Tiger Woods is one of the world's richest sportsmen, despite throwing hissy fits and singularly failing to win anything whenever I've seen him on the TV, and one of the reasons he doesn't always have to rely on his golf is that EA Sports continue to pay for his visage to front their PGA Tour line. With Tiger Woods 2003, EA hopes to strengthen his position, but this Christmas there's a new challenger on the circuit. Ace Golf aims to make its mark through the use of charmingly cute visuals and simple controls - but can Telenet's upstart leave Tiger's suave presentation in the rough? Or is EA's resolve stronger than a cement bunker? All will be revealed.
Despite approaching the problem from the opposite ends of realism and fun, Ace Golf and Tiger Woods 03 have a surprising amount in common. Well, perhaps that isn't too surprising - they're both golf games with stick-based control systems - but it makes picking a favourite all the more difficult. Fortunately, after some weeks we've done that, but... clearly we're not going to spoil it all the way up here now, are we?
Dealing with the similarities first, while Tiger and Ace are both simple games to learn, thanks to highly intuitive control systems, they are also tricky to master, thanks to a reasonable amount of depth in the aforementioned control department.
Presentation-wise, both are nice, but Tiger is all very EA-standard and uninspired, and the new GUI is an aesthetic mess compared to the old one, particularly with the added jaggies on the PS2 and fuzziness on the Cube. Fortunately, Ace was designed exclusively for the Cube, so it's easy to navigate, well-explained and illustrated and good-looking in a cutesy Japanese way.
And finally, both games have entertaining multiplayer modes for one to four players, either via the time-honoured and time-consuming 'hot seat' method or in Tiger's case, there's also a split-screen "Speed Golf" mode for the impatient, which can be tremendous fun as both players tear along the course in a bizarrely inimitable "first to the hole" challenge.
It's not all one big graphically separated mesh of the same systems though - while there are plenty of similarities throughout, there are subtle individual quirks which conspire to make a lot of difference. The control method is a good example.
In both Ace and Tiger, players use the analogue stick to gauge power and accuracy, but pulling back and pushing forward to simulate backswing. In Ace's case, there's a little yellow icon in the bottom right showing the path your thumb takes over the C-stick and a power bar along the bottom, but your efforts end with the striking of the ball. In Tiger's case, you can add further pace to the backswing by tapping L1 (or the corresponding Cube or Xbox shoulder button) and add mid-air spin to the ball by tapping L2 plus an analogue direction in flight.
In Ace, you can augment your power and judgement by earning new accessories, new caddies and new clubs along with a host of other unlockables. In Tiger, you spend the money you earn on improving your stats, in categories ranging from power and accuracy to spin and luck. If only Mr. Blair could pay for the latter, eh?
Both games allow you to go for a shorter, mid-range shot by pulling back only a certain distance, but Ace makes this process easier, as it's seemingly more sensitive to your dragging. Ironically though, the Xbox and PS2 pads have bigger thumbsticks and are much easier to judge, and with Ace unavailable on those it's a bit of a dead heat.
Not so on the greens though, where EA's "hit and hope" mentality is poorly implemented. All you do is pick a direction, choose a point to aim for and let rip - you cannot miss-swing the putter. Oddly though, there are no lines overlaid on the image to give you an idea of the green, and you have to rely on your caddy to offer tips on where to play - "six feet long, two feet right" for example. The problem is that it's incredibly difficult to judge the distance on-screen because the camera keeps zooming in and out, and invariably (unless one of the axis requires no intervention, or your ball is within rolling distance of the hole), it's a matter of pot luck and nothing else.
Ace, on the other hand, gives you a picture of the green from up and behind the player, and lets you angle the ball and choose the power. Daunting though it may seem, it's surprisingly forgiving and after a few hours potting birdies was far easier than Tiger after as much as 40 hours (which is a conservative estimate, thanks to the popularity of the multiplayer).
Outwardly at least, Tiger 03 has definitely been tailored to appear huge, and even our renowned cynicism when it comes to PR trumpeting was apparently misplaced here, because in terms of longevity Tiger has the upper hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder. In a kid glove and frilly golfing sweater.
Ace fights gallantly, with six delightfully designed, clean, crisp courses, and a collection of entertaining and self-explanatory mini-games (e.g. "Nearest the Pin"), but Tiger has twice as many courses, several of them fictional and several of them real, and apart from a host of thoughtful play modes including tournament, stroke and match play, offers a hugely refined single player "Tiger Challenge" mode and overhauled "Skill Zone" mini-games for target practice. Not to mention a pretty helpful (and mandatory) opening tutorial section.
Changes to Tiger Challenge are vast and comprehensive. Last time out, the objective was to topple 18 increasingly gifted golfers on a variety of real and fictional courses, culminating in a trip round "Tiger's Dream 18". The final goal is still to beat Tiger at his own, frosty fantasy game, but this time along the way players will fight nine and eighteen holes against several adversaries, take part in skins matches (with a certain prize pot per hole), enter various mini tournaments and compete in The Open Championship. Amazingly, the inclusion of The Open was the only other thing we wanted adding to Tiger 2002, so we're understandably happy about clubbing our way around St. Andrews.
Weathering the storm
Speaking of St. Andrews, the noble seaside course is the most pertinent reminder of EA's amazing in-game visuals, and these too have been touched up for Tiger 2003. New characters join the already bustling roster, and each character model is now very well endowed with polygons in all the right places and some wonderful clothing textures. Animation is very expressive, too, with Tiger reaching for his head, a frown breaking on his face in the aftermath of a bad shot, and more animated characters like a former sumo wrestler potting two-inch putts with a prone snooker stroke.
Courses are elegantly realised and in the case of the real ones, EA has cleverly opted for familiar camera angles. We almost felt goosebumps as we teed off on the 13th at St. Andrews, having watched Tiger himself do the same thing only a couple of months prior. Ace Golf's cute, low-poly Japanesey characters and occasional weather effects just can't compete with EA's stellar production values - and when faced with Tiger's swaying grass and the logo turning endlessly over on the face of the tiny, textured ball, Ace Golf looks like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Ace doesn't take the opportunity to capitalise in too many other areas, either. Despite Tiger's appallingly US-centric rock shite soundtrack, Ace offers only a token resistance with forgettable tunes, and the irritating, repetitive caddy voices are a far cry from the insightful, entertaining quips and advice from Tiger's commentary team - one of whom sounds worryingly like Eurogamer's own Rob Fahey.
Furthermore, camera problems in Tiger (like the "poster shot" cuts to the player's face during flight, which interfere with the action, the constant, deliberate slowdown effects and the camera's obstructive misbehaviour in general) are easily ignored, especially as Ace's free-roaming camera feels awkwardly untethered as you zoom over the courses. Tiger's stuck-on-the-player approach may be slightly more restrictive, but it feels a lot fairer than getting to examine every flaw in every blade of virtual grass...
Ace in the hole
As keen golfing fans, both virtual and otherwise, we were pretty excited about the prospect of two key and reasonably individual golfing titles this Christmas, but it's clear after several hours of play that Tiger Woods is a much broader, much more engaging beast with a lot more going for it.
Both games strike a reasonable balance between playability and realism, but Ace Golf is simply too basic, whereas Tiger is second only to Links in the detail and realism stakes. Given the huge number of activities in Tiger Woods 2003 and the elegance in almost every department, a few camera quirks and presentation eccentricities are easily overlooked, whereas Ace's obsession with accessibility and lack of depth is cripplingly restrictive by comparison.
Unless you can't stand Woods or buy Japanese exclusively, our advice would be to take a Tiger home this Christmas.