Version tested Xbox 360
Is it that time of year already? The time when another Tiger Woods golf game ambles onto the fairway of life, prompting us all to chuckle at how it's the same as the last one and who buys these things and blah blah blah? Such cynicism is understandable, given the rather lazy port which heralded the series' next-gen debut with PGA Tour 06. Last year's update improved on that uninspiring start (not a difficult task) and, inevitably, this latest variation offers an even more tweaked and buffed experience.
But is it enough to entice the suspicious multitudes into making a purchase? The answer: probably.
Gameplay, for once, has undergone some obvious changes. The biggest additions to the game - the much vaunted GamerNet and Game Photo Face functions - are sort of sitting off to the side of the main game itself, so let's do a quick recap of the mostly positive enhancements made to the actual gameplay before we tackle those features.
The most sweeping change in this regard is the one that you probably won't notice until you've created your own golfer and played with them for a while. As with 07, all new golfers are rubbish. I mean, really. They're embarrassing. Fudging putts, hooking drives and generally making you wonder if your fingers have been replaced with sausages filled with wool. Tackling the PGA tournaments with such a golfer is a waste of time, so you're forced instead to spend your time in the additional game modes - especially Tiger Challenge - to build up your skills.
Whereas the tradition in previous games was to allow you to earn and allocate points to increase your different skills, this time EA has taken a more organic route to self-improvement. Your skills are automatically enhanced whenever you play well so, even if you lose a round, provided you were getting better at, say, driving then your skill in that area goes up regardless. It's a long and often arduous process, and one that will inevitably frustrate many. It's also refreshingly realistic, meaning you have to approach the game as you would in real life.
If you want to improve your putting, you need to practice putting. And keep practising. Play, play, play. The more you play the better you get, and while it'll be a lengthy wait before you can challenge the pros, it also eliminates the super-golfer syndrome that kicked in during previous Tiger Woods games, where shrewd upgrading could turn a wannabe into a champ far too quickly. If you're hitting good shots here it's because you're good at those shots, not because you bribed the game into making them easier.
This is all backed up by the new Shot Confidence system, which constantly monitors how you perform with different clubs, strokes and conditions and gives you a skill boost should you find yourself in a situation that matches your natural aptitude. It's always there, silently judging like an ex-girlfriend, and while the hardcore players can summon up the related stats to see where practice is needed, it's perfectly possible to just leave it ticking away, adding an almost invisible but notable element of human chemistry to the cold physics calculations.
Also of noteworthy newness is the return of the 3-Click feature, an absolute boon for those who struggle with the analogue stick system for taking shots. It's the tried and trusted method of hitting balls in golf games - click once to start the meter, click again to set the power, again on the way back for direction. A prod of the right stick switches between the systems whenever you need, so you can use the stick for a powerful drive, then swap to a 3-Click shot for added accuracy for a medium shot onto the green, and then back to the stick for putting. Or whatever combination works for you. Given that judging power levels on the stick can be something of an arcane art, being able to choose on the fly is most welcome.
Additionally, the left and right bumpers are now used to draw and fade your shots - sort of like curling a shot past the keeper in FIFA. Especially handy for negotiating dogleg fairways, or shaving past a hazard, you can now dictate the curve of your shot by shunting your target circle before lifting the club, an idiot-proof visual system far more reliable than trusting in your thumb to do the work on the swing itself. Spin can be added to the ball in the air, which - yes - is rather unrealistic but it reduces the pre-stroke clutter to a minimum and keeps you engaged once you let fly.
Also new is the Putt Preview, which overlays the trajectory of your putt over a topographic grid of the green before you commit. Another traditional feature of golf games past, it's just enough help without making things stupidly easy. Unavailable in the higher rankings, and only available once per hole even in basic play, you can't aim during the preview - only see what would happen if you took the shot now. For make-or-break long putts, it's a valuable safety net. There's also a new game mode (the amusingly titled Bingo Bango Bongo, in which points are scored for being first to the green, closest to the hole and for winning the hole) but, for a series so often derided for its lack of innovation, I'd say that's a decent amount of evolution on display.