Before I realized how much skill golf requires, I ranked it right up there with cricket and bowling as one of the most unexciting spectator sports ever (OK, so cricket and bowling take some skill, too). But instead of just resigning myself to avoiding golf whenever it came on TV, I dreamed up ways to make it more exciting. One of my favorites was for golfers to act like pro wrestlers, with lots of smack-talk and face-to-face confrontations so we'd have good guys to cheer for and bad guys to root against. I also thought things would be a lot more interesting if golfers had to jog between holes (a wrinkle that's now the basis of the International Speed Golf Association). I kept coming up with new twists - souped-up golf carts and rally-style cart paths, eliminating out-of-bounds markers and letting players get to each hole any way they like, adding an option to throw the ball onto the green instead of chipping - and regaling my friends with my plans to bring golf down to a whole new level.
So you can understand why I was pretty intrigued by Links Extreme, which lets you play with either explosive balls of varying strength or a set of "prank" balls you can use for your own shot or to ruin your opponent's score. After a few rounds with this novelty game, though, I quickly realized that what sounds hilarious over a couple of brews at the 19th Hole Lounge isn't necessarily such a laugh riot in practice.
The problem with Links Extreme isn't that the concept isn't good or that the game couldn't have been fun, it's that Access and Microsoft took a good idea and ran all of about ten yards with it. Take the golf venues, for instance. With only 27 holes to play - 18 at the fictional voodoo-drenched tropical island of Mojo Bay, and a measly nine at the WWI-battlefield course Dimension X - it takes just a few rounds to see just about everything here. Actually, that's not quite true: If you look closely, you'll see all kinds of nifty animations, like zombies plodding across the fairway with outstretched arms at Mojo Bay and swooping biplanes and bombed-out buildings on the Dimension X course. But because there's no option to walk the course, the only way to get a close-up view is to whack your ball toward 'em - not exactly the most inviting way to savor these little Easter eggs.
Then there are the balls. The exploding ones are fine and dandy by me, but the addition of "prank" balls is a little more dubious. I don't have a problem with the ones that you use to improve your own shots, like the tee ball (any lie becomes a tee shot), the slam-dunk putt (ball bounces and plops into hole), the distance limiter (travels only as far as distance marker), or the rocket ball (you can blast it over 400 yards). The balls actually add some nice twists: You can blast through trees or land on water to turn a nightmare hole into an easy birdie or even an eagle. But the ones you use on your opponents seem sort of gratuitous, because hitting a decent shot (you click when the power meter is between two blue markers) nullifies the prank. The only players who'll have to endure these bedeviling tricks are ones who can't hit a good shot in the first place.
Oh wait - I almost forgot to mention the Demolition Driving Range, where you hit those exploding balls at targets moving at various speeds across the range. The reason I almost skipped over it, though, is that it's fun for all of about five minutes - and you can't even compete against another opponent for a high score to make things even marginally more interesting.
The one area where Links Extreme could shine is in its multiplayer game - in fact, it's the only way to use the prank balls. But in my numerous visits to Microsoft's Gaming Zone, I found zero players to compete against.
Like earlier entries in the Links series, Links Extreme features 2- or 3-click swing types and a power stroke that lets you slide your mouse to determine shot strength. But in keeping with the focus on action rather than pure golf realism, you'll also find a kwik swing - aim and click once, and the ball always goes straight (this is only available on the Demolition Driving Range). And totally inept players will appreciate the amateur swing: click, hold, and release the mouse button, and the ball heads dead-on to the aiming marker; and the power of the shot is determined by where you placed the marker.
Being a long-time Links veteran, I opted for the 3-click swing - but for some reason I found my accuracy dropped off pretty drastically compared to my performance in normal Links games. Putting was especially irksome for me - I found myself continually coming up short on relatively easy putts - but I also had unexpected trouble with simple tee and fairway shots, too. But that's definitely a subjective complaint, one definitely overshadowed by more overarching problems.
The shame is that there are all sorts of little things Access and Microsoft could have tossed into this half-baked mix to give it more of a kick. Mustard-gas balls, an option to lay barbed wire behind you, or even a sniper gun (using it would cost a stroke) would be cool on the WWI course; at Mojo Bay, the zombies and crocs should make off with your ball, and I would have loved to have had a doll I could prick with needles to torture my opponent. But these suggestions bring up the dilemma facing the developers of Links Extreme: Make it too extreme, and you run the risk of irritating your primary, golf-buying consumer base. Make it too cutesy, and the action gamers you hoped to coax into trying a golf game will laugh you out of town. The end result is that Links Extreme tries much too hard to stay squarely in the middle of the road - and winds up going nowhere fast.