Version tested: Xbox 360
The myth that EA Sports titles barely change through their various iterations, bar some perfunctory updates to the licensed names, is all too pervasive. So much so that I was planning to pad out this review with a lengthy introduction in which I complained that the biggest change this year was that the graphics for the tee had been blown up to ridiculous proportions, obscuring most of the action. Then I'd say "It's true, you really can't see Tiger Woods for the tees" and we'd all laugh. [And some of us would lose our jobs. - Ed]
Thankfully, that's not necessary (even though I just did it anyway - no way am I wasting a joke that good) since Tiger Woods 09 represents another compellingly polished update with more than enough to talk about. EA will never be able to please everybody - there are still those who cling to 04 as the pinnacle of the series, after all - but to say they're just churning out the same game every year is grossly unfair.
Sure, on paper this edition may just seem to tweak the features introduced in last year's version, but the tweaks are substantial and result in obvious and beneficial changes to the gameplay across the board. The EA GamerNet, for example, is now seamlessly integrated into the main gameplay, as well as having its own menu section. You can still save your favourite shots, holes or rounds and challenge other players to match your performance - but now you'll see these challenges popping up during normal solo play.
For instance, at the tee for a particular hole, you'll hear a pleasant chime and a banner will appear at the top of the screen, telling you which other player from around the world has the longest drive distance from this tee. A ghosted marker appears on the fairway to illustrate the goal. Or approaching the green, someone may have issued a challenge to land closer to the hole than they did. A faint white circle shows the area you need to land in to beat this feat. You don't have to try and beat them, and you can turn the feature off entirely, but it's unobtrusive and turns the GamerNet concept from a separate Sporting YouTube into a fun way to see how others are playing, as you play. Sports are often driven by statistics and records, and this is a clever way of incorporating that competitive element without upsetting the core gameplay.
In fact, this sort of multi-tasking could well be the theme of TW09. The new online play mode, Simultaneous Stroke Play, allows four players to tackle the same course at the same time, without having to take turns. Colourful arcs show you where your opponents are hitting the ball, in real time, while another ghosted marker lets you keep tabs on how many shots they've used. Finish a hole early, and you enter spectator mode and can watch the others. It's a brilliant idea, quietly revolutionary in the way it takes a concept familiar from rally games and applies it to the rigid world of golf. There's definitely something impressive about seeing colourful streamers bouncing across the course as you line up your shot. It can even prove helpful, as seasoned players may inadvertently show you faster ways to the green before you take your shot. Or it can be hilarious, as these bright lines trace suicidal ping-pong pathways into trees, bunkers and lakes.
As with the last version, improving your game is central to the structure. You start with a lousy golfer and improve their stats through effective play rather than by manually dishing out upgrade points. Tiger's coach, Hank Haney, now appears in the game to mentor you, popping up after each round to offer a customised practice drill to polish your game in four areas - Power, Accuracy, Short Game and Putting. He'll pick the holes where you struggled most with these skills, and ask you to replay the tricky bits with a circle indicating where you should be aiming. Get this right and he'll give you an additional stat boost for completing an against-the-clock series of similar tasks.
This gets repetitive, and the notion that his advice is personalised soon wears thin since the drills are always the same, but it is important. That's because another new element is "dynamic attributes". In the last game, your golfer could only get better - with dogged perseverance it was inevitable that you'd eventually level them up to Tiger's level, and the game became exponentially easier the longer you played. That's no longer the case. Poor play in any of the four areas can now lower your stats, round by round, so there's less room for complacency. It's not a perfect system - you can still easily max out your stats by creating a course made up of easy holes and playing it over and over - but for those who like to play fair it's a simple yet effective way to simulate the way real golfers play. Lose your cool, start making the same mistakes and your game will suffer - in the long term as well as short term. Frustration comes from your own limitations, not the game.
