Review: The only chance you'll ever get to kick Tiger's ass
It's not the biggest game out of the EA Sports camp, but Tiger Woods PGA Tour has consistently been a top-notch golf series on all the platforms its appeared on despite being one of the less popular games in the EA line. This season sees a slight shift though ? as EA Tiburon, known for the Madden and NCAA franchises ? i.e. EA's cash cows ? takes over the reigns from EA Redwood Shores, for whatever reasons. This shift to a new developer in a yearly series means baby steps, and one could say that Tiger 08 is indeed just that. On the surface, this year's game seems very much like last year's, and in most cases they'd be right. But thanks to some subtle tweaks, the return of a popular golf mechanic, and a surprisingly innovative online-oriented mode of play, it feels different enough to forgive the lack of a total overhaul one might expect from a developer change, a change that likely will be coming next year once Tiburon gets a handle on the franchise. For veterans these new additions might be game savers, but for new players...they're going to be amazed at this great entry into a great, if not popular, franchise.
Tiger 08 isn't drastically different from Tiger 07, but it does have some major improvements to add more control to a shot. While one could stick with the analog swinging mechanic, which this year is fairly sensitive, EA has also added (returned?) the ability to simply use the tried-and-true 3-click swing meter that almost every golf game used until the analog stick was invented. This in and of itself changes the game greatly, offering more control over approach shots and putting, as the visual representation goes a long way to showing how much power, or touch, is needed. For long time players it does make the game fairly easy compared to using analog swinging (never have figured out why others don't use the same sort of swing meter Links 2004 had), but only because the level of control is that much higher. Specifically, putting is as fun as its ever been, thanks to this mechanic and the new ?putt line? button. Just line up a shot, and press the left bumper and it'll show you where the shot is headed, allowing you to adjust and tweak where to aim. It's only usable once so it can't be abused, but all the same it makes most putts easy, save for the frequently difficult to judge downhill attempts. There's a reason why they always say keep your approach below the hole.
It might seem like there's a lot to keep track of when playing a round, but using it all will result in better scores. Though complete precision is needed, you can still hit monster drives with the analog stick, and then switch over to the 3-click and deliver accurate approach shots ? we're talking laser-accurate potentially, once you get the yardage and necessary power worked out. Once you get it all figured out you'll have a great short game because the old-school mechanic lets you hit at an exact power figure compared to the blind-hitting analog stick. Putting is easy, though it's possible to get a little bit cocky and make mistakes, especially with short putts and especially downhill putts ? a runaway golf ball is highly possible with the latter. This year, your abilities are tied to your confidence, which goes up and down based upon your play. If you're a solid, accurate long hitter who hits fairways consistently and avoids hooks and slices, you get stronger with the driver and the target circle (which appeared last year) gets smaller allowing for more precise shots. Go the other way and the target circle grows large, meaning who knows where your shot will wind up. In short, the better you play, the more confident you get, and the potential for good scores rise.
This year's single player career mode is tweaked slightly from last year; the PGA Season is the same, with some additions to beef up the amount of courses (up to 16 this year), with the ultimate goal being victory in the FedEx Cup ? all four end-of-season tournaments appear. Tiger Challenge, on the other hand, has received a major revamping. Using a honecomb-like system, you beat various challenges, ranging from driving challenges to numerous versus matches against a wide range of opponents, and you unlock the ?boss? of that section, which increases the skills of your career golfer, which as always start at the very bottom (it is possible, however to increase stats in the Season though...I won the ?Spring Major? and shot up all the way to ?Legend? which lets you boost skills to 100). The ultimate goal is still the same, however, and that's to defeat Tiger Woods in an epic duel. At least here he can't hear you talk smack about him like a few unfortunate souls during this past season. When Tiger shipped this year, the 360 version had a game-killing bug that froze up Tiger Challenge at certain spots, hindering progress; that has been fixed now so unless you're on dial-up or not an Xbox Live member, there's nothing to fear.
You've probably guessed by now that the same solid character creation system returns, and you'd be right. Of course you can take Tiger Woods, with skills reset to nothing, instead of creating a new player, but it locks out many of the cool game face features. It's possible to make a decent enough replica of yourself using the familiar tools, but this year EA offers photo game face, which has you uploading a photo which is then processed and turned around and placed into the game where you can play as a legitimate replica of your ugly mug. It's a pretty cool idea. Like always, to succeed you have to play Tiger Challenge, and also spend some time doing all the various training challenges, which are mostly recycled from last year. While it's a bit weird to do a putting challenge to increase your power, it's there, and thus an easy way to increase stats. Of course you can increase your abilities through great play in PGA tournaments, but with poor overall skills, the chances of actually playing well are low until you get attributes into the 40-50 range.
Taking all of this into account, it's easy to see that TW 08 offers a monstrous single player mode, and one that will last a good while. But it's also a pretty difficult game in many ways, though mostly it's ?unnatural? means. PGA Season tourneys feature rubberband AI of sorts, as much as a mode that doesn't even use AI can have. Simply put, players are adjusted based upon your own performance. Shoot well and they will almost always keep pace, but play bad and they'll scale back to allow you a chance. This is frustrating. For example, one event I managed a -37...and lost. The only real trick is to wait until the final day to really kick some tail, as the AI adjusts after every round based on your previous score, so one could sandbag until Sunday and then move in for the kill. Tiger Challenge uses real AI though, but that can be equally tough, especially if you're hunting for gold medals. Early on it's not so bad, but in time you'll meet players with laser precision and miracle 50 foot putts on every hole, making you keep pace until they screw up, which is rare. Or when playing one-ball, as you progress they hit worse and worse shots in an attempt to sucker you into hitting the ball close to the pin so they can tap it in and win the hole. Ace Andrews, go straight to hell.
Online play features familiar tournaments for up to 4 players, but that's really not the focal point. Instead, EA Sports has a new feature debuting with Tiger ? Gamernet. Think of it as a playable YouTube; you can submit individual holes, showing some incredible performance, or an entire 18 holes, and someone can tackle your challenge and try to beat it. Or you can hit the Gamernet and find challenges to take on yourself, with success boosting you up the rankings. While it's a passive form of online play, it's surprisingly innovative and the potential is through the roof for other games in the future. It works extremely well in golf because it's an individual sport, and thus the ?can you top this? is a perfect fit. I'm sure over time we'll see it appear in other EA Sports games, and probably other EA games period before all is said and done...lest we forget the dozens of copycats it will spawn from other publishers.
This year's Tiger ups the ante in the visuals department, perhaps not a huge difference from last year, but it's to be expected when development shifts to another studio. The courses all look great and the variety of designs shows a smart choosing of places to play. The links-style courses (Bandon Dunes, St. Andrews, Carnoustie) are a bit rough, but that's by design, though Carnoustie eventually drove me insane because it can get so damn dark even with the TV brightness turned up. The real players look very close to their actual counterparts, especially Tiger, of course, who surely is pleased with his in-game avatar. Though it's to be expected, the frame rate is solid and there's no real issues; not surprising seeing this is a slow-paced game without a lot going on. There are some nice touches, however, like the wind being shown not just in a game meter, but the swaying of the trees, which offers a guide as to exactly how rough that wind really is. The audio showcases a low-key menu soundtrack featuring a lot of music from Gym Class Heroes, and very little else. There's the voices of the original golfers you compete against, and of course Tiger himself, a loud crowd, and the now-ancient commentary from Gary McCord and David Feherty, but that's the extent of it. It's good enough.