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.
So what does it all mean for you, the player? Choice, mostly. There's no excuse for not mastering power drives or accurate putts, since the tools to help you are all to hand. Under normal circumstances the presence of so many aids would make the game too easy, but the new skill system balances that out by requiring solid all-round play in order to max out your statistics, regardless of what features you use to help you make the shot. In other words, newcomers get more help than before, while long-term fans have more access to, and input into, the data behind their career than ever. It's not a perfect balance, but it's pretty damn close.
On top of this, there's the ooh-ooh-shiny Web 2.0-inspired jiggery-pokery of Photo Game Face and GamerNet. Game Face is the one most people will enjoy tinkering with at first, allowing you to create your own in-game avatar using photographs of your real life mush. The results are hit and miss, to say the least, especially if you're relying on the Live Vision camera for your imagery. My first effort came out looking like a grey-faced zombie Keanu Reeves, which is ludicrous since everyone knows I'm more of a werewolf Christian Slater. Upload some hi-res shots to www.easportsworld.com and the results are much better - provided you've got the patience to wait for EA's groaning servers to let you in. Creating a reasonable likeness in this manner requires more fiddling than most casual players will want to bother with but, once you've got something you're happy with, the ability to actually see yourself on the fairway is quite uncanny, especially since you're now able to share your games with the world.
Which brings us to GamerNet, clearly being trialled here for inclusion across the EA Sports range. This always-on community hub allows you to save clips from your game - whether it be the full 18 holes or just the last shot played - and upload them to the GamerNet server. More than just a YouTube for virtual golfers, each clip can be enhanced with challenges of your choosing. If you fluked a hole from beyond the green, you can challenge other players to repeat your good fortune. If you beat a tough course at 15-under-par, you can see if anyone can top that score. For each player who attempts and fails your challenges, you'll earn points.
Already the service is well populated and, compared to the woes that have blighted the Game Face system, very stable. Once you get past the novelty of the idea, the long-term benefits become clear. What you have is, essentially, a free library of constantly changing bonus gameplay - a library that you can draw from, and contribute to, at any time. There's a fair amount of chaff to sort through - lots of clips called OMGLOLZPWN4GE!!!!!! are already available - but as a flexible remote multiplayer mode it'll be interesting to see how GamerNet evolves.
So, should you buy? With a boatload of new features, both subtle and sweeping but almost all beneficial, it's got to be a tempting proposition for experienced Tiger Woods fans. It's not all gravy - it's perhaps not as visually sexy as you'd hope, the water and foliage effects are fairly standard, while crowds of identikit spectators move robotically through the same movement cycles like some creepy dance troupe. There's also a naughty freeze bug in Tiger Challenge, although while we await the inevitable fix it's easily avoided by holding A as the game boots. Equally, the upside-down career mode, which starts hard and then gets easy, can make the game frustrating to start, and this injection of carefully regimented realism will annoy as many as it excites. There's also the general shakiness of the Photo Game Face online system, and the inclusion of features that have yet to be implemented - uploading more than three GamerNet clips requires some downloadable content (presumably paid for) that has yet to appear.
It still plays a great game of golf though, and is almost embarrassingly eager to please with its abundance of game modes and options. Don't like an option? Just switch it off. Need some help grasping the basics? The game leaps into action to take your hand. Want some guidance to refine your pro game? Everything you need to analyse your performance is at your fingertips. Almost every area of the game can be customised in line with your tastes to the extent that, if you ask nicely, Tiger will probably even dress up as Sailor Moon and call you Susan. Given the variable quality of the EA Sports brand over the years, the general air of sequel cynicism is more than justified but, if you're willing to invest the time in building a better golfer and not just grumble that it's too hard, this is the best Tiger Woods has been in years.
8 / 10