Just as well there are several new tools to help you gauge and assist your performance. The dual control system remains in place, with both analogue stick swinging and the traditional three-point power gauge available and alternated through a click of the right stick. I like to use the stick swing for drives and putting, for the additional power and physical feedback, and fall back on the power gauge for the short game, where marking and identifying 75 per cent power is easier.
Hammering a button during your backswing while using the stick system gives you a power boost of up to 20 per cent, but such features are disabled in the Tour Pro difficulty, along with the handy Putt Preview that shows you the trajectory of your planned putt, but only once per shot. Features like draw, fade and loft are now easier than ever to set before taking a shot, while the ability to give the ball a little aftertouch nudge in mid-air also remains. It's still not much of a cheat, since it can save your skin by squeaking you past the edge of a bunker, but you can't shift the ball's direction by any ridiculous degree.
Also new for those using the stick system is Real Time Swing Feedback, another idea so simple it's amazing it's not been used before. The game now displays an exact representation of your swing as a yellow line across an icon of the tee ball. Obviously you're hoping to see a nice straight line bisecting the ball, but if you have a tendency to hook or slice this will show you precisely where your fingers are letting you down.
Armed with this info, you can head to the Club Tuner, the last of the major new additions for this year. This is a tinkerer's dream, a driving range where you can not only practice your shots with drivers, irons, woods and wedges, but take each individual club in your bag and tweak it to suit your playing style. It sounds - and looks - daunting but it's actually quite accessible and Hank Haney will offer suggestions, if you feel out of your depth.
After hitting a few practice shots, graded green, yellow or red depending on how straight you hit, you can enter the workshop to make adjustments. You could increase the power of a driver, for instance, but each new improvement lowers the "sweet spot" of the club. The lower this percentage, the harder it will be to hit a straight shot. So it's a trade off, boosting in one area without causing too much harm to the overall performance. You can even add bias to the clubs, to counteract any hook or slice tendencies you may have.
It's an impressive suite of new features and improvements, all of which can only benefit a game that already plays a great game of golf. The usual EA Sports depth and polish is evident throughout, with lots to discover as your drill down into the menus and up-to-date (and user-defined) sports results delivered from the internet to a front-page ESPN news ticker. It features all the major tournaments, a hefty bag of different game modes and the Tiger Challenge has received a minor structural overhaul, ditching the grid system of last year for a series of Pro Cards containing the challenges to be beaten before you can face the celeb players.
The only recurring complaints will be familiar from the last edition. Graphically, it's nothing special. Licensed golfers are recognisable enough, but their animations have an annoying glitch as they prepare for a shot, and they'll stare into the distance even when taking a 10cm putt. The courses are lush and colourful, but the background textures don't bear much scrutiny while the spectators are a freakish assortment of mannequins stuck in little movement loops.
It's also stupid that you can boost your stats by unlocking and purchasing special items from the Pro Shop (you can now buy them with Microsoft Points as well, if you're impatient). Not only does it go against the practice-reward cycle established by the dynamic skills system, but the idea that golfers can spend USD 32,000 on a magic hat that improves their drive has no place in a game as balanced and convincing as this.
And, finally, the EA GamerNet servers are apparently still made from string and bits of old skin. It's often pot-luck as to whether you can access this section of the game, which is especially annoying when you've just hit an amazing shot and want to upload it. Clips can be saved and uploaded later, but there's no excuse for these issues to persist one year after the feature was introduced. The same is true of the Photo Game Face system, which struggled to download my rugged visage, even when the thumbnails were clearly visible. Thankfully these interruptions don't impact the Xbox Live multiplayer modes, which were never less than smooth and reliable.
If you've been passing the series by, convinced that it hasn't changed, then I can only urge you to give it another try. This is yet another solid improvement over its predecessor that nudges the series back into "must buy" status, even if it sometimes feels more like the game is taking steps forward rather then leaps. But there's no sense reinventing the wheel just to say that it's new, and Tiger Woods still offers the best serious golf simulation on the market, and continues to find new ways to refine an already polished experience. Such consistent dedication to craft is well worth any golf fan's time and money.
9 / 10