Feel like spoiling a good walk? EA can help you. Although the 2004 edition of its stick wiggling and button mashing golf series appears at the start of the Christmas rush, flanked on either side by a collection of what must be worryingly saleable alternatives, it's a good place to start. Newcomers are certainly most welcome, and should be warned that this is no tap-tap-smack PC golf sim, but a more organic version in which players use analogue sticks to swing clubs, and furiously mash the shoulder buttons like a Curling scrubber to add spin.
But after hours spent lining up putts, chipping out of devilishly placed sand traps, and cursing the hurricanes of Royal Birkdale as our massive drives swept perilously close to a nearby loch, we were left wondering whether simply upping the number of courses and throwing in more events would be enough to lure back owners of 2003 and even 2002. What else has EA got?
For veterans, the most crushing disappointment about Tiger Woods 2004 is the lack of promised online options. Having spent a couple of hours at E3 playing (and thrashing) some poor soul piped in from EA's Redmond HQ via Network Adapter and USB headset, we were looking forward to this immensely. Given the sedate, take-it-in-turns gameplay of multiplayer Woods, it's difficult to understand why it was cut out at the 11th hour for the European release, and we're not happy about it.
Fortunately (for EA), it didn't take long for us to lose ourselves in an array of new options. Our first mission was to convince the game that we could play it at all by vanquishing the unskippable tutorial, which introduced us to all the shots we already knew - tee shots, approach shots, punches, flops, putts, etc - and one new addition, the chip. Halfway between a wedge and a putt, the chip allows you to target an area on the green and tiddlywink the ball a few inches into the air in its direction.
With that out of the way, we set about defining ourselves in My Tour. More than just a wacky name and a pre-rolled character model, My Tour offers much more control over your golfing identity, allowing you to adjust the height, girth, colour, hairiness and left or right-handed alignment of all manner of body parts (watch out for a Sims: Golf expansion, eh?), with a massive Pro Shop to plunder for outfits, clubs and other equipment. (After all, in the game world we have no need for sports cars and fancy divorces, so ploughing the money back into golf is obviously the key.) In the end, we managed a fat Busta Rhymes look-alike with a Fu Manchu moustache, and spent a good half an hour designing a logo for him with a Paint-style tool a couple of menu screens over.
Obviously the next step is to get our budding superstar out on the Links, and in keeping with previous games there are... a lot of ways to do this. The most traditional choice is the World Tour mode, set on a world map with lots of little dots highlighting upcoming matches. And this time, instead of ascending the ranks one by one, it's possible to pick and choose your adversaries from a small selection each time, unlocking more dots with each successive victory. (Yes, you'll still find yourself unlocking "Tiger's Dream 18" hole by hole.)
As with 2002/2003, victories mean earnings. Each match is worth tens of thousands of dollars, with bonus cash rewards for hitting the green in the regulation number of strokes, sticking to the fairways, lurking under par and performing feats of golfing magnificence, like finishing with an eagle (two spare strokes), chipping in from the sand, hitting the flagpole from off the green, or scoring that fabled hole-in-one. If you play really well, you'll even find that clothing and equipment companies want to sign deals with you, offering massive cash incentives and bonus amounts for every shot you play bearing their logo. And with plenty of cash accumulated, it's back to the shop to invest.
However, after a few hours we decided we didn't like the shop. Yes, it's very nice being able to upgrade your clubs, shafts, glove, shoes, shirts, trousers, etc, and purchase new celebratory animations - perfect for Happy Gilmore fans who want to ride the bull whenever they sink a putt - but we have to wonder how valuable most people will find this. Newcomers won't have a clue as to the relative benefits of the various bits of golfing apparatus (we barely did at that), and old hands won't want to divert income away from bolstering those player attributes. We can't overstate the importance of investing in driving length and precision, approach shots, putting, recovering and even luck, because it's all very well stepping off the cover of Rolling Stone to play your tee shot, but if it flies into the jungle and your recovery skill is malnourished, there isn't much you can do about it except lose. Horribly. And repeatedly. Stick to the fashion show side of Tiger Woods 2004 and that's what will happen.
With 19 courses, and a lot of "Front 9" or "Back 9" trips adding to the diversity of the World Tour challenges, it's not surprising that EA has thrown in a lot more playing options than ever before. Apart from the locations on the World Tour map, players will also be dragged out for various invitational events, and, as we learned when we booted the game up yesterday morning, Tiger even pops up with the odd real-time event. Although in this case we were transported to an Aussie challenge (beat nine holes in 34 strokes or less for $70k), real-time events should actually tie in with real-world golf tournaments as they happen. Fire up Woods on the day of the Open next year, for example, and you should be able to sign up for it.
