Microprose Golf (Second Review)


Title           Microprose Golf (aka "Greens") (Second Review)
Publisher       Microprose
Game Type       Sport
Players         1-4
HD Installable  Yes
Compatibility   All with Jeff's patch: from the JST site
Submission      Dennis Smith Profiled Reviewer

Review
If there were a proverb, "If it works really well, don't fix it, even if it
looks weird," then, although something of an ungainly adage, it would be
epitomised by Microprose Golf. This is the only Amiga golf game that uses an
unadulterated 3D engine to represent the course. With the exception of the
golfer himself (and he mysteriously vanishes on faster processors), everything
is made up from polygons. There are no spritish decorations, no textured
overlays. There are no backgrounds and the trees are simple ovoid affairs
with thin cylinder trunks. But it is unmistakably three-dimensional. Well,
the fact that all the fairways are rendered in contrasting green pinstripes
is chiefly responsible for its unmistakable three-dimensionality, and it is
this effect that gives the game a distinctly unreal appearance, but it
works. By god, it works.

On the surface, the game itself plays pretty much like any other golf game.
You've got the basic click-for-power, click-for-accuracy system. You've got
a bag of clubs to choose from - you can pick which ones before the round.
When you get to the green, you can overlay a grid to see the crowns and
valleys, which helps you aim your shot. Wind (the meteorological variety)
can alter the direction of your shot, and if you get your timing wrong,
you'll hook or slice the ball. Water hazards impose a shot penalty if
breached, bunkers and the rough make playing your shot more difficult. But
there's so much more to this one.

Of all the main Amiga golf games, this one departs furthest from the
Leaderboard standard. Even Sensible Golf, viewed from overhead, is more
orthodox. Partly because the course designers haven't restricted themselves
to gently rolling hills. Some of the holes have twisted, tortured
landscapes that you wouldn't get in real life, either because erosion would
quickly make a mockery of them or because ageing executives in their
battery-powered trolleys would die trying to navigate them. OK, quite a lot
of the holes are quite ordinary in that respect but one unashamed par three
would need you to exhibit keen abseiling skills along with your low handicap,
and several others would require some good strong hiking boots and possibly
rope and crampons.

And this is a good thing, I promise. An outstanding feature, in fact. No
longer is it just a matter of aiming to one side of the bunker or laying up
short of the stream. With proper contoured fairways, you've really got to
think about which way the ball will bounce on landing. OK, so Links has
contoured courses, but they're based on the real things, so you'll find no
mountains; furthermore, in Links the graphics are too well blended for you
to really make out the curvature from the tee, and the overhead views are
no use at all. Microprose Golf has those pinstriped fairways and clean
crisp polygonal courses. On top of which, you plan each shot from an
isometric aerial view, with a clear parabola to show where your shot is
going to go - if hit well in the absence of wind.  When the redraw time for
the fully-detailed line-up view can be a couple of seconds this overhead
aid is invaluable - you line your shot up before the main view is rendered.
And it gives an unrivalled impression of the layout of each hole.

And if that doesn't satisfy you, you can even get your 'binoculars' out and
sweep your view along the course at ground level, as if flying along it, to
get a better impression of the hole. This is only possible by reducing the
detail level of the view and the length of visual field, but it is here
that the true three dimensionality comes into its own. Because when you've
taken your shot, there are a choice of camera angles. You can watch it from
the golfer's perspective, or you can go for my favourite, the PGA-Golf-esque
forward view of the ball going up, and reverse view of it landing. Or - and
this is what sets out to impress, the camera can follow the ball through the
air, either directly behind it or swinging round and round as if in orbit,
the kind of camera shot that would cost a Hollywood film company an absolute
fortune to try to pull off. Then there's the swish option to follow the
ball through the air but then return to a fixed ground camera which pans
round to follow it as it lands. As if that weren't luxury enough, putts or
short pitches can be viewed from front, rear or side (and, invaluably, you
can view the green from three angles when lining up a putt), and you can
get an action replay after any shot and view it from one of the other
angles. And you can save replays to disk to be reviewed later - prove to
your friends that you got that hole in one (complete with the picture of a
very dodgy-looking golfer punching the air that follows it).

