Sid Meier's Sim Golf Review

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Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Firaxis and Maxis

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 300 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 300 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

In Sid Meier's Sim Golf, players are given the opportunity to build, manage, and play at golf resorts of their own designing. In standard mode, players begin with a small inheritance and an undeveloped patch of land. The goal is to build a resort, let your customizable golf pro play a few rounds for fun and money, hold professional golf tournaments, keep your club's members happy and challenged... and let the profits roll in. You have the option to build your resort in any of sixteen locations divided into four basic course types: tropical, desert, links (think Scotland) and Parklands (think American South). Once built, your courses may be saved in a file separate from the standard game so that you may play on the course anytime you like or even share your golf course with other people. Similarly, your golf pro, the player's avatar, is customizable and may be saved separately from the game in which he is created.

Rob de los Reyes

Although perhaps not the "best," one of the most memorable courses on which I ever played a round of golf was an 18-hole course at the Hotel do Frade resort in the area of Angra Dos Reis, Brazil. The course was a botanical garden full of animals with unpronounceable names. Many of the holes had dramatic designs, even if some were nigh unplayable for a novice golfer. One hole required teeing off from a cliff. Another hole featured an uphill slope so steep that the flag could not be viewed from the bottom of the hill where the tee was. And the course was empty. If it took 12 shots and 20 minutes to play a hole... well, all that mattered was our own interest level. Mark Twain would likely have preferred to skip straight to the post-game caipirinhas, having famously quipped that golf was nothing more than a good walk spoiled. Perhaps. But if golf is a good walk spoiled, then Sid Meier's Sim Golf is a good walk happily delayed. While an appreciation for golf is likely a bonus, you don't even need to know the difference between the woods and the irons to extract hours of fun from Sim Golf.

The Fundamentals

Sim Golf is neither difficult to explain nor difficult to learn, at least as far as the basics of gameplay go. The game offers several modes of play: a standard game, in which you start with a small inheritance and must grow your funds in order to expand your course; a sandbox mode, which is like standard mode except that everything is free to purchase and money is not tracked; and a championship mode, in which you select a golfer to play in a tournament on either a default course or a course of your own or someone else's design. A feature likely to find an audience among fans of The Sims is an option for theme play, where the golfers who come to play on your course and their lines of dialogue revolve around a theme. Such a theme need not be established ahead of time, however, as each individual golfer who makes an appearance in the game is customizable in terms of personality, skills and lines of dialogue in-game and on-the-fly.

The starting locations vary in their total acreage, but there are (far too infrequent) opportunities to purchase additional land. Designing a course is no more difficult conceptually than laying down tiles. Among the screenshots below is one showing the construction of a hole on a desert course. The construction tiles are pictured in the blue bar at the bottom of the screen. The exact appearance of the tiles varies depending on the land type, but each serves a similar function. In the picture below, for example, there is a tile that looks like a crack in the ground. On a desert course, this is a "ravine," but on the other three courses would appear as a "river" tile. The difference is cosmetic, however, as in both cases a golfer who hits his ball into that tile will lose it completely and be forced to take a penalty stroke. In addition to laying down tiles, other construction bars permit you to manipulate the elevation of individual tiles, the vertices of the tiles or whole areas. There is also a feature that lets you predict where golfers of various skill levels will hit the ball from various points on the hole so that you may plan to make certain shots either easier or more challenging. And, in the end, if the hole doesn't seem to play the way you had imagined it, you are free to change it at any time. Certain buildings may also be added to your resort, depending on how far along in the development process you are. The addition of a cart garage, for example, will let your golfers ride around instead of walking, speeding up the rate at which they play. This permits more golfers to play – and pay – in a shorter space of time.

The Sim Golf experience extends beyond just designing and managing the course. There are two basic opportunities to play on your course in a standard game. From time to time, your golf pro will be challenged to a match by visiting golfers. Just to make it interesting, the matches always involve a wager on which golfer will have the lowest score per hole. At other times, the SGA (Sim Golf Association) will evaluate your course based on specified criteria and ask you to hold a pro tournament. It costs money to run a tournament, but your golf pro gets to play. If he wins or even places, the tournament may more than pay for itself. Mechanically, playing on your course is simple, and requires no knowledge whatsoever of how actual golf is played. When it is your turn, you will be prompted to choose from among the types of shots available to you, such as straight, fade, draw, backspin, etc. But you need not know what any of these things mean since. As you select a shot, a line will be drawn from your position indicating a rough prediction of where your ball will go and how it will get there. The appropriate club is automatically chosen based on the type and distance of the shot you are attempting to make. Of course, in order to preserve the thrill – and the hair-tearing frustration – of golf, your actual shot may be significantly better or worse than predicted.

Sinking It

In some senses, Sim Golf is to golf games what Panzer General was to war games. Those who would disparage Panzer General refer to it as "wargaming light." There may be a hint of truth in that tag, but, depending on your point of view, it may not actually be a basis for criticism. An alternative way to look at Panzer General, and similarly Sim Golf, is both as a game to be enjoyed in its own right, but also as an access point to an otherwise hypertechnical genre. In the end, Sim Golf's easy, whimsical approach is both its strongest selling point and its key limiting factor.

