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A thing of golfing beauty

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PC golfing is one of the most competitive arenas in gaming software design, and that’s great news for fans, as the new version of Microsoft`s Links reveals. This one is more than par for the course, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

How often these days do you find a cutting-edge computer game that can be played on a Pentium II with less than 64Mb of RAM? If golf is your game, the answer would be: every time.

Those are pretty much all the demands made of your PC by the latest release in the Links LS series, give or take a sound card. While the system requirements lag healthily a couple of years behind the current entry level PC, the game delivers on the increasing demands of its players. It had better, of course, with Tiger Woods PGA Tour and PGA Championship Golf competing for the top spot on the PC golfing leader board. In fact, it promises the most extensive upgrade since the 1996 version, when Links LS replaced Links 386.

Links 2001 supports online play, no less. Aside from that, the graphics have taken a huge leap over all previous versions to present one of the most realistic sporting, let alone golfing, environments I have yet seen on a PC. It may not offer as many courses as the Tiger Woods offering, and it may not offer the Tiger himself, but then Arnold Palmer is no poor substitute. You can choose from six world-class courses (Tiger Woods brings you 17), including St Andrews Old Course as well as a desolate yet beautiful fantasy course called Mesa Roja. In fact, beautiful is a word that describes much of the experience of viewing, if not playing, Links 2001.

Let`s see how it fares on the Gadget Four Question User Test:

1. Is it ready to use?
Yes, set up is simple, overcoming all the usability glitches that faced early versions of the game.

2. Is it easy to use?
Yes and No. A little practise will go a long way, as in any sport and any computer game. Regular players of PC golf simulations will be familiar with the techniques and motions required, and will be able to start enjoying the scenery from the first drive. Novices can expect to be in the rough for the first few sessions. The built-in course designer is another matter altogether, and will have beginners and advanced players smashing their clubs over their knees in frustration over its needless complexity. A checklist is provided for automating the process, but it doesn`t go far enough. It`s not rocket science to build in better usability, and one guesses that the designers were so impressed at getting the concept right, they forgot that ordinary, non-technical gamers would actually be using it.

3. Does it operate as advertised?
As a stand-alone game, yes. As an upgrade, one must question the extension into the games environment of Microsoft`s habit of locking old material out of its new releases. The new package does not support the old add-on courses, and in effect tells you to start over in accumulating a library of courses. A course converter may be released in due course to allow you to import then old add-ons, but in the meantime you have to be happy with what you buy now. The flip side of this coin is that, for the first time, the package includes a course designer, which allows you to construct your own version of fantasy courses. As implied above, though, good luck in using it.

The ready-made courses are stunning renditions of the real thing, from Fred Couples` Westfields Golf Club to the Prince Course on Kauai, from Aviara to the mountain-bound Chateau Whistler. The reason for this enhanced realism? An astonishing level of research went into getting each course as close to the real thing as possible, even including global positioning satellites to help put the right object in exactly the right spot.
As has become standard, you can set the force of your swing through a two- and three-click gauge, but you also get to put a powerstroke mode into play – if you can figure out how it works, that is. It took some serious practise for me to pull that one off. Once again, usability needs to be enhanced. Another suggestion: a one-click option for gentler movements would increase the depth of the game and the effectiveness of the swing gauge.
The 14 pre-set golfers on offer can also be adjusted for what you may perceive to be their moods on the day, i.e. for aggression as well as the usual skills factors like accuracy and strength. You can`t set their wit levels, but the game does a reasonable job of keeping the chirping levels up. Professional commentary would have been a nice addition, but for that you`ve got to go play with Tiger Woods.

4. Is it value for money?
Okay, here we are into the online comparative shopping zone. The gaming movement is so active on the Web, you cannot price a product appropriately in one territory without knowing what it is selling for in its home market, in this case the USA, or on the Web. The online price ranges from a rock-bottom $35 to a sky-high $57. The price at Incredible Connection is R 379.98, or around $46, which is an acceptable middle path between the high and low ends. Yes, it is expensive for a game (PGA Championship Golf sells at about two-thirds the price), but it`s excellent value for a golfing enthusiast who want to explore their passion on their PCs.

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