Hitting the links. (golf simulations) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
If golfers and caddies be not better neighbours Than abbots and soldiers, with crosses and sabres, Let such fancies remain with the fool who so thinks, While we toast old St. Andrews, its Golfers, and Links. Golf is a game with a long, rich heritage. Golf enjoys such popularity as to have become a staple of our popular culture and iconography. It's no wonder, then, that golf simulators have been chipping around computer screens as long as there have been CRTs.
In the early days, aspiring computer golfers had to work with blocky, unrealistic graphics and limited play options. As computer technology evolved, so did golf simulations. Now, players enjoy stunningly realistic scenes, compensate for wind and the slope of the green, and choose from a variety of options. They can play against PGA pros in a tournament, play against other computer golfers over the phone, play a skins game for a million-dollar purse, shoot for par in Hawaii, or even design a golf course. Indeed, the modern computer golfer can play under the blustery, overcast skies of Scotland without even leaving home.
In addition, golf simulators have reached the level where they can actually assist players in their real-world golf games. Players who had never before picked up a real club are now hitting the links after discovering the fun of golf via a computer simulator, and computer users who don't play ordinary computer games discover that computer golf offers something different from the run of the mill and become hooked on the virtual country club on their hard disk.
There are a wide variety of golf simulations, each with a different spin on the game. Links 386 Pro strives for the ultimate in visual realism, while PGA Tour Golf lets players play in a PGA tournament and go head to head against the tour's best players. The Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition allows players to design a fantasy course and share it with people around the world. David Leadbetter's Greens is an expert-level tutorial that features dynamic camera tracking, which makes the experience seem more like televised coverage than a computer game.
Most of the games employ some type of power meter to judge the shot and generally require three actions from the player. In a drive, you might tap the space bar once to begin the swing. The power meter then moves to reflect your backswing. Then, you tap again at the power point--the top of the stroke--and the power meter begins to recede. You must time your third tap to fall at a precise moment to strike the ball straight on; any variance can lead to a hook or a slice.
You may enjoy having such control over your strokes. Or you may prefer spending your time designing the perfect course or playing against the masters. Whatever simulation you choose, the addiction level is bound to be high. Each of the games discussed here will lead you to many late-night playing sessions and to true bragging rights for that one-in-a-million shot.
PGA Tour Golf
Electronic Arts' entry in the golfing competition, PGA Tour Golf for Windows, satisfies that deep need to go up against really expert competitors--the best the sport has to offer--and to beat them at their own game. In this simulation, the only PGA-licensed product, the pros are the real McCoy: Their abilities are modeled on PGA players' actual performances.
PGA Tour Golf uses stylized renderings of the players, courses, and objects, but the level of realism is quite acceptable. The natural scenery surrounding the course is a little on the sparse side, but there are enough trees to get in the way of nearly every golfer. The game features four courses: PGA West, Sterling Shores, the Tournament Player's Club at Avenel, and the Tournament Player's Club at Sawgrass.
This game's hallmarks are its speed, its challenge, and its playability. The courses may look easier than those in games with more visually complicated graphics, but the play is extremely demanding. One thing lacking, though, is the sense of rolling terrain: The fairways are flat and expansive, without either visual or play-affecting slope.
This changes when you reach the green, however. A window appears that models the green in 3-D with an imposed grid. You can rotate the picture to judge the break and adjust your aim accordingly. The view then shifts back to the playing screen to allow you to attempt the putt.
Far and away the most notable feature of PGA Tour Golf is the PGA tournament. The game proceeds in televised fashion, with an announcer commenting on each shot and giving reports from other holes. It's very tough to beat the pros, but it's extremely satisfying when you start to win.
Electronic Arts also sells a DOS version of PGA Tour Golf, which differs from the Windows version only in that it doesn't require Windows. PGA Tour Golf Limited Edition is a special packaging of the DOS version of PGA Tour Golf that includes the tournament course disk (normally sold separately), plus a VHS tape containing a documentary history of PGA tour golf, including interviews with players.
Links 386 Pro
The Links simulation has been with us for a while, but only recently has 386 Pro, the flagship of the Access Software line, made an appearance. A visually stunning achievement, 386 Pro requires Super VGA, at least an 80386 processor, and a whole lot of RAM (Access suggests 8MB, but 4MB seems to work just fine). With all of that computing power behind the game, the results are incredible.
