You know, when I sat down to write this review the first time, I started off writing about George Lucas. I was going to spin some silly yarn about how he couldn't possibly have foreseen the damage he was going to do by having Greedo shoot first. About how we should have been thankful, because at least when he sat down in the editing suite, he was doing it for a good reason - yes, he wanted slightly more TIE Fighters in the background and all that, but he was doing it because he wanted Star Wars to appeal to a new generation, and he wasn't pretending it was a whole new film or anything. I mean, who would, right?
But then I realised that wouldn't work, because having Greedo shoot first was an idea clearly designed to heighten our excitement during a tense confrontation. It's an actual creative lick. I couldn't really compare that to the way EA has released virtually the same game every year since Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002, changing the name, the titles and altering the structure slightly and walking off with more of our money. At least George was trying. Tiger Woods 06 isn't creativity; it's a stupid tax. It's not development either; it's editing. Tiger Woods PGA Tour has been "proofed" and "shaped" so much since the 2002 version that the words are actually starting to drift into the game's vernacular.
So here we are, with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, and yes, it is the best Tiger Woods game there is; yes, it has more features and ideas than any of the other Tiger Woods games; yes, it'll probably last you longer than any of the others. But yesterday I pulled out Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002 and played that for a couple of hours, and then 2003, and then 2004, and then 2005, and there really isn't much fundamental difference between any of them. There's a reason George hasn't released yearly versions of Star Wars with less Ewoks and Chewbacca walking into the Millennium Falcon ahead of Han Solo and Leia getting sarkier all the time. Would they be slightly better? Who knows? Maybe. But, and it seems ridiculous to even have to say it: NOBODY WOULD BUY THEM.
EA would argue that the dual analog swing mechanic, analog putting and Rivals mode add value, so let's talk about those. Dual analog swing changes the way you apply fade and draw and allows for topspin and backspin by letting you choose where on the ball you plan to strike - in much the same way snooker games allow you to adjust the position of the cue tip on the cue ball. This is done with the right analog stick, while the left is reserved for actually striking the ball as before.
The greens are now overlaid with a putting grid, which shows how the surface variation and incline will affect the movement of the ball. Gone are the specific caddy tips - 4 inches long, 3 feet right, and so on - and instead we have an ideal putt camera, which shows you the ideal path that the ball needs to take to go in. Coupled with an analogue swing that now actually reflects the distance you draw back the analogue stick, the idea is that the putting process is more considered and more to do with the ball's path to the hole than trying to map the caddy's measurements without any guidelines.
Rivals mode, finally, sees your custom character (now with an even greater scope for customisation of facial and body features, clothing and equipment, which is handy given that the default model looks like a black male version of Meryl Streep) hot on the trail of Tiger Woods as he heads back and forth in time challenging notable pros in different eras. You take on an array of real and fantasy golfers throughout each period in straight rounds of stroke and match-play, in three-hole challenges, putting, chipping, recovery challenges and longest-drive competitions and so forth, and amass cash and experience points along the way to help improve your vital statistics so that your performance on the tee, in bunkers and so on is refined to within a much smaller margin of error. Along the way you can buy period clothing and such, and your adversaries - particularly the fantastical ones - can be more imaginative and unusual.
Except, in each case, the changes are basically superficial. Moving fade and draw to the right analog stick actually makes things easier in a game that's always been told off for being easy, because they were always optional extras anyway - and it was much better to play things safe. The analog putting is a better adjustment, but you can change the maximum putting distance and try and mentally map that to the hole - sometimes the hole falls just within it too - and what with the ideal putt camera it's almost easier in some cases to putt than it used to be. I'd imagine this is because the range of analog movement wasn't enough to suit the subtlety of actual putting, so there had to be variable lengths, but whatever the reason the net result of all of these control changes is... not a whole lot.
And Rivals mode... Well, it's another way to structure the single-player game, but if you're not interested in the collectibles you'd be hard pressed to specify how it improves the game, and the fantastical fantasy characters are just period stereotypes, like a hammy stage actor who prances camply around the tee, and a blacksmith who, er, wears jeans. And grunts.
As before, you can turn off some of the stabiliser features like power-shots and spin control, and do away with the advice on how much club you need to put behind a shot, and with the Tour mode enabled and the reactive Tiger Proofing, which alters course design to make shots more difficult, it's undoubtedly a game that can demand thought and precision. But it's still a catch-all game. It's approachable whatever your skill level and yields its treats to anybody who wants them. I remember making a similar point about F1 2005, and it ties in with something that ICO creator Fumito Ueda told us recently. He said that as long as his games were products designed to make money, he couldn't consider them art. As long as Tiger Woods is designed to make money, I fear it's going to stick with this soulless "there if you want it" approach.
There are things I do really enjoy - the PGA Tour mode is tough (although it doesn't feel like you're actually part of an event so much as a high-scores affair), the Skills 18 tasks of hitting the ball through aerial hoops are entertainingly different, and the Real Time Events Calendar means there's usually some specific reason to turn on your console that day. Plus, if you go online, EA is pledging regular sponsored tournaments where players shoot their best round to try and earn a chunk of a purse. There's also a ranking system for general play, so there's an argument that the human element could extend the game's lifespan much further - particularly if you have friends who want to get into it - although we've found that lag can be very intrusive if it occurs, particularly with the analog putting, which suffers most when things start to stutter.
And one of the neatest things you can do, actually, is place a bet on your shot going well before playing it. Taking risks is to be encouraged then. But, think about it. That's one of the neatest things.
But the problem for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006 is that golf isn't a game that benefits from regular infusions of new data like Madden or FIFA. Even more damagingly, this is a rare case of EA having gotten it so right so long ago that it's been treading water ever since. Even graphically, this isn't a game that looks four years ahead of 2002. Next generation Tiger Woods has the opportunity to bring us more of an immersive, competitive tournament feel by attempting to match television sports presentation more closely and ramping up the levels of incidental detail (although don't expect the initial Xbox 360 version to do much more than implement some bloom effects), but until such time that somebody thinks of a better and more realistic way to articulate the golfing experience electronically, or EA decides to stop pandering to the masses and creates something with an actual difficulty curve rather than opt-in difficulty, it's going to get harder and harder to recommend it.
There must be a way to do both of those things, because in real golf one technique does not fit all, and other genres have continually challenged us even if they do offer easier alternatives. So come on chaps. Have Greedo shoot first or something.
When it comes to scoring, it's hard to know where to go. The series has peaked at about 8 out of 10, and judged in a vacuum that's what this is - and the level of value that absolute newcomers can attribute it. But I really don't think I can bring myself to dole out another 8. It wouldn't be fair to people who come here, glance at the game, see the mark and take it at face value. If EA wants people to buy these games year in, year out, then it has to fight for those high marks, and Tiger Woods doesn't know how to do that any more.