On the eve of Tiger Woods series' 10th anniversary, EA Sports, developers of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, reiterate their understanding of what's key in an annual sports franchise. Keeping critical acclaim above the waterline lies in the incremental additions and improvements balanced over the previous year's release. EA doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every year, but it does have to improve traction and handling … without scaring people away by snapping on a set of hubcap spinners.
The greatest addition -- or should we say re-addition -- is the three-click swing. And, better yet, the ability to switch between it and analog swing on the fly. The three-click swing, back by popular demand, starts a swing on the first click, gauges power from the second click, and measures accuracy with the third. The rubber-banding right to left motion ruins flinchers, but is ultimately easier and more accurate than the analog swing. The analog swing is no-joke sensitive and can prove embarrassing to amateurs trying to decipher its delicate science.
Playing at Tour Pro difficulty (topping the chart from Easy Play, Balanced, and Hard levels) raises the ante on several major points. First, the aforementioned three-click swing is immediately disabled, revealing that swings based on visual cues are a noteworthy challenge. Second, the arcade-like ball-spinning action is disabled, making your shot equal your shot, rather than equal some bizarre last-minute quip in a favorable direction. Third, shots from the rough multiply their difficulty, largely by taking a lot of oomph out of your swing, and also by penalizing accuracy. Fourth, accuracy overall is harder to master, which plays a tremendous role the moment you talk about another all-new feature in this year's Tiger Woods: Confidence.
…Or lack of it. Confidence is a new monkey on your back that travels around with you as faithfully as your favorite caddy bag. With an abundance of statistics to back it up, Confidence measures your previous experience with certain holes, clubs, and ball lies, then furtively applies them to your current circumstances. Been chipping extraordinarily well from the bunkers (like me)? Then your accuracy circle -- your target -- will shrink. Been driving off the tee extraordinarily bad (like me)? Then your accuracy circle opens wider and wider until you get to the point where you'd rather reach for rosary beads rather than your driver. One poignant factor calculating Confidence is the shot's risk. Fail a risky shot -- over a water hazard, skirting bunkers, etc. -- and your Confidence will plummet. But land that same risky shot, and you're rewarded with increased Confidence the next time you meet up with similar circumstances. Confidence is a career follower, landing the shots you're seeking, or barring those same shots entirely.
One more beautiful feature added to this Tiger Woods is the Putt Preview. The grid layout to the putting greens is already smartly played, with pinpoints of light coasting along the greens' topography to indicate the shape and thrust of your putt. But now, available once per putt, is the Putt Preview which etches out a chalky line for your ball's projected path. Using Putt Preview will exponentially improve your short game. But again, engaging the Pro Tour difficulty level removes the preview, leaving you to the same old song and dance that gives some putting greens their deserved degree of infamy. Damning the Putt Preview for making the game "too easy" (as several game reviewers lament) is a silly point of contention, since it's nothing more than an added option for the player to utilize or let lie, depending on an individual's level of restraint and/or challenge-seeking. I use Putt Preview with a religious fervor, since it took my game from double bogeys and four-overs to pars and beautiful little birdies. EA Sports would be remiss to remove this feature from successive Tiger Woods titles.
Also making a debut this year is Bingo Bango Bongo, a new golf format added to the Traditional Game Modes menu. Between you and a challenger, whoever puts the ball on the green first: Bingo. Whoever puts the ball closest to the pin: Bango. Whoever puts the ball in the cup with the least strokes: Bongo. That's in addition to an already healthy stable of other Traditional Game Modes like Match Play, Skins, and Best Ball; Arcade Modes like Battle Golf, and the dirty-pool One Ball; and the Mini-Games section with a lineup like Twenty One, Target to Target, and T-I-G-E-R. (If you've ever played a b-ball game of H-O-R-S-E, then you already get the gist.)
All of these games are buried in a dry menu system, which sometimes makes it strangely difficult to locate commonly-visited options, like the Pro Shop for instance. There's also little guidance for just-starting players on where to begin. With the PGA Tour Season plunked at the top of the My Career list, I thought it was a natural starting point (after I found the Tutorial section tucked into an obscurely-titled My Tiger '08 menu). The PGA Tour Season, however, is best saved for skilled characters. Skills can be built in the logically-titled Skills Training section, but I was temporarily lost at the driving range, which -- no matter how many drives I put in -- refused to improve my stats by any margin.
I say all that to say this: The menu screens are in need of at least a graphical (if not a content) overhaul, simply because Tiger Woods has monstered out in enough tentacled directions to give the cold-shoulder to series newbies.