The play window, a view from behind the golfer, approaches photo-realism, with varying textures in the grass, subtly rolling hills, and gently shaded sand bunkers. Access allows you to set up many viewing options, from a full-screen window of the course to a split screen featuring a front view and a view from the pin. Other windows include a top view, a slope window, a stance window, and a scorecard.
To aim your shot, you use a unique "barber pole" that you move around the course with the mouse. When the shot is set, you use the mouse to control your swing. As in the other two Links products, the power bar is curved to simulate the arc of the golf swing, and there's a realistic time-lag from the moment you attempt to stop the swing until the club reacts. This takes getting used to, but it accurately reflects an actual swing.
There are no tournaments in 386 Pro, but you can play against several friends or a recorded player shot for shot for some heated competition.
If there are any weaknesses in 386 Pro, the foremost would be its speed. The game really needs an 80486 to play as fast as the other games. With an 80386SX, the redraw time can take quite a while. The other weaknesses are poor-quality sounds and no golfer animation when the shot is viewed from the green in reverse angle. It's a little odd to just see the ball leap from the fairway with no golfer in sight.
There's no course-design feature in 386 Pro, but Access is providing an ever-increasing array of courses, and original Links courses can be converted for play with 386 Pro (the resolution isn't as good as that of the 386 Pro courses, but the quality is still high). I had the opportunity to play golf in Hawaii (via the computer, of course) using the Mauna Kea course disk. The Championship disk contains files to play this course with Links 386 Pro, Links, or Microsoft Golf for Windows 1.0--and it's a gorgeous course. Playing the third hole in 386 Pro, a par-three iron shot over a volcanic Pacific inlet, is arguably reason enough to go out and buy a PC.
David Leadbetter's Greens
Greens takes two different approaches to simulating golf: It strives for realworld instruction, and it uses dynamic views of play.
The game is endorsed and heavily influenced by David Leadbetter, arguably the preeminent professional golfing instructor. The manual included with Greens consists of a richly detailed instructional course, featuring everything from club selection to stance and play strategies. MicroProse sets up the game as a vehicle for players to learn more and improve their regular game of golf, as well as for entertainment.
The second unique aspect of Greens is the view. There are a number of different camera angles, and if you select the intelligent camera, a shot is visualized more like television footage than a static view: The camera cuts, pans, and follows the ball in 12-frame-per-second animation. As a result, the quality of the graphics is a far cry from that of those in Links 386 Pro, but the way MicroProse executes the cuts makes up for the lack of resolution.
Greens also features an amazing amount of player control over the shots. Golfers can experiment with stance and tee placement beyond the usual club selection. The power meter in Greens is also different: As you twist into a backswing, the "sweet spot" where you must hit the ball shrinks, which corresponds with the increasing difficulty of hitting a power shot accurately.
On the green, Greens allows a golfer-to-hole view, a hole-to-ball view, and a perpendicular view. Using these different angles gives you a wealth of information about the lay of the green.
Greens features tournament and skins game options as well as modem or direct-connect play, allowing two players to battle against each other in realtime via phone.
Microsoft Golf for Windows 1.0
Microsoft, in an arrangement with Access, ported the original Links game to the Windows environment. More than just a quick fit, Microsoft Golf for Windows 1.0 is a true Windows program and takes full advantage of the operating system. Windows can be dragged and resized, and the game can wait in the background while you switch to a spreadsheet when your supervisor walks in.
Microsoft Golf also borrowed the golfer animation from Links 386 Pro, giving the swing animation greater depth than that of Links. All original Links courses are fully compatible with Microsoft Golf. The game can handle eight players simultaneously, but there are no options for tournament play or any of the other variations (such as a skins game, a recorded player, or an Al opponent).
As in the original Links and Links 386 Pro, you have complete control over your golfer's stance, swing plane, and ball position. As in Links 386 Pro, you have the option to step back from the ball and swing the club a few times before addressing the ball for a solid hit.
The game plays very smoothly, but aiming the ball is a little awkward, since your golfer disappears when the barber pole appears. Occasionally, the windows seem to get in the way of each other, and you have to make sure that the swing window is active before attempting a swing; otherwise, the delay as the window pops to the forefront will play havoc with any attempts at timing.
Microsoft Golf, like Links and Links 386 Pro, enables you to print out a scorecard (which must be signed and attested to be valid, of course).
The most venerable of all the versions mentioned, the original Links is still a solid game that can be played adequately on an 80286, and up until the recent explosion of quality golf games, it was the king of the heap.
