Golf, Mark Twain once observed, is a good walk spoiled. Were he alive today, it seems unlikely that he'd be terribly impressed with the steady rise of golfing videogames over the past few years - a development which actually removes all of the walking from the equation entirely.
However, the success of said games suggests that there are plenty of people who would disagree with Twain's assertion. Ranging in seriousness from the cartoonish, arcade efforts of Sony's Everybody's Golf and Nintendo's Wii Sports through to the detailed simulation of today's subject, EA Sports' Tiger Woods franchise, golf games have ballooned out of their curious cultural niche to become a mainstream form of entertainment.
It's all Tiger Woods' doing, of course. Not EA Sports' licensed series which carries his name, but the golfer himself - young, handsome, dashing, so multi-ethnic that it'd make your head spin, enormously successful, and as a result, quite astonishingly rich.
Tiger turned around a sport traditionally seen as the preserve of rich white men with sagging paunches, making it fresh and interesting to a whole generation of young people - exactly the kind of young people who play videogames. That his name adorns the most successful golfing franchise is no coincidence; it's no more and no less than his right.
Even with Tiger's face grinning out of the packaging, however, EA can't afford to rest on its laurels with a franchise like Tiger Woods. Golf's ascendance into the ranks of the world's favourite sports videogames has been rapid, and without continually delivering innovation and progress, its descent from grace could be equally rapid.
At least in part, it's that pursuit of innovation which was behind the decision, almost two years ago, to move the Tiger Woods franchise from its original home at EA's Redwood studios to the studio in Tiburon, Florida. Florida, as the developers are keen to point out, is the home of professional golf in the USA (Tiger himself lives just six miles down the road from the studio), with 180 courses in the city of Orlando alone.
More importantly, though, moving to Tiburon allowed a new development team - many of whom had cut their teeth on massive franchises like Madden - a chance to inherit the well-respected series and try out some new ideas. Giving the team room to breathe a little, EA's powers-that-be handed then an 18 month development cycle (compared to 11 to 13 months even for huge games like FIFA and Madden). With only weeks remaining in that cycle (the game is due out in Europe in early September), we took a swing at both the Xbox 360 and Wii versions.
Xbox 360 / Playstation 3
For the "next-gen" console versions of Tiger Woods, the team at Tiburon inherited a unique challenge - namely the fact that there has been, arguably, remarkably little actually broken in the franchise for some time. Indeed, the most common criticism applied to the series is that it often fails to change much between iterations, a critique which looks a little flaccid when reviewers proceed to admit that there isn't much that needs changing.
Rather than fixing the unbroken, then, EA has opted to update Tiger Woods in two key ways - tweaks, and additions. On the tweaking front, a few of the changes are immediately apparent. Graphically, the game has always been a looker, but it's got noticeably richer colours, more natural looking distance haze and soft focus, and higher quality environments.
Character models have muscles which move and animate realistically, a technique borrowed from Madden, and tiny details like grass overlapping with soft bunker edges combine to make the whole game look closer to the real thing than ever before. The changes seem subtle, until EA Tiburon's Tom Goedde shows us some of the same scenes in Tiger Woods 07, side by side. It's by no means a revolutionary leap, but 08 is by far the better looking game.
Similarly, the changes to the basic play of the series are relatively subtle, but look set to have a big impact on how you play. Shaping shots - curving the ball from side to side - has always been a part of the game, but the team has reworked the system dramatically for 08. Rather than trying to mimic the motion of a golf club through an analogue stick, which was hard to do and tough for the game to read accurately, you can now draw and fade (secret golfer code for shunting the ball left or right along its path) with the right and left bumpers.
How far you can draw or fade is based on the particular abilities of the golfer you're playing, but the system itself is incredibly easy to understand - you simply see a large pulsating circle on the fairway representing your target area, and nudge it left or right with the bumpers on the control pad.
Similarly, a new putt preview system massively simplifies the task of working out the exact lie of the green, showing you exactly how a ball will travel along the surface. The idea, Goedde confides, was largely lifted from a system used by televised tournaments on the Golf Channel. It's all part of what the team sees as its goal with the Tiger franchise; make things more strategic and involving, rather than simply more difficult.