Links 2003 Review
By Michael Richter |
You know it. It's what more sophisticated friends and relatives play and discuss at Thanksgiving in those conversations and trips you're either first in line for or last asked to be a part of. It's what confounds, bores, or engrosses you. It's golf. It's the sport of kings and guys who wear apparel so absurd that even they snicker at themselves and lower their heads in shame when normal people pass.
Microsoft and EA have for some time been busy battling one another in vies to craft the definitive effort -- that one golf game to find them all and in the darkness bind them. EA's poster boy, Tiger, may be young, successful and virile (thank you for your expert analyses on that last one, Dan), but Microsoft's Links is the established PC veteran here. Like all old folks, it's also the one slowest to change. Can tradition beat youth? Well, both have ups and downs, so the fight rages on.
Pure simulation play is Links' motto. It puts physics and a desire to cater to the hardcore above all else. Strangely, in keeping it real, it seems the development team has neglected to keep it real. Like a hundred golf games of days long past, Links plays out on a static environment. Links looks bad. Links looks good.
The problem: everything except for you, the ball, and the terribly modeled and textured flag is completely static. It's like playing in an episode of the Twilight Zone where nothing is alive -- where you're running around some kind thousand foot tall alien girl's dollhouse. No? Well it's a crappy virtual reality machine powered by blue light and magic that, according to Hollywood, people apparently used in the early 90's to simulate what real computing was like. No? Then it's surely like watching a poorly done cartoon where everything in the background is a different tone and color from that one moving character, who, however fluid, seems completely out of place. Pick one. The shadows that drape from players and conform to the environment are all that keep it together.
Having static environments means having rendering pauses, oddly enough. Even tapping your ball a clean inch will initiate another rendering change. The same goes for rotating a player and opening an extra map (such as the tee map). If an older, abused, and antiquated machine powers your pastime, the underachieving RAM and horribly fragmented hard drive you sport will surely slow things down, considerably.
A clean mesh between texture sets keeps the courses seamless and higher resolution graphics keep them clean and crisp, but no flying birds, moving clouds, drizzling rain, dynamic lighting, water that waves, galleries that clap, or caddies that move will disappoint, a lot.
Jesper and his cohorts fair much better. They have been spared an awkward FMV return and now emerge as fully polygonal models. The switch was a correct one. They all move very, very well and no longer exhibit the more nasty traits of their fully motioned and filmed counterparts, a technique the Links team has long been masters of mastering. Things like slopes aren't deathtraps. Water can't be walked on. Players can't levitate. Even though they aren't nearly as detailed as Tiger's, you'll never know it because they stay at fixed distances from the camera. The date that looks good from a far is always pretty if you never let him/her get close.
Starkly contrasting the dull and eerily still Night of the Comet environments (naturally minus the "freaked out zombies" Chakotay spoke of), player animation is blessedly smooth. Why Jesper, you move so sexily. Surprising how that's still an issue in games, huh? I'm not just speaking of the many mo-capped idle animations either, but also swings, Real Time Swings, read: Microsoft does EA's TrueSwing which Sierra actually did a long time ago).
It's vital that players look good when stepping up to bat to punt that field goal. A problem I had with Tiger 2002 was the unresponsive animations of the players. Blasting one down field for a touchdown wouldn't feel right at times because youthful Tiger struggled to keep up with the movements and deliver a smooth swing. EA seems to have remedied this problem in this year's outing, their second attempt, but Links gets it right the first time out.
Whatever the motion of Jesper's ball-clubbing ocean, the Real Time Swing stays fluid and fresh, keeping movement responsive believable. Above Tiger, it also adds a little left and right sway to the mix. Moving the mouse back and then forward approximates a swing because speed, fluidity and direction are all translated by the computer and applied to the player's form and club. Tiger relied on forward and back play. In this game, however, keeping the mouse straight is of vital importance, because it will ruin your swing if you do not.