Links and Microsoft Golf have a library of over eight courses to choose from, including Troon North, set in the deserts of Arizona, and the Dorado Beach East Course in the heart of the Caribbean.
Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition
The Signature Edition is a significant rewrite of Accolade's Jack Nicklaus Ultimate Golf and is a youthful descendent of the old Mean 18 golf simulation.
Signature Edition is an extremely solid program and features 256-color graphics; while the resolution doesn't approach that of 386 Pro, the sense of rolling terrain is amazing. Also, Accolade chose to use a deep, rich palette of colors that seem to drip right off the screen.
The gameplay is solid, with most of the features you'd expect from a top-of-the-line golf simulator. One item it lacks, however, is player control of the golfer's stance or ball position.
You can choose stroke play, tournament mode, or a skins game, with a number of players competing at once. Signature Edition possesses a solid arsenal of Al golfers to battle against, and you can create computer players of matching ability (or inferior ability when you need a victory for psychological reasons). You can even compete against the Golden Bear himself. But if you do, it's a serious challenge: Nicklaus just doesn't seem to miss any shots.
The most striking feature of the Signature Edition simulation is its course-design program. With it, you can get your hands dirty and tackle the tedious, frustrating, and amazing task of terraforming a course. After you've designed a hole, you can play it through to examine its subtleties. The design program and the golf simulation do a credible job simulating the rolls and dips of terrian.
Course designers have control of the scrolling background, the pixel-by-pixel construction of the various objects that populate the course (such as trees, flowers, and the occasional caddie shack), and the type of terrain, from green to cart path. Utilizing a paint program type of interface, you draw terrain, select areas, and impose hills, dips, cliffs, and even railroad-tie shoring for a raised green.
Hundreds of user-designed courses, from Mark Willett's beautiful and fictional Alhambra course of Links set entirely on the surface of the moon, can be found on CompuServe and many other online services and BBSs. You can also join a tournament on Prodigy, download a course, and battle for position on the leader board, posting scores each week.
Wilson ProStaff Golf
Konami enters the world of computer golf with Wilson ProStaff Golf, a game that prides itself on the speed of its play. In a field of games battling for visual supremacy, Konami's entry takes a different approach. Instead of offering photorealistic graphics, Konami chose instead to make the screen redraws lightning fast.
In that area ProStaff Golf Succeeds completely. The panoramic screens shot is followed by a televisionlike gallery replay, focusing on where the ball lands. The graphics are well rendered and have something of the same flavor as the graphics in PGA Tour Golf and Greens.
ProStaff Golf features a very nice overhead view of each hole, showing where the ball will probably land if hit correctly. The overhead view breaks the shot distances into 25-percent intervals, making it easy to gauge how much force to put on a pitch or a choke shot. Konami has also rethought the basic power-bar approach to hitting the ball. The game features a circular bar for the power stroke, similar to the power bar in the Links games. But when a player selects the power for the stroke, the action then moves to the face of a stylized golf ball, where a red dot circles around the dimpled surface. To actually make the shot, the player must tap the selector key when the dot is exactly in the center of the ball. This approach accomplishes the same thing as the traditional power bar, with the added ability to purposely hit the ball either low or high, thereby controlling the spin.
ProStaff Golf features an impressive array of games, from stroke play to several skins games to a game called bingo-bango-bongo, in which points are awarded for being first on the green, closest to the hole, and first in the hole. The game also features an entire array of team games.
ProStaff Golf, for all of its features and fast gameplay, is somewhat limited. It only provides one course, which can get old fairly quickly. There are no facilities for playing against recorded players or computer players, so the game can get lonely during the early hours of the morning. Finally, putting is more difficult here than in any of the other games I've played. Some greens are so sloped that they appear to be located on the side of a mountain, and the aiming reticle is located at the top of the screen, a long way from the hole and the player's best line of sight.
Still, the play is fast and engaging, and the ease of the game, the short learning curve, and the ability to play teams makes it a great choice for a computer golf party after the links have been rained out.
Grab Your Clubs
Golf is a rich and compelling game, and computer golf simulation has finally become nearly as challenging and enjoyable as the real thing. Whether you prefer head-to-head competition with a friend on a BBS, tournament play with the pros, creating a challenging course, or working on your golf game on a rainy day, you're sure to find a golf simulation that matches your style. And when you do, prepare to lose track of time. You won't want to quit until you've mastered your game--and then you'll want to challenge the world.