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.