Version tested: PC
For all the stick that EA Sports takes for clinging to formula in its annual updates, when it chooses to innovate it does so in big, bold strokes. Few, for example, would have expected the next iteration of its Tiger Woods franchise to be a massively multiplayer online browser game, nor would you expect a game from such a notoriously corporate publisher to allow casual players to enjoy themselves without ever putting a coin in the EA coffers. Yet here it is: Tiger Woods, online and (mostly) free.
Marking the series' return to the PC for the first time since 2007, it's impressive just how much of the game has been squeezed into this web version. The elements that have been trimmed away are generally those added over the last few years for the console market. The ability to boost your drives or nudge the ball in mid-air with button mashing probably won't be missed by die-hard golf fans, and despite the none-more-casual browser game format, this is very much a game for those who take the fairway seriously.
Once you've installed the Unity Player plugin, created a free account and built a golfer from a sadly limited palette of four male heads, you're given $10,000 in virtual dollars to spend in the Pro Shop, and left to explore Tiger's virtual offering. A giant red button marked PLAY NOW entices you to skip past the peripheral options and hit the links, and it's foolish to resist.
The game itself opens in a new, full-screen pop-up, with the site remaining open in the original window. Should you need to suspend the round you're playing (if the boss walks by, for example) or if you accidentally close the play window, your progress is automatically stored so you can pick up from the stroke you were playing at any time. Loading times are reasonable, if far from speedy - but it's a streamlined game, and much like Ron Jeremy you'll easily fit 18 holes into a lunch hour.
The graphics have taken an understandable hit in the transition from dedicated gaming rig to something that can be poured down the datapipes, but in the areas where it matters - physics and control - everything feels much as it should. Not all of the innovations from recent editions have been jettisoned, either. The choice between TrueSwing and 3-Click control remains, though TrueSwing is ill-suited to mouse play. The simultaneous multiplayer mode from the console editions is also retained, allowing you to see the positions and trajectories of other players on the same hole even if you're not in a game with them. Add in a busy MMORPG chat window and you get the buzz and conversation of the clubhouse while you're on the fairway.
The game is, by necessity, something of a system hog and the technical performance can be a bit wobbly depending on what else your PC is doing at the time. It's inevitably frustrating to mess up a stroke because of a stutter caused by an incoming email or something similar, but you can alleviate such problems by closing all other programs, even if that rather goes against the point of a browser game. Get past that minor grumble and it looks and plays like a Tiger Woods game from four or five years ago, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. For many fans, that was when the series was at its best.
Right from the start, PGA Tour Online trails breadcrumbs before you to coax you into improving your game. Cash and XP bonuses are handed out for good performance, either as one-off Achievement-style rewards for hitting specific milestones (such as your first drive over 200ft) or repeatable handouts for consistent efficiency; reaching the green within regulation, landing a close approach, and so on. These are small amounts - 25 virtual dollars here, 30 XP there - but over repeated play it adds up and the better you play, the faster your bank balance and stats rise. It's a clever system and one that makes those eagles and birdies taste even sweeter, knowing that each chiming announcement carries an additional tangible benefit.
The big question for many will be how much you get for free, and the answer is "quite a lot". The biggest restriction is that only two courses are open to free players at any time, on a rota system. If you want to play a round on one of the locked courses, you have to pay a small greens fee of around 100 to 150 of the game's currency points. These are distinct from the virtual money you earn during the game, which is used to buy equipment and apparel, and are instead used to unlock access to game content.
You can stock up on these points using a credit card or PayPal, with 1000 points running at $10 up to 5500 points for $40. There's no Pound Sterling or Euro pricing, annoyingly [although EA did provide some details in a press release - Ed.]. Alternatively, you can take out an annual subscription for $60, which grants unrestricted access to all courses for twelve months, and there's a monthly subscription offer too.
For casual players, or anyone who isn't fussed about waiting for the different courses to take turns being free, it's perfectly possible to play for days without bumping into a pay wall. Any of the organised tournaments taking place on the designated free courses are also free to enter, you're able to create your own player group and there's even a decent spread of stuff in the Pro Shop that can be bought with your winnings without dipping into your real-life wallet.
A lot of the side features are also available without paying, and it's here that the game gets really quite clever. EA Sports has obviously done its homework, and has incorporated numerous ideas drawn from MMORPGs and games like FarmVille to make sure those addictive hooks sink in. Most obviously, the game can automatically link to your Facebook account, assuming you use the same email address on both sites. This lets you import friends from Facebook and also post updates on your performance. You can earn bonus XP by bringing new players into the game, but the online features go deeper than that.
Central to the Tiger Woods online experience is The Cut. This is a passive daily challenge based around your current skill level. The game works out the average score based on players of your level, and if you play any 18 hole round and beat that score then you've "made the cut". You get bonus XP for this, but here's where it gets really fiendish. If you beat the target score the next day, you're on a streak and will earn even more XP. In other words, regular play of a better than average standard results in ever-increasing XP boosts.
But wait. It gets even more ruthlessly addictive. You can also add other players to your watch list, which in turn grants them more XP for every new follower they pick up. If you find someone who is really good, you can sponsor them so that each time they make the cut you earn a cash bonus based on their performance. The result is an online multiplayer game where success comes from networking and supporting each other more than mere competitive rivalry. Players forming groups, watching and sponsoring each other, chatting during the match and setting up their own tournaments – this is the heart of the game's community, and it's also wisely available to all.
Crucially, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online plays a good game of golf - though experienced players may bump up against the edges of the relatively crude engine more frequently than others - but what impresses most is how scalable it is. For the office-bound golfer who wants nothing more than to play a few holes during a coffee break, it's welcoming, intuitive and absolutely free. For the more dedicated player who wants access to every course and tournament, it's an almost fully-featured Tiger Woods game that, over a year, probably costs slightly less than the traditional standalone disc updates. And for the sociable types, it's all built on a web of shrewdly designed interactions that benefit the individual while strengthening the community.
There's some room for improvement of course, and no doubt the customisation options will expand over time and the engine will get tweaked along the way, but as a signpost for the future of how sports games can fit into the new gaming landscape, Tiger's online debut is extremely promising.
8 / 10