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Links LS 99 (PC) Review

Publisher: Access Software

Background Info

Among PC video game series, perhaps none is as venerable as that of Links, by Access. Year in and year out it has proven itself the most respected and popular golf simulation series. Furthermore, each edition has actually bettered the previous - something that cannot be said for all sports gaming series. With its combination of stunning graphics, superb playability and outstanding ball physics it has thrilled those of us who play and enjoy the "IRL" ("In Real Life" for those newbies among us) game. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that it has turned many non-golfers onto the game so that they, too, will take the step beyond the PC to the real landscapes of the game.

Presentation/Graphics : 96
First, the bad news - if it can be called that. Access has not produced Links LS '99 as a 3-D compatible game, and this fact will no doubt disappoint those who were looking for this option in the series' latest manifestation. Also, it does not have a course design mode - an option which has been clamored for, especially since rival Jack Nicklaus 5 arrived late last year with its latest - and excellent - incarnation of this feature.

How can Links LS '99 survive and thrive without such additions, you ask? It does it by the sheer brilliance of what it does utilize. Although it maintains the 2D world of its predecessors, it has taken its prior screen resolutions of up to 1800 x 1440 and its claim of 16.7 million colors a to another level by adding 3D objects to improve realism. Also, Access has created a "Tournament Environment" which allows players to add galleries even when playing in non-tournament modes. Try intentionally aiming your tee shot on the famous 17th or "Road Hole" at St. Andrew's at the hotel that separates you and the fairway and you'll see how combining a 3D object and Links '99 impeccable ball physics combine for unprecedented realism. Other courses similarly utilize this 3D rendering for surrounding clubhouses, homes, etc. In theory it sounds like this combination of graphics (e.g.- a 3D St. Andrew's clubhouse and a 2D, albeit wonderfully rendered, 18th hole) would appear awkward, but it works very well.

The gallery members appear in 2D but are realistically interspersed among the fairways and green complexes and add a dimension to the game I have not experienced since playing British Open Championship Golf. Their "density" or very appearance on the course can be controlled, so don't worry about having to tee-up for the first time in front of a US Open-sized crowd! It will be interesting to see what decisions Access will make with regards to 3D and the next version of the game. All other golf sims seem to be embracing the technology. At this point, however, the 2D rendering of the courses is so advanced that, in combination with gameplay, the results can be jaw-dropping. Play a round at the Banff Springs course to see what I mean. I have yet to see a 3D rendered course from another game match the beauty and visual splendor of this gem from the Great White North.

Presentation/Audio : 97
Links has always, in my opinion, provided the most realistic audio of all the PC golf sims on the market. While other games seem to provide WAV files that are "pre-cued" to a certain shot or situation, Links provides a seemingly continuous array of natural, ambient noises (such as birds, wind, etc.) along with golf related ones (crowd cheering, flapping of the flag, etc.) Links LS '99 is no exception. If anything, the smorgasbord of sounds are woven together more seamlessly than ever before. And the visual addition of the galleries combines with the crowd noises to bring a new excitement to tournament modes of play. Yes, there are still the stilted comments from unseen "playing partners" when playing a round "alone," but, come to think of it, my real life partners usually aren't much more witty with their sayings. Sorry, guys!

The "new toy" in the sound arsenal for the '99 version is what Access calls its "expanded sound script editor." This allows players to edit and cue sound noises and to add their own comments in the forms of WAV files. I can think of a few "Happy Gilmore-isms" I'd like to add to be played when I miss a six foot putt.....

Interface/Options : 92
Access continues to utilize basically the same interface and game set-up screens that we saw in Links LS '98 and I find them relatively quick and easy to manage. The options are clear and can be quickly comprehended without reference to the game manual.

Links LS '99 does change the interface during actual gameplay, however. Gone is the '98 option of dragging to the bottom of the screen to bring up what I liked to call the "golf dashboard" with its various icons for club selection, alternate camera views, etc. This has been replaced by six pop-up menus that use more "plain English" than icons.

Personally, I find the new set-up an improvement for my gameplay, but it ultimately comes down to the personal preference of a word vs. a visual. The two pop-ups at the left-hand side of the screen will look familiar as they are the "Slope/Lie/Wind" indicator and "Rotate View" control, respectively.

Gameplay : 97
What does any of this mean - graphics, interface, etc. - without realistic gameplay? The difference between a poor, mediocre or great game, in my opinion. And once again Access has outdone itself by, quite simply, improving on what is already the best gameplay in the PC golf sim world.

First, for the "uninitiated", let me state that the ball physics in Links LS '99 are unequivocally the most realistic out there. For those of you "picking up the game" via Links LS '99, just ask a friend who has played the sim and the "IRL" game. The ball's bounces, rolls, reactions to wind and terrain are incredibly lifelike. The newest version of the series continues where its predecessors left off.

