Sid Meier's SimGolf is the result of the joint effort of two of the most accomplished PC developers around: Firaxis, the creator of Alpha Centauri and Civilization III, and Maxis, the studio responsible for SimCity and The Sims. So you might expect SimGolf to be an incredibly complex strategy game. It isn't. In fact, you don't have to know anything about Civilization, SimCity, or golf to enjoy it. You don't even need to like golf to enjoy it. SimGolf is actually an extremely accessible strategy game that lets you build your own custom golf resort and create your own custom golf pro at the same time. The better your resort is, the more golfers it will attract, including special golfers who may give you more land or assets to work with. In the meantime, your golfer can improve his or her abilities through practice and can compete in practice rounds, single competition, or full-blown tournaments. The game does have some interface issues and some occasionally show-stopping bugs. But for the most part, you probably won't be thinking too much about any of SimGolf's problems, because you'll be having too much fun.
Starting a new game in SimGolf is extremely easy. All you need to do is choose a course you'd like to build from the game's 16 prebuilt areas, and get to it. If you like, you can also choose different themes for your game, which influences what kind of characters will appear on your courses and how they'll interact with each other. And as you'd expect from an EA/Maxis game with "Sim" in its title, SimGolf will let you install user-made themes and courses that fans will eventually create. You also create your own golf pro and customize the character's appearance and golfing skills, which will determine his or her different stroke types and putting ability. You'll then start in an empty lot and can begin building holes straightaway. You'll eventually create a course that's densely packed with fairways, vegetation, buildings, ornamental structures, and bustling, chatty golfers.
The seemingly simple act of laying down a tee, a hole, and a fairway in between can be as straightforward as laying down a straight line of turf, but it can actually get surprisingly complex. SimGolf lets you create your holes with a green, two kinds of fairways, and lots of different obstacles. You can also raise hills or lower depressions in your course's terrain as you see fit. These options provide you with considerable freedom in making your courses as tough or easy as you want. Well-crafted courses let different golfers with different abilities approach them in different ways, and they also make your golfers happier and more likely to spend money on your country club, so it's in your best interest to make the best courses you can. Fortunately, building courses is remarkably engaging--it's something of a cross between building your town in SimCity and furnishing a home in The Sims. It involves the same kind of planning and the same kind of rewarding payoff when your delighted golfers play through a course as you designed it. Best of all, SimGolf comes with a sandbox mode that lets you build in any of the game's 16 areas with an unlimited amount of money so you can build exactly the course you want, whenever you want.
In addition to building new courses, you're going to want to develop your own golf pro by regularly placing him or her in practice matches and, later on, serious competition. The actual golfing in SimGolf is about as simple as it could possibly get. You choose from a few different types of strokes, and then choose the amount of power you want to put behind your swing using an intuitive targeting system that represents the trajectory of your strokes with a single line. There's just enough strategy in it to keep it true to real golfing, but it's easy enough to use to make it enjoyable for anyone.
What's more, SimGolf lets you develop your golfer's abilities and stroke types using a simple skill system that's reminiscent of a role-playing game. Your golfer has ten different abilities: power hitter, long driver, accurate driver, accurate irons, accurate putter, draw shot, fade shot, backspin shot, recovery, and luck. Having a higher skill level in any of these abilities is better than having a low skill, but you don't need to deal with any of them, because SimGolf will regularly check your skill against the appropriate shot in the appropriate situation. Additionally, if you make an exceptional shot, your golfer's skills may even increase (though your skills can also decrease if you play poorly), so you'll find yourself constantly playing rounds to try to advance your character's abilities. You'll also find that it's usually best to focus on only a few kinds of skills and shots, and, if you so choose, you can then build an entire course that's best suited to your pro's skills. Or not--it's entirely up to you. When you're confident enough in your golfer's skills, you can compete in tournaments for considerable amounts of prize money, which you can then reinvest in your ever-growing course or use to buy a new course in another part of the world.
On first impression, SimGolf doesn't look like much, presumably because it was intended to run on both low-end and top-of-the-line computers. The game is locked at 800x600 resolution, and though its interface and courses are generally colorful, they're rather plain, and the actual golfers who play on the courses are tiny and look crude. Also, since one of the main goals of SimGolf is to continuously build and expand your golf resort, you'll find that as you continue to make additions, your courses will get very cluttered very quickly. Fortunately, SimGolf's default overhead camera view displays a considerable amount of real estate onscreen at a time, and the game has a few keyboard shortcuts that you can use to navigate your courses quickly.
Unfortunately, SimGolf doesn't have quite enough keyboard shortcuts--there's no quick, easy way to skip around to different holes or lock your view on a specific golfer (like your own). Most of SimGolf's keyboard shortcuts are tied to pulling up various menus that are used to change terrain while building or keep you up to date on your course's financial situation. But because SimGolf lets your golf pro participate in exhibitions and tournaments and also has special golfers you'll want to keep track of, you won't be using the menus half as much as you'll be following specific golfers around the course. You'll probably notice that SimGolf's interface looks very similar to that of The Sims, but unfortunately, it inherited the same sluggish camera panning found in Maxis' life-simulator game. You can zoom your view out from the course, but this isn't useful, since you can't actually click on any parts of the map to jump to a different area. About the best you can do is use your mouse to open up the player menu, then click on a golfer to move the camera to him or her. And for some reason, buying items and building your course takes place in real time, rather than in a paused shopping interface, like in The Sims. This means that when you're trying to make last-minute additions to a new course while participating in a competition with your golfer, one errant click may accidentally drive a ball the wrong way or buy a terrain feature you didn't intend to.
As you play SimGolf, you'll also run into a few bugs, in both the interface and in other areas. For instance, whenever your golfer makes an exceptional shot or significant event takes place, you may see a special message appear onscreen, a close-up "SimFoto" snapshot, or both. But sometimes when your course is especially busy, two or more events will happen at the same time, and the messages and photos will overlap and neither will be visible. What's worse, SimGolf has a crash bug that may crash a game if you try to hold a tournament on a course that's too large. In the worst possible case, this can make a painstakingly crafted 18-hole course unplayable.
In contrast to its sometimes cluttered courses and interface, SimGolf's sound is sparse. Most of the time, the game has no music at all--on the courses, you'll just hear ambient outdoors sounds and the cries and shouts of your golfers, who speak the now-famous gibberish language of The Sims. And as with The Sims, SimGolf's "simlish" is expressive and often quite funny, though you may find that the dialogue gets somewhat repetitive after many hours of play. You'll also occasionally hear short clips of The Sims' typically upbeat jazzy music when certain events take place, such as when two golfers with similar personalities hit it off. (If two golfers with compatible personalities end up becoming good friends, you'll actually receive a bonus item for your course.)
SimGolf is an incredibly fun game, despite what may seem like a long list of shortcomings. In fact, it's such an enjoyable game that you probably won't think about most of its problems until long after you've finished playing a session. Which means that you probably won't be thinking about SimGolf's problems for a long, long time. Though the idea of a game about designing golf courses might not seem like much, SimGolf is actually a terrific idea. It streamlines the sport of golf so that you don't have to deal with any of it except the good stuff: hitting the ball and sinking shots. SimGolf's building and design elements are easy to use and surprisingly open-ended. And playing as both a golfer and a course designer simultaneously is so distinctively enjoyable that it's difficult to even take notice of any of the game's problems other than its bugs. Because aside from its problems, SimGolf is colorful, fun, funny, and addictive, and it can be enjoyed by just about anyone.