It's that time of year -- the weather is just right for video golfing.
Of course, the weather is always perfect for video golf. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night can keep armchair golfers from their appointed rounds on a computer or game console.
For more than a decade, video golf simulations have ranked near the top of the electronic gaming charts, and for good reason. Golf is a great game for the computer -- its slow pace, scenic courses, and methodical precision play to the strengths of just about any PC or video game console with decent graphics. Today's high-speed Internet connections even allow international tournaments, a digital equivalent to the PGA tour.
If you're considering video golf, there are choices to be made, and not just in club selection. Almost every publisher has a golf game on the market these days, and we've taken a look at three of the best -- Microsoft Links Championship Edition (PC, $34.95), EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002 (PS2, $49.95) and Sony Computer Entertainment's Hot Shots Golf 3, (PS2, $49.95).
There are no losers here, but each game is unique and designed to satisfy a different style of video golfer.
Links Championship Edition -- Since the early 1990s, this granddaddy of all computer golf simulations has set the standard that others must follow.
Courses in Links are built from high-resolution photos, and the greens are precision-drawn by your computer -- literally down to the last centimeter. If you've actually played Firestone and you remember a slight break on the right side of the 14th green, you'll see the same dip in Links.
The new Links doesn't disappoint -- especially for value. It wasn't long ago that hardcore Links players would shell out $50 for the game and an extra $30 each of the 20 or so accompanying courses. The Internet has changed all that, and today you can download as many courses as you want for free from the Links Web site. The game comes with 13 courses on its four setup CDs.
There's nothing revolutionary about the new edition's game play, and that's a good thing, because Links perfected an excellent game engine a long time ago. Hitting the ball requires a classic three-click system (backswing, downswing and follow-through)that tests your hand-eye-mouse coordination. If they're in sync, you'll drive nearly 300 yards. Click a fraction of a second too late, and you're slicing into the rough.
The three-click system has been adopted by many game designers, but Microsoft adds a wrinkle in Links called the "Powerstroke" feature. Strictly optional, it adds a fourth mouse click for those who want the challenge of smashing an extra-long tee shot. It's difficult to master a welcome addition for longtime Links players who have perfected the three-click system more than they'd care to admit.
Like other good PC golf sims, Links offers head-to-head play against an Internet opponent or with a computer-based golf pro. If you want a lesson in humility, play against the game's computerized Arnold Palmer. The only thing that'll stop him is a hard drive crash.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002 -- Since a computer will always provide more options and capacity to change graphics and controller settings than a game console, the PS2 version of Tiger Woods isn't going to be as detail-oriented as either the computer-based Tiger Woods release or Microsoft Links. But it's a fine game nonetheless.
The graphics are very sharp, although screens can take seven or eight seconds to load -- an eternity in the gaming world. They're worth the wait, though, because there are plenty of interesting things to see. You can go with the look of Tiger Woods himself -- in young, preppy golf attire -- or choose a younger, punk image, complete with spider tattoos and ripped cut-offs.
The game engine is more sophisticated, thanks to the PlayStation 2's multi-button controller. An analog thumb pad makes controlling your drives, approach shots and putts considerably easier than the Links mouse-clicking method. Depending on how challenging you want your round to be, this can be good or bad. Generally, the controls in Tiger Woods make it easier to perform well than the controls in Links.
A fun feature is a cash-for-skills system that allows you to use your winnings from head-to-head matches to improve your player's golfing ability. For instance, if you beat a computer opponent in a stroke play match, you'll earn $40,000, which you can spend on improving your video golfer's ratings in power, putting, accuracy, and other attributes.
Another gimmick is a split-screen, Speed Golf option that allows two players to play head-to-head in an effort to see who can finish first. There are 14 golfers to pick from, with varying abilities. You can play Tiger, and unlike with Arnie in Links, you may even be able to beat him.
Hot Shots Golf 3 -- The most cartoon-like of the games we tried is designed more for kids or video golfers with a sense of whimsy. The ball physics are still very accurate, but you won't find the sophistication of Links and Tiger.
You will get to tee off with characters right out of the Saturday morning cartoons, including a hillbilly who hops up on one leg while swinging his driver.
Game play is the easiest of the three -- it takes only a few tries before you get used to the Hot Shots method of swinging. For a child under 10 who's learning the game, it's a good introduction to the rules and common pitfalls of a golf course.
Load times between screens are at most a second or two, and mostly they're instantaneous. This makes for a fast game; in fact, it's possible to play an 18-hole match against an opponent in 15 to 20 minutes. As silly as they may appear, your computer-based golfers offer surprisingly good competition.
The bottom line: If you're a fanatic, go with Links. Tiger Woods is a good alternative for those who like a less complicated game. Hot Shots is the option for entry-level video golfers.