If all you want is a quiet, relaxing game of golf, naturally you can just pick up a stroke or match play game with as many CPU or human players as you want, as long as you've played enough of the World Tour mode to unlock a particular course, but dispensing entirely with the simulation side, EA has also thrown in some more exotic golfing challenges. Speed Golf now makes its bed with Long Drive Shootouts and Battle Golf, for example.
Equally "wacky" (though not zany) are the mega-developer's collection of original golfing characters and courses. Interspersed with real stars (of which five are new, including a chap you may remember by the name of Justin Rose) and courses (the returning Pebble Beach, country singing sensation Torrey Pines and so on), EA's attempts at wackiness are a bit hit and miss. "Pops", for example, is ace. An old codger in a massive nappy-masking pair of Rupert Bear trousers, socks up to his knees and an arthritic driving shot, he is vaguely funny. However a lot of the other characters are pretty pointless. Val "girl with attitude" Summers returns, as do The Don and Big Mo, and although some of them have entertaining animations associated with them (we always liked the sumo chap's snooker shot tap-in), they feel like they're making up the numbers.
Fortunately the courses are another story entirely, each as individual and playable as the next. There are seven new additions, and many of them are beautifully scenic and refreshing to play. If you excuse the endless stream of squirrels, deer and low-poly spectators, courses are brought to life with masses of incidental detail, from intricately constructed footbridges to rocky outcroppings suspending greens sixty feet above the lapping ocean. The conditions are very important (more than can be said for "crazy" courses and stadiums in extreme sports titles), whether it's avoiding the pinball effect of hitting a mountainside or negotiating the windy swerve of a Birkdale drive, and although some can be a bit boring (typically the long, solemnly mown tree-lined efforts - although even these command a particular style of play), for the most part there's enough variety and tricky design (with three sets of tees and flag positions to test your mettle) that you'll still be up against it with all 342 holes licked.
But, well, in the end we come back to the question of whether it's all worth it for returning fans. If this is your first golf game purchase, then there's no question about it - you must buy Tiger Woods 2004 - but golfers returning from the 2002/2003 versions will find themselves playing very much the same game, from the commentators (the entertaining duo of David Feherty and Gary McCord, with some new quips) and slightly touched up graphics to the control scheme, and the lack of refinements to the game engine is somewhat annoying. The camera still likes to cut to shots of players' reactions instead of focusing on the ball, and sometimes neglects to show much of the shot at all, particularly when the ball is flopping onto the green, making it more or less impossible to gauge how much spin to add. As we said with the 2002 edition - let alone 2003 - we need to be able to see precisely where the ball is going to land, or adding spin becomes a lottery.
Then again it's still a lot of fun, and we're still playing it every evening. In fact last night we achieved virtually nothing. Wary of midnight's approach, we anxiously replayed the day's real-time challenge countless times until we managed to overcome it, netting a relatively measly cash total and a few club shafts we couldn't care less about. But we had a lot of fun.
One of the main reasons the game has endured two rather questionable sequels is that it's a joy to actually play. The process of playing remains the same, but it's the sort of scheme that you can pick up in a matter of minutes and spend years perfecting. To recap, a shot in Tiger is played by surveying the distance (holding circle), picking a club that will make the desired shot, watching out for obstacles, wind direction and so forth, selecting the right shot type - whether a low-angled punch, up-and-down flop or regular approach swing - and swinging the club using the analogue stick. The "Total Precision Swing", as EA calls it, is just that - allowing you to play heavy or weak shots, and even in and out swingers, just by wiggling the stick in a particular way. You can even add a power boost by tapping L1 during your backswing and add spin in mid-air by mashing the L2 button and holding the appropriate direction. It might sound hideously convoluted, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be hooked right in.
A Familiar Roar
So, bottom line? If you haven't played a Tiger Woods game before and fancy a punt around the golf course, then pop an extra point on the score - this is the one to buy. Technically it's better than either of the previous two, which means it's better than any other golf game we've played. It even caters to the relatively boring three-click mouse system of golfing, thanks to a less exotic PC version.
For those of us with Tiger pedigree though, the lack of online play and niggling flaws overshadow an otherwise generous update. We'll buy it anyway, but Ł40 is beginning to feel like a lot, and we wish EA would put some of these issues to the fore, if you'll excuse the pun, instead of just lining up another ill-fitting rap-ridden soundtrack and plastering the whole thing in logos.