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Jack Nicklaus Presents: Golden Bear Challenge (PC) Review

Publisher: Activision

Background Info

I've been a fan of the Nicklaus series of golf games since back in the days when it was called Mean 18 by Accolade. The thing that had always set the Nicklaus game apart from the other games was its ability to let the user create their own golf courses. But, along came Links: The Challenge of Golf from Access software and Nicklaus took a back seat to a title that was, arguably at least, more of a golf “sim” than a golf “game.” Links had it all: real courses, such as Torrey Pines and Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill, painstakingly reproduced from aerial photos and from video taken by the designers while walking the course. It had depth and the near photo-realistic detail that the Nicklaus series seemed to lack. In fact, the Nicklaus game looked “cartoonish” in comparison. With Links, you had the ability to completely control your ball flight through setup options that allowed you to make adjustments for ball position, clubface angle and swing plane, all of which had a predictable and accurate effect on the flight of the ball. And speaking of the ball, the ball physics were second to none. In the majority of cyber-golfers' opinions, Links has ruled the roost ever since.

That was then. This is now.

In my opinion, with Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge (JN6) the Nicklaus series has finally completed its long ascent back to the top of the golf sim mountain where, if it hasn't actually supplanted LinksLS as the King of Golf Sims, then, it is at the very least, standing shoulder to shoulder. I used to be a hardcore, anything-other-than-Links-is-second-rate golf simmer. Not anymore. Nicklaus has won me back, heart and soul, and I'll be more than happy to tell you why.

Presentation/Graphics : 97
The graphics are rich and sharp and provide a level of depth that even Links LS 99 was not able to capture. Rather than the “pasted on” 2D golfers of the Links series, JN6 provides a real 3D polygonal golfer that is extremely well done. The golfer really looks like he/she is part of his/her surroundings and not simply overlaid on the screen. The new “close” camera view practically puts you in your cyber-golfer's hip pocket for a close-up view like you've never seen before. Some JN6 users play the game exclusively from this camera position. Personally, I prefer the “normal” view. Crank the resolution up to the maximum of 1280x1024 (if your system can handle it) and you'll think you've died and gone to Augusta!

For animations, you'll see your on-screen persona pump his fist after a birdie putt or double over in agony after missing a short putt for par. Water hazards are also animated but your frame rate may take a hit if your PC doesn't have some muscle. The flag waves in a breeze and in a strong wind you'll notice the flagstick realistically bend under the load. Divots fly from the fairway and sand splashes from the bunkers. Nice attention to detail. You can also decide whether you want to play in fog and specify its density.

Also new to the series is a PIP (picture in picture) view. The PIP view is useful for fine-tuning your aim, rather than relying only on the standard overhead view of the hole, and can be set to any of 16 different camera positions.

One of the only negatives in the graphic department is that the Nicklaus team didn't see the need to use true 3D objects. Aside from the 3D polygonal golfers themselves, the game lacks any 3D objects. I would like to have seen full 3D objects such as bridges, fences, walls, buildings, clubhouses, gas carts, etc. In this day and age of 3D graphics accelerators, it's hard to believe that the golf sim world hasn't completely caught on yet. Maybe for JN7 (if there is one).

Presentation/Audio : 93
Jim Nantz and Gary McCord are available to provide commentary and even the big guy, Jack himself, will provide game tips if you so desire. This is all well and good, but after awhile, you'll be muttering under your breath for Gary to just shut up. After all, how many times, while teeing it up on a par three, can you hear him say: “The thing about this par three? You gotta pull the right club.” Really, Gary? I thought any old club would do! Aargh! Thankfully, any of the offending sounds or commentary can be toggled on or off at your discretion.

Nonetheless, the ambient and crowd noise in the game are top notch and really give you the feel of playing a tournament round of golf. You'll hear groans from the (invisible) gallery at appropriate times, like when your approach shot finds a greenside bunker or when an errant tee-shot clips the trees, and you'll get polite applause or the occasional “Atta way!” for a par saving putt.

Interface/Options : 94
The interface for JN6 has been revamped and has a new feel and look. Very classy and efficiently laid out. Many options are available at the touch of a key such as toggling the grid on and off or changing the trajectory of your shot. No important function is more than a click or two away. In fact, there are “hot keys” for virtually every option that can be accessed from the option menu.

The menu at the bottom of the screen can stay on full time or be made to scroll or pop up in much the same way as it does in Links LS. You can also move the hole overhead, swing meter and hole info bar anywhere on the screen that you see fit.

The 108-page manual covers most of what you'll need to know to play the game. Where it comes up short however, is with the course editor. A course editing tool really needs a tutorial with examples and pictures to be complete and this manual has neither. It does include a section on Jack's own principles of course design, but a real tutorial, either in the manual or online through the CD, would have been better.

For game options, you'll find 12 modes of play ranging from the standard Stroke or Match Play, to Bingo Bango Bongo, Open Tournament or Season play. No, it doesn't have the Mode Of Play maker that the recent Links LS series has, but there is enough here to keep you occupied and entertained.

The game offers a choice of seven different golfer models to choose from. These include the big guy, Jack himself, two females and a senior.

Graphics options include resolutions up to a maximum of 1280x1024 and the game looks just great at this setting. You can also customize the size and color of the grid the game uses to show the slope of the terrain.

For Network options you can choose to connect via TCP/IP, IPX, Modem or a Serial cable for direct play. You can also elect to play “Speed Golf” which allows each player to move on from shot to shot without having to wait for their opponent to play first. Once all players have concluded a hole, you then all move on to the next hole, but Speed Play does live up to its name: it speeds up a round of golf.