Once entrenched into the honeycomb grid making up the Tiger Challenge, however, the bite-size events serve well to forward character progress. Instead of slugging out four rounds of a PGA Tour event (in which the rounds, incidentally, are scaleable down to three, two, or even one round in length) the Tiger Challenge raises the glass ceiling erected over your budding skill levels, which are, in turn, advanced dramatically during the aforementioned PGA Tour events -- which are found in the Event Calendar under the PGA Tour Season, found under My Career, found under Game Modes, which is located on the main menu screen (okay, I'm done beating the dead menu-horse).
In so many events, the signature Tiger Woods touches are felt: The low-groaning wind tunnel sound when the green is within reach from a Hail Mary fairway drive; the hydraulic tssss and letterbox narrowing when a lengthy putt homes in on its target; even the rapid-fire snapshot-like replays from a perfect, powerful drive off the tee. Of course Gary McCord and "Fairway" Faraday return with overly-familiar banter, but at least they jibe each other now if their god-like prescience is thrown a curve ball because you've put a hefty spin on the ball to keep it from rocketing into the rough. Or the bunker. Or the water.
To better suit yourself for such a myriad of hazards are the role-playing elements: Bonus-granting clothes and equipment. While better equipment in the bag logically brings about expected benefits, some imagination-stretching exercises may be required if you're to figure out why a red, floral sun hat grants certain bonuses over, say, a fitted EA baseball cap. If you're into hoarding bonuses at the expense of mismatched fashion, then the Pro Shop will suit you well. If you insist on complementing your argyle pullover with your plaid knickers and knee-high socks, then your skills will receive noticeably less buffs. It's your call, Ferragamo. Just one more point for the arcade crowd, and one more seething point of contention against the golf simulation purists.
Despite the increasing graphical muscle injected into each successive year of the Tiger Woods series, some small, perhaps middling, details (and some small, perhaps middling, bugs) are taking their modest toll. Hole flyovers can be choppy during liftoff. Commentary is often truncated when a putt is sunk and the load screen rudely interrupts. The flag on the staff flaps in directions irrelevant to the actual wind direction. The crowd doesn't understand that in a game of One Ball, you're supposed to put the other player in the rough. And if you're in the rough, the crowd isn't budging one inch to the left or right to clear your shot path. And (this may be a unique instance, but) I never once saw any of the victory or defeat animations I purchased for my character -- just the stock animations given for free at the beginning.
And, tangential to those seam-showing errors, tweaking is required on some of the holes, in particular Bandon Dunes. Myself and my rival on that hole, Paula Creamer, were stumped as to why a huge patch of sand grass would catch any shot (short of using a sand wedge) driven off the tee, no matter how much I increased the pitch on my swing. Finally, after several retries, I turned left 45 degrees and put maximum fade into my shot -- another new and welcome feature -- which garishly sliced my trajectory around the offending bush. I was stunned to see the NPC follow in my footsteps immediately afterward! On a different hole on those same Bandon Dunes, the caddy recommended I use a punch shot to lower my trajectory, pushing my shot under some offensive wind currents. Taking the caddy's advice, I put myself into a punch stance, wound it up, let it go -- and yet another patch of sand grass ate my shot for breakfast, right off the tee.
That's no goodnight kiss, however, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 is still a brazenly fun and inarguably full-bodied game of golf. The all-new EA Sports GamerNet allows you to post your sharpest -- but more likely, most ridiculous -- shots online for other players to challenge. I thought my 30-yard chip shot from the bunker, hitting the flag, and having it drop into the hole would be a snazzy shot to upload (I even snagged a "Pole Dancer" achievement from it). Then I found a player that had posted a shot from the rough that hit a bridge, then bounced down into a din of spectators, as the ball then bounced off the foot of one 45 times (45 times!) like he was playing hacky sack with the ball.
I promptly decided not to upload my obviously mediocre, non-glitchy shot.
The roster of hotshot golfers is now 21 members deep, several new-to-the-series courses are unlockable, and you can also toss your own face into the fray with the Photo Gamer Face tools. A frontal face shot, combined with a profile face shot, wraps your digital skin around an in-game model. Results may vary.
There's quite obviously an iron-solid game of arcade-styled golf to be had, and there are enough meaty, pick-and-choose gameplay options to plate a buffet table. Series vets won't find the new additions vital. But newcomers may need a little more handholding to navigate this increasingly beefy golf franchise.