Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: August 28, 2007
Golf doesn't have to its name the pantheon of literature associated especially with baseball or even American football because not only is it a professional sport, but it's also an amateur's participatory obsession. Golfers writing about golf are writing how-to manuals and stroke guides, not elegant, navel-gazing memoirs. But mostly they're playing golf every spare moment, as they are entranced by a magic you flat get or you just don't. For avid golfers, their game is frustrating, infuriating, often humiliating, likely causes more chronic hypertension than tobacco and excess dietary sodium combined, but ultimately is beloved. To recreate this enchanting spectacle in a mere video game is no small chore.
EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise has admirably captured a great chunk of the real-world golfing experience; in the '08 edition it carries on, neither faltering nor drastically changing. Then again, golf is golf and has been for a very long time, so why should we expect any different in a golf game?
PGA Tour 08 does add — in one case, add back — several new features. Most notable in terms of gameplay is the return of what EA calls the "3-click swing," which is merely the somewhat-antiquated method of striking the ball by tapping a controller button to fill a shot-power meter, tapping the same button to set the swing's power, then, aiming for a hash mark back near the meter's origin, tapping the same button again, setting the shot's accuracy — yes, it plays about as thrilling as it sounds. Indeed it's the game's audio that provides the "click"; for you, it's the "3-button-mash swing."
Arguably the greatest innovation in the well-established history of the Tiger Woods franchise was the creation of the analog-stick swing. The "3-click swing" served when it was all console controllers could reasonably support; later, PGA Tour titles with analog-stick swing created not only the look and environment of real golf but also the feel, the sort of indefinable golfer's knack for going at a swing by gut, a talent that tees off par-three holes with perfect, long drives dropping mere inches from the pin. It's also the sort of golfing strategy that keeps ball manufacturers well in the money replacing those dimpled orbs lost to swampy water hazards.
Obviously, bringing back 3-click is EA's bid for capturing an audience that can't get into the nearly spiritual method practiced by the 36-hole-per-week player, a sort of sports Zen that makes the analog-stick swing so attractive. Unfortunately, in including the more pedestrian 3-click method of shot-making, the developer has tightened tolerance for analog-stick swing miscues so much that a lot of that control scheme's pick-up-and-play capability, sans serious frustration, is gone.
In PGA Tour 08, hitting a perfect drive with an analog-stick swing now belongs in the realm of mystifying events, like running into a forgotten fourth-grade classmate from Cleveland at a Mt. Everest base camp on your 40th birthday. The calibration of stick placement interpreted by the game doesn't well jibe with what your eyes tell you; they're screaming perfect strike, yet inexplicably your drive went far out of bounds. Good news, though. Two factors improve the experience: time spent with the new, less tolerant controls; and advancement of your golfer's skills via the career mode. If you're new to the Tiger Woods franchise and in frustration switch exclusively to the more logically comprehensible 3-click mode, you'll miss out on much of the game's appeal and stand-out simulative experience. My advice: try 3-click once or twice and then give it up; stick with the stick until you finally get it. If you can't hack some blood-boiling frustration, you really shouldn't play golf, video game or the real thing.
Shot Confidence is another new item that can significantly affect your PGA Tour experience. The feature tracks your performance in the game almost everywhere, all the time. Shot Confidence aggregates numerous factors: club choice, lie and more; as your performance improves, so does your confidence, thereby raising your performance potential both in similar shot scenarios and across the board. It's a complicated mechanism with wide-ranging effects on each round, but it's transparent to the player, requiring no particular maintenance, like playing through your most hated modes merely to build up an arbitrary confidence score. For this reason, it's a very well implemented feature. Confidence-based systems in most sports titles usually involve going off to a thousand grinding practice sessions or performing ridiculous, so-called "fun" stunts in tutorial modes. In PGA Tour 08, play as you wish; the Shot Confidence system requires no babysitting.
Two somewhat peripheral new features still add quite a bit of pure enjoyment to the game. Photo Game Face — EA gets points here for slapping on a name that, however lacking in marketing panache, perfectly describes the feature — does an incredible job of putting your face on a created golfer you play throughout the game, including online multiplayer. Photo Game Face takes any digital photograph of a face — optimally, the photo should resemble a mug shot — and creates an in-game 3D graphical version that you may attach to your golfer's body, definable by more traditional methods of sports character creation.
EA recommends both a camera-facing and profile shot for best results, but for the purposes of this review, I used a single camera-facing snapshot, captured in front of a concrete building using a decent mobile phone camera with no intent of eventually using the picture for Photo Game Face. From this, PGA Tour 08 created my in-game likeness to a degree of verisimilitude that my three-year-old son immediately recognized without prompting that his Daddy had appeared in the new video game. No neutral backdrops or photo editing are required, as PGA Tour 08 provides a face-shaped frame for cropping out the backgrounds of your photographs.