The two new exciting options Access has added are the improved "Tournament Environment" and the "MOP" ("Modes of Play") feature. Links LS '98 did bring us the capability of offline tournament play, but without a physical crowd present it was...well, like watching a tournament on a weekday afternoon at your local municipal course. No one was there! With the addition of the aforementioned galleries, tournament play (on or offline) finally reaches the level of excitement set by British Open Championship Golf. It allows the PC golf sim player whose real-life handicap is higher than he/she would like to admit to experience the thrill of a birdie in front of hundreds - or even thousands of appreciative spectators.

Golf is similar to playing cards in that both games offer players literally dozens of variations in play and scoring. Links LS 99's "Modes of Play" feature brings this facet of the game to life. Instead of the limited gameplay options of stroke, match, best ball, scramble, skins, etc., the '99 edition gives us over 30 stock modes of play (among them "The Happy Golfer" and "Putt or Die!"). It also allows the enterprising and creative linksman to create new modes of play and share them online!

Another major change to gameplay in Links LS '99 is the addition of two new swing options to complement the "traditional" 2-click swing: the 3-click swing and the trademarked "PowerStroke".

Let me first say that I am a 3-clicker from the old days of EA's games for the Sega Genesis system. One of the most frustrating aspects of playing previous versions of Links for me was starting up a round after playing on other golf sims - all of which employed the 3-click swing method. It made for a difficult adjustment and frankly, I didn't like it, finding it the one weak link in an otherwise astonishing game.

Links LS '99 3-click swing is just how I prefer it - more or less forgiving depending on the chosen difficulty level - otherwise, always dependent on the almighty "snap" for pinpoint accuracy.

The "PowerStroke" option is by far the most difficult of the three options. It utilizes a click to initiate the swing, a left-to-right mouse movement for the backswing, and a right-to-left movement for the downswing - with a final click required upon ball impact. Whew! Needless to say, this is the most difficult swing option. But as such, it perhaps best simulates the idiosyncrasies of a real golf swing. And it is definitely the most challenging of the various "mouse swing" modes that other PC golf sims have rolled out.

Finally, we come to the golf courses themselves. As a golf course architecture enthusiast let me say that the choice of new courses shipped with Links LS '99 is an interesting mix. We get two renderings of Arnold Palmer's Latrobe (Summer and Fall), and one of his Bay Club Course (a resort course in Florida which is Arnie's winter home). For some Western American flavor, Entrada at Snow Canyon (a Johnny Miller design) is thrown in, with colorful mesas and buttes providing a great background to an otherwise average course.

And then, of course, we get St. Andrew's Links - the "Old" course. Links may be the most venerable of the PC golf gaming series, but St. Andrew's is the most venerable and revered course in the world - bar none. It has inspired generations of golfers, sportswriters and golf architects and for good reason. Links LS '99 presents it in all its glory. From the Royal & Ancient Clubhouse to the Hell's Bunker, it's all here and it is thrilling. Before playing it I was concerned that Access would "overgreen" the course - that is, not accurately render the various colored fescue grasses and gorse native to Scotland (so wonderfully recreated in British Open Championship Golf). However the renderings are accurate and, while not as visually stunning as, say, Banff, incredibly realistic.

The courses shipped with Links LS '99 do provide "caddy windows" which provide distances and shot suggestions similar to those in yardage books for "real" play. A great addition for the 2000 version would be providing these windows for all of the 30-plus courses in the Links series back catalog - all of which, by the way, are compatible with Links LS '99

Difficulty: 95
The variation of difficulty in Links LS '99 is unmatched because of the multitude of gameplay factors you control. Its beauty is that you can make it as easy or as difficult as you desire. Try a 2 or 3-click swing at amateur level with no winds, hard/fast fairways and slow greens if you're starting out. Or go to the "sim PGA-level" with howling winds, rock-hard fairways and the "PowerStroke" swing setting - at pro level of course. Like any great game, Links '99 can be customized to continually challenge your improving (we hope!) abilities.

Overall : 96
My initial criteria for judging Links LS '99 were: a.) would I recommend the "full" version to a PC gamer asking for a golf sim suggestion; and, b.) is the less expensive "upgrade" version (compatible, it should be noted, only with Links LS '97 or LS '98) worth purchasing for the longtime Links owner/fan.

I'm happy to say that my answer to both questions is a resounding and enthusiastic "yes". With its unprecedented combination of graphics, gameplay options, course offerings, playability and difficulty variation, Links LS '99 is simply the best PC golf sim currently available on the market.

As a golf course architecture buff, I must place my hope for a solid course designer at the top of my wish list for next year's edition (although I find it hard to imagine with the current 2D hole rendering). Asking for that to be near perfect when first rolled out may be a bit much, but as the folks at Access have rarely failed to deliver with flying colors in the past, who knows?

By: Chris C.

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