Having noted the short learning curve for basic game functions, it should also be noted that game mastery is another thing altogether. One of the triumphs of Sim Golf is that, by and large, the golfers on your course react very much like golfers in real life. If that means nothing to you, then consider it this way. The way to please your Sim Golfers is the same way to please computer gamers. First, the hole must be challenging, but "winnable." That's no different than computer gaming, but with the added challenge that the hole is the same for everyone – they can't set their own difficulty levels. The Sim Golfers really do react well to a challenging but not overly burdensome course. It is occasionally frustrating, however, to watch a golfer comment on how easy a shot is, only to hit the ball into the obstacle you so carefully laid out to make the shot challenging. As discussed below, there are a few such "breakdowns" in the AI sprinkled throughout the game, but, fortunately, none ever really rises above nuisance level. The second way to keep your golfers (and gamers) happy is to force them to use a full bag of tricks. Just like in real life, your Sim Golfers love to use all the clubs in their bags and to make different types of shots. Watching your golfers hop up and down with glee after making an unusual shot is one of the game's more charming treats. Finally, your golfers/gamers want something pretty to look at. Just as in the visually spectacular course at the Hotel do Frade, golfers will often forgive petty annoyances if they are surrounded by attractive and interesting objects. In sandbox mode, where money is no object, there is little challenge in this aspect, but when playing with limited funds, those cosmetic touches add another layer of strategy. All in all, it is this creative, strategic challenge – the feeling that just one more tweak would make your course perfect – that makes Sim Golf compelling.

Having said all that, the same minimalist aspects that make Sim Golf accessible also mean that there comes a time when the strategies are more or less revealed. With relatively few tiles going into the design of any given hole, there are a noticeably limited number of ways to get a desired effect. The point should not be overstated. It will take the average gamer quite a few hours of gameplay to work through the possibilities. Moreover, for those with the patience, subtle changes are available to make each hole as different as a snowflake. Even so, the subtleties do not seem to add up to a never ending strategic challenge. And what is true for course design is also true for playing on the course. For many a good reason, Sim Golf is not designed to function like a "hardcore" golf game where well-timed keystrokes determine the fate of a shot. Much of the playing is taken out of your hands. What you are left with are the essential elements needed to get a feel for how your course actually plays. In this case, too, the simplicity of design in relation to function is quite elegant. But, as with course creation, the strategic element soon plays itself out.

When the strategic elements drop out, what you are left with is the creative experience – the "Simsy" experience, if you will. In the same sense that it might be fair to refer to Sim Golf as "golf light," it might equally be fair to think of Sim Golf as "The Sims plus." The long term replayability of Sim Golf lies primarily in exploring its Sims-like components. The official web site and numerous fan sites have opened up exchanges, places for gamers to share their courses, themes and stories. At the time of this writing, this component of the Sim Golf experience still seems to be in the early stages, but is clearly accelerating. Sim Golf also seems poised to grow not only through fan participation, but through further developer work, as well. The ability to load up a theme pack just screams "expansion" whether of the for-purchase or free-download kind. For those engaged by Sim Golf's non-competitive elements, the game should have a long and healthy lifespan.

One disappointment. As released, Sim Golf is far buggier than one would expect. Fortunately, few of the bugs have a real gameplay effect. Most of the bugs relate to graphics that fail to draw themselves fully or tiles that fail to resolve correctly when placed side-by-side. Some of the golfers' comments are stuck with old placeholders (everything they see is a "fountain"). In addition, in order to make added buildings function, they must be connected to the clubhouse by a path... only sometimes the path suddenly stops working and has to be relaid. Occasionally landmarks are said to be donated to the course, but they don't actually appear or, at any rate, the right one doesn't appear. Again, none of these has much effect on gameplay, but they are annoying. One bug that does affect gameplay, however, is the failure of the game to recognize a tee shot. Sometimes, certain tees seem to register as non-fairway type tiles and so the game limits the type of shots your golfer is allowed to take. The bug doesn't seem to affect the other golfers, however, so you may end up losing strokes in match and tournament play.

There are also a few designs flaws that simply seem not to have been resolved in a completely satisfactory way. It is possible, for example, to restate the order in which the holes are played. The problem is that if you do it while anyone is playing on the affected holes, they simply start aiming for the new hole from wherever they are on the map. As they play through "hazards" you never designed, they can get angry and quit. Also, the Sim Golfers have no compunction about playing on the wrong fairway if they think the path to the hole is cleaner that way. It's easy to understand how this effect creeps in from a programming perspective, but it is horribly unrealistic to see golfers gleefully smacking the ball into crowds as they head the incorrect direction down a neighboring fairway. Other frustrations, like having too few opportunities to purchase new land, are slated to be altered in the next patch, so look for some helpful changes in the near future.

The 19th Hole

The bottom line is that Sim Golf is both accessible to a wide audience and filled with, at times, surprisingly addictive play. The strategy components won't hold up to intensive, extended scrutiny, but the creative exercise and community elements are in place to extend the game's life. Even those who don't care as much for the Simsy part of the game may find that Sim Golf hangs around on their laptops as a quick and easy antidote to long plane flights and (shhh) boring class lectures. Tee it up on your hard drive and enjoy.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 3, 2002 12:48 PM.

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