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.