Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: August 26, 2008
Tiger Woods PGA Tour '09 joins EA's summer trifecta of sports simulation games with as solid a golf title as they have ever released. There are just enough differences from the '08 and '07 versions to finally make the latest and greatest feel like an honest sequel worthy of standing alone. Lest I gush too much too soon, not every change in '09 is for the better. Let's take a look at the good stuff first.
My favorite piece in any game is the character creator, and for three years running, Tiger Woods has been the de facto standard for me. Sure, it supports the Xbox 360 camera to map your face right onto your golfer, but it also has some of the most robust facial mapping and editing controls this side of CAD design. The character creator has always been the absolute best for custom design, letting you change attributes such as skin pigments, hair colors, hair types, jaw size, brow size, eye color, neck girth — yes, neck girth. I still feel that Tiger Woods '09 is missing something from '07, despite all of the controls still being there. The most limiting feature, I feel, is still the lack of layering and transparency. It'd be nice to have a few more hair options and facial hair tweaks, but I only say that because I am truly in love with character creation systems.
Once you get done designing the penultimate mirror copy of yourself — or the most gangly and scary-looking golfer possible — you have several game options at your fingertips. For single-player mode, you can opt for a quick match "arcade mode" game, play the mini-game-riddled Tiger Challenge, or follow the professional PGA circuit.
The Tiger Challenge has once again changed forms compared to last year's honeycomb-meets-Final Fantasy Skill Chart set of challenges and instead presents things in the form of player cards. Each card has a locked golfer that requires X amount of points in order to unlock, which then unlocks the next card in the series. For any given golfer card, there are nine challenges that range in points and abilities to help you nail down your game and advance you toward challenging the infamous Tiger Woods himself. Some challenges will have you trying to drive three shots over 700 yards, others will test your putting ability from great distances, and still others will have you playing a match game against a computer opponent. Comparatively, this iteration of the Tiger Challenge is much more refined and fun than the previous versions.
Playing through the PGA Tour season is the same as it has been in previous versions. You can set the initial day and time parameters, such as three- or four-day events, and then you've got the option to play, skip, or simulate the round. I'm not a huge fan of simulating rounds because nine times out of 10, the computer is going to be victorious. I've played four-day events where I shot a 60 in the first round, a 58 in the second round, and simulated the third only to have the computer say I shot a 78. If you plan on simulating rounds, be prepared for the computer to inflate your course average for the worse.
Don't worry if you shoot too high, though, because one of the biggest changes to the entire Tiger Woods 09 platform is the introduction of dynamic skills and Tiger Woods' real-life coach Hank Haney. After certain challenge rounds or PGA tournaments, Hank will assess your skills and give you feedback on your progress. The dynamic skills are probably one of the best additions to the game since neck girth. Consistently drive the ball long and on the fairway, and your Power will increase. Hit your shots in regulation, and your Accuracy will increase. Chip out of the bunk and land close to the pin on a regular basis, and your Short Game will go up. Sink eagles and birdies and watch your Putting increase.
Conversely, drive into water hazards, shank out of bounds, and four-putt your way out of holes, and you'll see your skills drop. This constantly evolving and changing skill tracking system is the best thing to happen to online gameplay in ages. No longer do you have to worry about someone with all 10 stats driving the ball 450 yards and sinking putts from 60 feet just because their stats are boosted. Now people with all 10 stats are there because you know they have a solid and consistent game. You now have to earn your rank, and it plays out beautifully.
Fitting in with the dynamic skills is the scaled-down Pro Shop. You can still buy new drivers, shirts, pants, shoes, socks, and golf balls, but unlike the previous versions that could supplement your stats by massive amounts, now it's more of a respectable tweak. EA has also changed the purchasing model within the game such that you can use your golfer's career earnings to pay for that new pair of shoes, or you can use your Microsoft points, which is nice, I guess, if you really want that pair of shoes.
Speaking of online game play (see how I segued there?), the ability to create and join matches has been suitably improved over previous versions. It used to be quite awkward and time-intensive to find or join a match with friends, but now the custom match option lets you choose the course, the game type, course conditions, and even to place a wager on the game using your golfer's career earnings.
However, it's still not perfect. Missing from the online game types are Battle Golf and Bingo Bango Bongo, which are two of the most fun game modes that can be played with others. Seriously, EA, what's up with that? They're relegated to only challenge mode and single-player local games. For all the hype and serious improvement that Simultaneous Swing offers (a new mode where you don't have to wait for each golfer in succession, and you can see a Tron-like trail follow each shot in real time), adding two of the more fun modes would've made it all the more sweet.
There is also one other huge nagging flaw in the online match play, which is so awful that I'm dedicating an entire paragraph to it in hopes that it'll stand out enough that EA might actually read it along with all the other people who have been saying the exact same thing for three versions of the game. Fix the game lobby mode. Fix it. It's broke. Fix it fix it fix it. Sure, joining a match is incredibly more improved over the past versions, but guess what still happens when the last golfer finishes up the 18th hole? Just guess, EA. The players get dropped back out to the main menu! So when you're sitting there looking at the round results and talking with your friends about how you can't believe that last triple bogey, no one can hear it because everyone has been dropped out of the game. Seriously, would it be too much to ask that rather than defaulting to dropping everyone out, that maybe you'd still maintain the connection and go back to the game lobby with the people against whom you just played? I play with the same two to three people, and it's the same thing every time: create game, play, game ends and everyone gets dumped back to main menu. It's silly, and seems extremely nearsighted on the programmer's part.
Thankfully, that stands as one of the few, if biggest, flaws in Tiger Woods '09. The music has been thankfully toned down from its '08 predecessor by being pure instrumental lounge-style R&B music. It's enough to give you some background noise during the menus without pounding you over the head with the same set of six pre-packaged songs over and over again. The audio within the game is still on par (haha , I kill me!), as it has been in the past. The sound of the clubs swinging, ball hitting the club face, landing in the rough, or dropping in the hole — they all sound exactly like they should and match the animations very well.
In summation, Tiger Woods PGA Tour '09 is a solid game. It finally feels that enough improvements have been made in the challenge system, load time and game mechanics that it's more than the usual yearly rebranding. The ever-present online game-dropping really needs to be fixed because game lobbies are nothing new. The game creation has been improved, and the various modes keep the game fresh. Having your own coach in the game and watching your skills improve (or decline) is one of the best improvements to the franchise, and I can only hope it extends into other titles — along with ability to modify neck girth.
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