I've been beating about the bush though, because what really sets this game
apart, playability-wise, is the ingenious alteration to the 'accuracy' part
of taking a shot. In most games, the 'sweet-spot' that you aim to click on
(or click on to aim) is a pixel in width, and always in the same place.
With experience, you can practically hit it with your eyes closed. With
Microprose Golf, things are different. The sweet-spot is now a bar within
which you have to click. This may sound like it makes things much easier,
but you should also note that the down-swing is fast, so you still need
good reactions. But the bar changes in size, according to what club you're
using, what the lie of the ball is like, and most critically, it changes
dynamically with the power of your shot. As the power bar rises, the
sweet-spot shrinks. Try to belt the ball as hard as you can and that bar
really does shrink to a couple of pixels in size. Land in rough, or sand,
and you have similar problems. A clever trick is that if you're standing on
a slope, that aiming bar moves to the left or right of centre. Even more
cleverly, you can then adjust your stance to try to bring it back to where
you want it. This is one of those additions that can make or break a game.
Nick Faldo's Golf tried a double-click method and it really didn't work for
me. Microprose have got this one spot on: it really adds something to the
game and gives you that extra sense of achievement when you play a good
shot from difficult lie.

Finally, I should say a few words about the competitions you can play.
Again, there's something new here - Microprose Golf actually implements a
handicapping system. Novices can play without worrying about the blustery
weather or a diminishing sweet-spot, but when you're ready to play
properly, you must start with a handicap of 28. You can lower your handicap
by playing 'Medal' rounds, in which the better you play, the lower you can
bring your handicap - but of course, as it gets lower, especially into
single figures, it gets harder and harder to reduce it further. Reducing
your handicap increases the power you can apply to shots, allowing you to
strike the ball further. It also permits you enter more tournaments - a
brilliant idea carried out half-heartedly: you can play a single-round
tournament at first, then a two-round tournament, then a four-round
tournament when you get really good. Once you get your handicap to zero, or
'scratch', you can now play the head-to-head game, in which you start with
a head-to-head rating of ten and aim to reduce it to one by being the best,
and the only way to do that is by beating the best, in rounds of either
strokeplay or matchplay golf against computer opponents of increasing
ability.

I find that having to watch computer opponents play is particularly
tedious, but I understand that it is necessary for the head-to-head
matches. But it is very annoying to find that if you play in a tournament
on your own, you must be accompanied by a computer opponent. You have no
choice in the matter and I can't stand that. On top of which, the
tournaments don't offer much incentive beyond the desire to see the
'you've won' screen, and this is Microprose Golf's only serious weakness.
PGA's tournaments offer prize money and a record of the number of
tournaments won. It seems a shame that Microprose Golf can't do similarly,
when it does keep a vast wealth of statistical data about each player's
performance in other ways - you can see your average and best performance
on each course and even your average score for each hole. There are
numerous other variations of team games which are probably best saved for
games against your friends. The handicap system should be ideal for
levelling competitions against your mates but it does require that each
person plays a fair number of rounds to establish a realistic handicap. It
only takes a tiny amount of competence for the default starting 28
handicap player to walk all over a scratch player.

I'm torn between this and PGA European Tour for the crown of King of Amiga
golf games.  For its clever courses and innovative gameplay tweaks,
Microprose Golf offers more entertainment than PGA Golf, though it's harder
to get into. However once I'd been there, done that, beaten all the
head-to-head players, I found myself once again craving the PGA Tournaments
with their prize monies to chase after. They are at once very similar and
quite different games and I can only say you'll have to try them both for
yourself. In practice I find that sometimes I'm in the mood for one,
sometimes the other, and if you like golf games, you should really have
both.


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