The feature is configured to work with a PlayStation 3-compatible web camera, but rather than leave to the generic modeling tools the majority of players who won't have such a device available for their console, you can upload any digital photograph you have stored on your computer in JPEG format to your EA GamerNet account. (The rendering process takes a little bit of time, but it's worth hanging around while your PlayStation churns to read the developer's subtle jokes left in place of the usual humdrum progress status messages.)
Next up is the aforementioned GamerNet, as implemented in PGA Tour 08 a system for uploading your best shots, or even entire 18-hole rounds, for other players to beat via the PlayStation Network for point awards. The original uploader can assign various combinations of criteria for successfully beating the shot — from the mundane, like simply making par, to the outlandish, ridiculous results of random flukes, of course making the shot tantamount to unbeatable but still fun to give a go. You may also record videos of your miraculous hole-in-one drives and 27-yard, steep-grade, sloping-green putts from the fringe, for yourself and others to ooh and ahh over watching on the Web via most popular modern browsers — that is, after EA's GamerNet site progresses from its current beta stage to a version ready for prime time. As of this writing, the Photo Game Face upload feature is about the only thing going on at the PGA Tour 08 GamerNet site, and the number of simultaneous connections to the site by account holders is presently limited so you may find yourself unable to sign on at times. Fortunately, GamerNet via the PlayStation Network is in much better shape.
The title also includes a couple of other new gameplay features that some will like, some won't, and ultimately don't push the title to one side or the other of the quality line. As expected, PGA Tour 08 includes some new courses, indeed pushing the total number of courses to the most ever included in a Tiger Woods title.
PGA Tour 08 audio is everything you'd want from a current generation game, in that it well approximates familiar network television coverage of a golfing event. Commentary hasn't changed at all — there's the roving witty chap down on the fairway partnered with his straight man calling the rounds from the press platform. The lack of "upgrade" in this aspect is a good thing, as PGA Tour's commentary is perhaps the best in any sports franchise. Graphics, however, are another matter. Character models, hole fly-overs, distance views, and EA-provided promotional videos and screenshots are graphically stunning, even gorgeous. But down on the ground, playing out of the rough in the woods — you'll wind up there at least a few times, wrangling with that uncompromising analog-stick swing — the tall grass, tree trunks, leaves and branches give a very 2D impression. The fairways, greens and bunkers all look quite nice from any angle. Water in hazards and oceans is impressive at a distance, but if you have the misfortune to watch up close your shot sail out over a coastal cliff into the drink, you'll note your ball appears to be rocketing straight into something more like cake frosting than surf breaking over shoreline rocks.
These shortcomings have little effect on gameplay, as the concentration required for making pristine shots dumps the visuals in the back seat. But for a console with this kind of raw power under the hood, you'll surely notice where the graphical details aren't, well, up to par. In general, the title's presentation is outstanding, including trivial but rich elements such as up-to-date sports radio announcements playing from time to time at the main menu screen. EA Trax includes the usual selection of pop/rock songs performed by little-known and mid-list bands, two of which you'll like, another will annoy you so much you'll knock it off the rotation list, and the rest you'll ignore.
Online play is smooth, and the game includes an accessible lobby system that makes getting into a networked multiplayer match a breeze, not always a given in past online-enabled PlayStation 3 titles. Almost innumerable combinations of match types, game modes and conditions configurations are playable online; it's nearly impossible to find fault with the networked multiplayer system unless you just go looking for problems. As the title's online play is so enjoyable, why would you?
The nitty-gritty of rating an annually updated, top-tier sports title is rougher than you'd imagine. PGA Tour 08 is a great sports video game — one of the best — but it was quite fine last year, too. Unless some unforeseen gaming catastrophe occurs, it will be a stand-out next year as well, and the year after that and the year after that. To earn a stellar rating, an annual revision to an already outstanding sports franchise must blow you away with something totally unexpected and wildly innovative. Photo Game Face works well, but it's just a nice twist on an old idea. GamerNet is a solid concept for enhancing enjoyment and extending the game's playable life, but it doesn't quite meet a high standard for true innovation. This brings up another issue: Why would you want to extend the game's playable life? PGA Tour 08 lives but one year and then must abide only in our memories and on the cast-off racks at games shops. The title possesses such great depth you could likely play for years without tiring of it, but if you're a fan of the series, you'll pick up the '09 version as soon as it's available. A lot of PGA Tour 08's depth will never be fully explored, which is a waste. The uneven graphics and pre-release quality Web integration with GamerNet also mark down an otherwise excellent experience.
The issues peculiar to sports franchises require some specialized buying advice irrespective of the final review score: If you're a Tiger Woods franchise fanatic, you pre-ordered last year, so I won't bother with you. If you're a golfer and have never played the series, absolutely get it — run, don't walk. If you're not a golfer but enjoy good sports titles, you'll almost certainly want this one. If you're not a sports fan but have finally decided to give a sports video game a try, Tiger Woods' PGA Tour 08 is a great place to start, but beware that it may spoil you for future sports titles. For everyone else, I say there's a point at which suspension of buying by default the latest Tiger Woods game makes sense: It's a close call, but I favor stopping here at PGA Tour 08 over sitting pat on last year's version.
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