Version tested: Xbox 360
It's inevitable that the annual updates for the leading EA Sports titles fall into a cyclical rhythm. New features are introduced and refined, and then age, and we all grumble about how the games haven't changed until new features are finally introduced and the whole giddy roundabout starts up again. After two years of impressive entries, which saw the addition of fairly revolutionary changes to the golf game formula, the latest Tiger Woods effort finds the series most definitely on the downswing of this cycle.
A good indication of this stagnating design is the introductory video which, as last year, welcomes you back into the world of PGA with an overview of what new elements have been added this time around. With bold, genre-changing features like Photo Game Face, GamerNet, and simultaneous online play all now firmly established as the core of the game, there's just not very much on offer here that will leave fans eager to part with their cash.
For golf aficionados, the big news is that the US Open is now part of the career, along with the USGA Championship and, therefore, the official USGA rulebook. There are six new courses: Bethpage Black, Hazeltine, Oakmont, Pinehurst, Torrey Pines and Turnberry. Two new pro golfers have also joined the roster - Anthony Kim and Rocco Mediate - the latter of which I'm fairly certain was actually created by a spam email generator.
But what of gameplay changes? Well, those are thinner on the ground. The biggest change to the controls is the addition of analogue putting, a long overdue feature which makes the most frustrating part of the game feel more tangible. You can also opt to explore each course in practice mode, taking shots from wherever you fancy. This option has wisely been linked directly to the Club Tuner, so you can tweak your tools based on specific course conditions for each tournament.
The game makes a lot of noise about rain, with The Weather Channel now feeding live meteorological data via the EA servers, so that conditions can match the actual course in real time. Given that the game only has four weather settings - sunny, cloudy, light rain and steady rain - it's not exactly a subtle tool. Rain slows the fairway, but most players won't even notice the difference this makes to the game.
Those rigid crowd mannequins have been overhauled as well, although as with the weather the result is only noticeable if you know to look for it. They're more detailed, more animated and - from what I could tell - their responses to your game are more vocal. Cheers when you land on the green turn to groans if the ball rolls off, for example. As cute as this is, these are clearly cosmetic tweaks rather than anything of major importance.
Away from the career mode the main addition to the menu is Live Tournaments. Taking part in these daily and weekly events is easy - you just play through the tournament as you would in Career Mode, and your performance is added to the relevant leaderboard. Needless to say, it won't be long before the top spots are the sole preserve of the maniacally dedicated, posting scores of 70 under par, but as a concept it's mostly welcome. Play The Pros is a bit more interesting, since it ranks players of the game alongside the actual tournament scores of PGA professionals. As a bridge between game and sport, it's a very clever idea and plays well into EA Sports' increasing obsession with presenting their titles as real life sports broadcasts.
Finally, there's Tournament Challenge, which replaces the Tiger Challenge mode. Rather disappointingly, it's one of those modes where you're placed into a famous moment from sporting history and have to replicate - or improve on - the performance of the pros. Unlike the varied challenges of previous games, it feels obvious and uninspired. There are even notable omissions, with the course designer conspicuous by its absence.
Crucially, however, the game itself remains almost completely unchanged, the creative inertia all the more noticeable given the radical overhaul the series enjoyed over the course of its 2008 and 2009 incarnations. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the game is about as polished as videogame golf is likely to get on the current hardware, but nor does it justify another full-price release.
Given the game's focus on using RPG-style stat levelling to improve your golfer, there's just not enough incentive for players of PGA Tour '09 to start from scratch with another rubbish creation, hitting weak drives and fluffing easy putts because the skill of your carefully crafted avatar hasn't reached the appropriate numerical mark. For those who have already gotten good at this stuff, it's a grind getting back up to speed again.
Looking back over the list of new features, there's really very little here that couldn't have been offered as premium downloadable content for the last game, were it not for the commercial necessity of releasing boxed products with bigger numbers at the end of the title. Unlike the faster-moving world of FIFA, where fans will always want to play with the latest squads and kits, maybe it's time to accept that Tiger would be better served by following the Fight Night model, only releasing a new entry in the series when there's a game worth making, not just because the calendar has rolled over. It won't happen, of course, but if the cycle holds true then at least Tiger Woods 2012 should be a belter.
7 / 10