for the PC.
It also plays very well, though not all that differently from the LS games. One area that's improved is the interface, which has been streamlined considerably for smoother navigation (especially in multiplayer games). There are now 14 golfer models to choose from, including pros Sergio Garcia and Annika Sorenstam (and of course Arnold Palmer); while they all look great, you can no longer change the color of their shirts, unfortunately. But just as in the LS line, you can tweak the strength of any computer player in categories such as tee shots, putting, and aggressiveness, and you can set up offline tours against up to 63 computer opponents.
Each of the players makes wry comments when things go right or wrong. You might actually grin the first time you hear one of them say, "Good shot - you can open your eyes now," when you peg a fairway shot near the flag, or when you hear your own character chant, "Fun, fun, fun - I'm a Beach Boy!" when you hit a sand trap. But it gets old pretty fast, and there's no type of announcer commentary like in PGA Championship Golf 2000. Perhaps what's most embarrassing are the remarks of Garcia and Sorenstam. When you hear Sergio mumble, "Come on Sergio, you can't miss this opportunity," after missing a putt, you'd swear he was recorded with a mouthful of tees, and most of the time Annika sounds like a robot. You can't really blame them - they're professional golfers, not professional voice actors - but it's hard not to notice how stiff they sound.
Out on the links, you'll find that few changes have been made to the play mechanics. Besides the traditional two- or three-click swing gauges, the powerstroke-swing mode returns more or less intact. Like the truestroke mode in PGA Championship Golf, the powerstroke simulates a golf swing by having you left-click and move the mouse horizontally right and left (or vice versa for lefties). Unlike truestroke, you release the left mouse button at a certain point to simulate the wrist snap to determine whether you hit a straight shot, a draw, or a fade.
I had little problem with the mouse-button release, but I never really got used to how fast to move the mouse. Despite numerous adjustments to mouse sensitivity, the powerstroke never seemed as intuitive as truestroke, probably because the onscreen golfer doesn't move in real time to reflect the mouse movement - the golfer moves only after you execute the shot. To its credit, the powerstroke display does feature a diagram outlining the mouse movement and button release of each shot, but after countless mulligans I eventually went back to the standard swing gauge - it was the only way to stay competitive and have fun.
In addition, putting is considerably more challenging in Links 2001 than it used to be. But while putting may have been a bit too easy in earlier games, there's one change to the putting that's unwelcome: It's actually harder to hit four-footers than ten-footers (at least with the classic-swing mode) because you have so little of the gauge to work with.
Links' modes-of-play editor has allowed the series to always outstrip the competition in sheer volume of game types, and the 2001 edition takes this to new heights: There are 46 modes of play available out of the box, and there's an editor to let you create even more. At first some modes seemed too bizarre to be enjoyable - like being forced to hit out of bounds on your first shot or being limited to only six clubs - but they can actually make for a nice change of pace from standard stroke, match, skins, or team-play modes.
Links LS has developed a loyal fan base on the Microsoft Gaming Zone, and naturally Microsoft wants to support the new installment in a big way. Namely, the Virtual Golf Association Tour 2001 is in the works, which will let players compete for cash in online events. It wasn't online as of press time, and, after playing several matches on the Zone, the reason for this seemed clear: Some tweaking still needs to be done to speed up online play. Waits between shots seemed to take forever even when all opponents had reasonable ping times, which probably inspired the "fast play" feature for online games: Instead of seeing your opponent's onscreen persona take his or her shot, you simply view the ball's flight from an overhead perspective. Even so, not too many players seemed willing to accept this perspective for faster play.
When all is said and done, the one thing that PC golfers will want to know isn't whether Links 2001 is better than its predecessors, but whether it's better than PGA Championship Golf 2000. While Links 2001 isn't sufficiently superior enough to pull anyone away from PGA Championship Golf, it'll definitely please Links fans, especially once the promised course-converter becomes available.