In Play

Let the Xbox games begin

In Play

Links 2004

NBA Inside Drive 2004

In Play

NHL Rivals 2004

Xbox

Microsoft Game Studios

$49.99

Within the average American household there exists an enduring gag that the quickest remedy for insomnia simply involves plunking yourself down in front of the ol' TV set and tuning into a game of Saturday afternoon golf. Void of fleshy cheerleaders, Hail Mary passes, or half-court shots at the buzzer, the sport of kings typically crawls along at the pace of a Key Largo hermit crab. As a Zen-like fusion between a golfer and a sea of serene green, the playing field of manicured turf appears more a meditative sanctuary than an adrenaline action zone. Nothing wrong with that. Unless, of course, you're an Xbox game programmer with the Herculean task of translating this mind-numbing reality into an exhilarating facsimile. Enter Links 2004. Easy to learn -- yet difficult to master -- this new title from the Microsoft brain trust offers one club none of its competitors carry in their bag -- online game play. With a career play mode in which virtual golfers compete in more than 30 tournaments for a whopping $47,000,000 fantasy purse, nerves fray, brows sweat, and prepubescent gamers gain a glimpse into the high-pressure, high-stakes world of short stick. Unfortunately, Links doesn't fully visually realize the polygon-pushing power of the Xbox, and so any greenbacks to be gained, virtual or otherwise, come at the cost of graphically mediocre courses, character models, and lighting. As for the game play itself, Links tees up a solid player-pad interface with intuitive controller commands that offer the player a realistic sensation of commanding the swing of a King Cobra graphite driver.

For those hardcore sport gamers looking to swing their sticks harder, faster, and even at other players, then NHL Rivals 2004 offers much greater spit and polish in its arenas. Ice gleams, players glide, and pucks ricochet all to great effect here. And Rivals' licensed reproduction of real-life celebrity hockey players are equally realized, but pad control of these self-same players doesn't always jibe with what you would expect of their namesakes. Part of this may be due to the game's rather temperamental AI, which often fails to bridge the gap between reasonable expectation and what happens on the screen. Rivals does offer one unique feature that adds a greater level of complexity to what oftentimes drags down into a frenzied scene of mashing buttons and heads together: player role, which allows for special moves for enforcers, agitators, snipers, and balanced players.

But if those special moves aren't enough to get your heart rate up, then take a gander at the Shaquille O'Neal-inspired NBA Inside Drive 2004, which chews up your screen with harsh slam dunks, half-court hurls, and blocked shots galore. Although Inside Drive doesn't beat out its current competitors in the looks department, the action is so fast-paced that it literally makes your stomach queasy from all the rotations of the AI camera. Stadium representation is well-conceived (see the SBC stadium in San Antonio in all its gleaming court glory) as well as bigger ticket arenas. And like the reality of street hoops, this game is all about finesse, and on that count, Microsoft has fine-tuned its control functions for all of the seamless passes, play calls, and layups you could cram between two cotton nets.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Xbox sports games, Links 2004, NBA Inside Drive 2004, NHL Rivals 2004

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