Gameplay : 95
The gameplay is the best this series has offered and includes the standard fare of swing methods, including 2-click, 3-click and (unfortunately) a rather poor implementation of a “mouse swing” feature that, quite frankly, was better in the last version of the game. Personally, I'm a three-click kind of guy so the lame mouse swing wasn't a big deal for me. If some type of mouse swing is important to you, then you may want to check out Sierra's PGA Championship Golf '99 (which has the genre's only “real-time” swing meter) or Links LS for their Powerstroke meter. Both are superior to the JN6 mouse swing, in my opinion.

That aside, the gameplay in JN6 has come quite a long way from the days of Jack Nicklaus: Unlimited Golf and Jack Nicklaus: Signature Edition. So, if you've been away from the Nicklaus series for a while, you're in for a real treat.

New to the series is a method of assigning points to your golfer's ability. This lends a near RPG experience to the game and it works quite nicely. You start with a set of points which you can “spend” on different golfing abilities including power, accuracy, chipping, bunker play and putting. The swing meter also comes in different speeds. The faster the meter, the more points you're allowed to spend on your skills. This adds a little strategy and personality to the game. Do you want to hit the ball far and straight at the expense of your short game and putting, or do you want an overall, balanced game at the expense of some distance? You can fit your skills and shot tendencies (hitting the ball high or low, or with a draw or fade) to mimic your real game if you wish. I hit a high draw in real life and I can play that same way with JN6. Very cool! Missing the “snap” at the 6 o'clock position on the swing meter will also accurately reproduce my real-life duck-hook while playing with the Fast Swing Meter. That's not quite so cool, but it sure feels real!

My only complaint about the gameplay is that wind and sidehill lies seem to affect ball flight more than they should. This is a bit of a nit-pick, as you will simply learn to adjust accordingly with some practice.

The out-of-the-box putting model of JN6 is a mixed bag. On one hand, you have a more realistic modeling of “friction” on the greens. You're not as likely to have a missed uphill putt roll back to your feet or a downhill putt get away from you and roll off the green, as was common in JN5. On the other hand, it seems nearly impossible to get lengthy putts (beyond 30 ft. or so) anywhere near the hole. Luckily, this problem is fixed in the now-available patch. Download and install the patch immediately and you'll find precious little to complain about.

Also, the putting grid has been revamped and is now more than just a series of lines running perpendicular to each other. Now, in addition to the “staircase” effect to read the greens you'll be provided with a colored “rug” with shades of blue and red to show contour that is below or above the golf ball. This is perhaps a nice feature for someone who has trouble reading the grid “staircasing” but I found it to be unnecessary.

Internet play with JN6 has been nearly flawless. I've experienced very few drop-outs while playing over a LAN, over the net via TCP/IP or through MSN's Gaming Zone. And there are usually plenty of people playing, making finding a match a breeze.

The game ships with six stock real-life courses. These include: Shoal Creek (my personal favorite), Nicklaus North (a Canadian course), Muirfield Village (home of Jack's own tournament – The Memorial), Montecastillo Golf Resort (in Spain), Sherwood C.C. (home of last year's match-play showdown between David Duval and Tiger Woods) and Cochise at Desert Mountain (a staple of the senior tour) all of which are beautifully done.

But the best thing about JN6 is the dozens and dozens of terrific user made courses available for FREE on the internet. Courses like Augusta, Sawgrass and Winged Foot won't be found anywhere else for any other golf sim. These courses aren't just some hacked out rush-jobs either. Indeed, these are meticulous recreations of their namesakes with all the beauty and charm of the real courses. And did I mention they're FREE? Lastly, you needn't worry about losing your JN5 courses as they can all be quickly and completely converted to JN6 courses at the click of a mouse button.

The course editor has undergone a few changes as well. Among them is the ability to import more custom objects into your designs and the community of designers out there have taken full advantage of it. The result? More detailed, more realistic looking fictional and real-life recreations of courses.

Replay Value : 98
The general “open-endedness” of this game offers an absolute ton of replay. Through downloads you can find on the Internet (at sites like The Course Depot) you can keep this game “alive” for as long as designers are producing fantastic fantasy and real course recreations. There is also the ability to change your golfer's clothing and look. In fact, some users have managed to import their own face onto their cyber golfer. There are custom flags for flagsticks available as well. Plus, the fact that the game comes with a terrific course editor means you can make your own courses. This game has been on my hard drive for a full year and I see no reason why it won't still be there months from now.

This game is, in my opinion, more difficult than the Links series, and you can make it as challenging as you like by handicapping yourself with the skill points allocation system. My scoring average after about 100 rounds played in JN6 is 69.2 while in Links LS 99 I carried a scoring average of 66. You can also increase the challenge of your round by adjusting course conditions like wind strength and green speed. Playing on a “fast” course with high winds often leaves me struggling just to shoot par.

Overall : 95
Overall, I'd say that, without question, Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge is the best bang for your golfing buck. You can typically find this terrific title in the bargain bin of your favorite software store for under $20 now that it's about a year old.

I would like to someday see the game incorporate a full land-plot landscape engine like that used in Links or PGA Championship 99, but the terrific stock and custom user-made courses almost make up for it.

Some will covet the more complex shot set-up capability of the Links series. But for my money, the terrific graphics, improved gameplay and ball physics, the improved course designer and access to literally dozens (if not hundreds) of terrific user made courses (did I mention they were FREE?), make Jack Nicklaus 6: Golden Bear Challenge not just my favorite golf sim for the last year, but it gets my vote for best overall sports title as well.

By: Leeman 3/9/00

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