Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: August 26, 2008
While a round of golf may be a good walk spoiled, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has long been a gem among sports games. By fusing sim and arcade action, the franchise has managed to take a sport that is difficult and frustrating in real life and turn it into a genuinely fun experience in the comfort of your own home. Even though you know that you could never actually nail a 3-iron to within two feet of the cup or manage a hole-in-one on Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods has always managed to put you right there in the action, getting your heart pumping and adrenaline racing every time you nail a seemingly impossible shot. Now, EA has brought the magic once again in this year's edition, but a few key shortcomings hold the game back from claiming its place among the best of all time.
Interestingly enough, even though this is a Tiger Woods game, the phenom himself is fairly invisible, showing up only as a name on the leaderboard and the requisite "final boss" in the Tiger Challenge mode. Instead, you'll be mostly interacting with Hank Haney, Tiger's swing coach and your own personal stat-tracker. Booting up the game for the first time, Haney takes you through a series of drills in order to get a baseline measure for your power, accuracy, short game and putting, and then assigns skill points for each. Unlike previous Tiger Woods games, which had you doling out skill points after tournaments and training sessions, this year's system is dynamic, with abilities improving or degrading based on your performance. For example, if you play a round where you nail every fairway but can't sink a putt to save your life, you may see your power rating climb by a half-point, while your putting takes a nosedive. Conversely, if you're plugging the ball in bunkers or rough off the tee, yet draining putts from all over the green, you'll see your skills react appropriately.
To add even more flavor, after most rounds Haney will take a look at some of your less-stellar shots and devise drills that will grant you a temporary stat boost. Succeeding in these challenges can normally net you anywhere from a half to a full point of improvement, so they are especially critical early in the game when you're just trying to get out of your own way and hit the ball relatively straight.
Ultimately, the new skill system is a welcome change of pace and more accurately reflects the skills of a true golfer. This constant monitoring of your performance forces you to work to excel in all areas if you want top-notch skills, and now you may find yourself rethinking tendencies to take risky shots or willingly blast a ball into the rough for the sake of adding a few more yards. I get the feeling that this skill-measuring system is what EA was trying to accomplish with the custom difficulty levels in Madden but just couldn't quite pull off. Here, it works nearly to perfection, adding yet another interesting element into an already deep game.
One concept that becomes readily apparent in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 is that EA really wanted to integrate GamerNet in a more complete manner. Now, anytime you're playing a hole, you may see a quick pop-up challenging you to out-drive an online competitor or nestle an approach shot right up next to the hole. These challenges are totally optional, and beating them gains you a few GamerNet points and the smug satisfaction that you're better than at least one other person who's playing this game. You can also instantly access GamerNet anytime you make an amazing shot and want to post a challenge to everyone else out there. All you have to do is simply tap R2 after a shot, and you'll immediately be brought into the GamerNet menu where you can set up the parameters for your challenge (the more difficult, the more points it's worth to the person who can beat it), give it a name and description and then post it for everyone else to see. It's completely simple and lets you puff out your chest and show off some of your most amazing shots to the larger Tiger Woods community.
GamerNet isn't the only part of the game that saw a tweak, though, as online play has been spruced up as well. For the first time, the game is allowing simultaneous online play, with competitors' shots appearing as real-time colored ball trails. This much-needed mode speeds up the game tremendously, and rounds that once took hours to finish can be done in a snap thanks to this newfound ability to keep the action rolling. Simultaneous play also assists with overall gameplay, as you can now more easily get into a rhythm with your shots and not potentially lose your focus as you wait for what seems like an eternity for the other chap to take his shot. Hopefully this is a permanent feature of the series, as it has made online play immensely more fun and approachable than in years past.
Systemic changes abound, but you probably wonder if they've done anything to tinker with the nitty gritty details, such as last year's notoriously sensitive analog swing. The answer is yes, and most of the fixes are extremely well implemented. First off, club sensitivity has been turned down, making all but the expert level clubs much more forgiving. You no longer have to make a perfect down-up motion with the control stick to get a good swing, and it's easier than ever to land your shots where you are aiming.
For those still struggling or gamers willing to fill their bags with the less-forgiving expert clubs, the game features a club tuner, which will allow you to tweak performance to your heart's content. Now you can adjust power, accuracy, spin and other parameters of your equipment until you get everything just so. Also, if you find that you are constantly hooking or slicing shots due to your natural "swing," you can use the shot bias to compensate for your less-than-perfect finger movements. As you play around with your clubs, Hank Haney will evaluate you and offer suggestions for finding just the right balance in your gear. It seems as though EA may have taken exception to so many people claiming that the reason for their poor scores was a faulty swing mechanic, and now it's as if the company is saying, "There, we've done all we can to make the clubs as customizable as possible. If you still stink, you can't blame the equipment anymore."
While the gameplay aspects of Tiger Woods have made a huge leap this year, it's unfortunate to note that the graphics and sound didn't come along for the ride. The game lives up to the graphical standards of the new-gen consoles, but at no point does it ever make you sit up and take notice. The digital courses still haven't managed to capture the beauty of the places they're meant to emulate, and golf destinations that are breathtaking in reality are simply varying shades of green here; trees still look like jagged, ugly messes, bunkers lack any texture or realistic physics, water is just as fake as ever, and the gallery is filled with sycophants who look, react and behave in exactly the same manner. Character models look fine, but no one besides Tiger really embodies any personality; Tiburon has merely slapped a different face and body type over the same underlying mechanics, making most of the characters feel like simple retreads wearing a new cap.
While the visuals are disappointing yet passable, the title utterly fails in every sense when it comes to the commentary. For years, David Faherty and Gary McCord have narrated the action, combining a deep knowledge of the game with a hefty dose of self-effacing humor and fourth wall-breaking commentary. Sadly, both are gone this year, replaced by the utterly terrible Kelly Tillman and Sam Torrance. Tillman's delivery is as forced and wooden as it gets, and Torrance lacks the sharp wit that made Faherty such a joy as a fairway reporter. Instead, the new duo take a "just the facts, ma'am" approach, and the few attempts they make at injecting their comments with personality completely fall flat. I'm honestly at a loss for why EA let two of their best commentators go and replaced them with these no-talent hacks, but the damage is done, and for as long as these two are calling the action, the Tiger Woods franchise will be relegated to commentary on par with the horror of Trey Wingo and NFL Tour.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 does a great job of improving the series' various gameplay aspects, taking an already great experience and making it even better. The dynamic skill system, club tuner, and simultaneous online play are all welcome additions, proving that the folks at Tiburon aren't content to merely sit back and pump out the same game year after year. On the other hand, the title really does nothing to push the PS3's processing power, and the new commentary team is easily one of the worst I've heard in any sports game in years. While this year's edition is good enough to win a couple of Majors, it still falls well short of the Grand Slam.
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