Links 386 Pro. (computer golfing game) (Software Review) (Column) (Evaluation)
by Richard O. Mann
You won't believe your eyes. When you load Links 386 Pro and step up to the first tee at Harbour Town, you simply won't believe the gorgeous picture on your screen. Every detail is there: the houses along the fairway, each individual tree and shrub, the ball washers, even the clouds in the sky. It gives you the breathtaking sensation of looking through your computer screen into reality.
The illusion continues as you tee off. You hear the sound of your stroke and watch the ball soar over the terrain to its eventual resting place. The course is reproduced with so much detail that wherever your ball drops, it behaves exactly as it would on the real course. If it lands on a slope, it will run farther downhill. Hit a paved pathway, and you'll get a gigantic bounce. Land in the deep rough or sand, and the ball dies immediately.
Wherever your ball goes, the program faithfully creates the view from that exact point on the course. In fact, you can choose to look in any direction from any place on the course, whether it makes sense or not. The computer shows you the view you ask for, no matter where you are on the course. It's not a computer game; it's a simulation.
Written completely in 32-bit code, Links 386 Pro is strictly for those with the hardware muscle to run it. You'll need an 80386 or 80486 computer (including SX versions) with a speed of 16 MHz or faster and Super VGA graphics. It requires at least 2MB of RAM, 13MB of free space on your hard disk, and a mouse.
When I bought my faithful Northgate 386/16 years ago, I paid extra for something called VGA Plus. I've never gotten any particular use out of the Plus until now. It turns out that Plus means the video card can deliver 256 colors at 640 x 480 resolution, which is all that Links 386 Pro needs. The excellent installation program automatically read my video card and supplied a video driver file. It worked beautifully; suddenly I have 256-color VGA.
The results are spectacular. The game renders the golf courses in near-photographic detail. As it paints each screen, you first see the ground, then the sky, clouds, and backdrop. Then, the buildings appear, followed by the trees and shrubbery, which pop onto the screen one by one, starting from the background and working forward.
The time it takes to paint each screen is the only potential drawback to Links 386 Pro. If you're trying to run it on equipment that meets the minimal requirements, it is unquestionably slow. It's a tossup as to whether Links 386 Pro is too slow to be playable on a 386SX/16 with 2MB of RAM. As the speed and memory of the computer increase, your need for patience decreases. On a 486/50, it takes only a second or two to paint the screens. Those with slower machines can turn off some of the more detailed graphics and sound options to increase performance.
Once it's running, Links 386 Pro is a golfer's nirvana. The swing mechanics result in just the right degree of difficulty to make the game as challenging as real golf. You hold down the mouse button on the backswing until the swing meter registers the desired power, then release it. On the downswing, you must click the mouse again just as the club face strikes the ball. Too early or too late gives you a hook or slice and decreases the stroke's power. Most of the time, you can make decent shots. Occasionally, you'll slip and hit a truly awful shot. But once in a while, you'll get it just right and make that sweet, clean stroke that golfers live for. The 300-yard drives straight down the fairway are thrilling.
Links 386 Pro is chock-full of new features that help to overcome the limitations of computer simulation and increase the joy of the game. The basic screen can be split into quarters or halves. You select which view you want in each panel. I like the main, golfer's-eye view in the left half of the screen, with quarter screens showing the aerial view of the course and the view for the green. All three views simultanously show the ball's flight and position. The aerial view is excellent for keeping your orientation. You can zoom in and out, scroll around the aerial photo, and even grab the photo and move it where you want it.
Other possible views are a wide-angle view of the fairway in the upper or lower half of the screen, a graph profile showing the vertical rise and fall between the ball and the hole, the scorecard, a club distance chart, and the setup window, where you can change the details of your golfer's stance and swing to execute a custom shot. You can put any view in any part of the screen, as long as you have a main view (with the golfer) onscreen. To speed up screen painting, don't display the view from the green, which takes as long to draw as the main view.
Your golfer can be male or female--both genders have exactly the same performance characteristics.
After each shot, you have the option of taking a mulligan--meaning taking the shot over and disregarding the first effort. Unfortunately for those who might want to exaggerate their performance, the number of mulligans taken shows on the scorecard. Putts under two feet can be skipped by clicking the Gimme button.
After each shot, you can replay it from a forward or reverse perspective, or you can save a permanent recording of the shot. Send the file to your friends so they can see that your bragging is justified.
You can record an entire 18-hole round. Send that file to a friend, who can load it and play alongside you, making strokes and watching your recorded performance. There's an active set of tournaments underway on GEnie and CompuServe using recorded games. Plus the game comes with 13 recorded rounds from various people at Access, with scores ranging from incredibly good to a little over par. So you have ample competition if you like to test your skills. Mulligans, by the way, are not allowed in a recorded game.
For the statistically minded, Links 386 Pro keeps detailed stats by player and by course. Review such telling stats as average putts per hole, percentage of drives landing in the fairway, percentage of greens in regulation, and even club-by-club stats on average distance and percentage safe hits (landing on fairway or green). Course stats show percentages of birdies, pars, and so on by hole. You can print the stats at any time.
Links 386 Pro comes with the Harbour Town course, which Access created using high-resolution techniques specifically for Links. Access has created eight earlier courses that are not hi-res for the previous versions of Links, but you can use them with Links 386 Pro by running a simple conversion utility. They show slightly less detail (and run a little faster) but are still excellent courses. Access is now converting all the old courses to hi-res and creating new hi-res courses. The Mauna Kea course from Hawaii will be the next one.
My family's been hooked on Links for two years, eagerly awaiting each new course. Now that we've got Links 386 Pro, I see no hope of breaking the addiction. It's truly an outstanding technical achievement, an unequaled golf simulation, and an unending source of satisfying entertainment--if you have the hardware horsepower to run it.