There are three people reading this review. (Actually, there are slightly more than three people overall, or it probably wouldn't be worth my while.) That is to say, there are three types of people reading this review. The first has been with the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series for a while now, most likely having fallen in love with it after sampling one of the post-2002 vintages. The second is either curious about the game, having heard so many people raving about it, or blissfully unaware of its charms, having stumbled in here on the off chance of surprising themselves. The third, finally, is my mother, who pops in occasionally to see what her son's wasting his life on. (Hi Mum!) So then, in the interests of making this as straightforward as possible for all concerned, people in the second group will find that the initial excitement and glowing praise heaped upon the game is highly relevant to them. However, when you start to notice a shift towards a sneaking sense of dissatisfaction, that's when the first group ought to start paying close attention, because it applies more to them. And Mum: you can read the whole thing.
A Good Walk
Golf, as we've already established this week, works very well as a videogame given a certain underlying design philosophy - the game should be visceral, fast and rewarding, and simplify the frustrating nuances of the sport that take years of practice on a quiet fairway next to a motorway at 5am in the morning to master. Tiger Woods virtually invented this approach, and the 2005 edition sticks to it almost without meaningful deviation. The analogue swing system, for example, is as satisfying and finely tuned as ever - you just pull back on the stick and then push through to the other side when your club reaches the peak of its back swing.
On top of that, you can choose from a variety of alternative shot types (flop, for example, sends the ball almost straight up and down, which prevents it from rolling around so much on landing), you can add a power boost during the back swing (tap L1), you can bend the ball left or right during flight (known as fading and drawing) by moving the stick at a diagonal instead of backwards and forwards, and you can add spin to the ball when it lands (allowing you to move it some way further on the green or fairway), depending on how much experience you've ploughed into improving your "spin" attribute between rounds.
In terms of directing your shot, the old system continues to work well. You can change the angle you peer out from behind your golfer on the tee, you can zoom to your aiming marker by holding circle and adjust its position using the D-pad, cycling through clubs using R1 and R2 and changing shot type with square, and you can reset the whole thing to its original projected shot position by pressing triangle. It's a lot to take in at first, but anybody who spends time with the (very detailed) tutorial will soon get into the right habits. Frankly, if some of our friends can get their heads round it, it must be intuitive. Then again it's an EA game, isn't it?
You can take this marvellously engrossing golf mechanic out onto the fairways of a very many courses - some real, some fictional - and get rounds in either by choosing to play in straightforward match or stroke play rounds or one of a few quirkier options (speed golf remains a fave), or opting for one of the meatier aspects of the game like the PGA Tour, real-time events, or the new Legends Tour and Legends Scenarios.
Actually, to describe the Legends bits as 'new' would be a bit misleading. The Scenarios section replaces a similar scenarios bit of previous games - challenging you to complete a series of tricky holes (all the par-5s, for example) with only a certain number of shots, or come back from a certain number of shots off the pace, etc. - with slightly jinked around presentation that has EA's licensed Legends of the game pitching the challenges to you instead of a boring square-edged menu box. The Legends, including the likes of Ben Hogan, Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus, also headline the Legends Tour, and the idea is to beat them one by one - having challenged and defeated the mixture of rank and file golfers and peculiar fictional futters who stand in front of each of them. For example, getting to Ben Hogan means tackling the likes of Adam Scott and Billy Bear. The former is a professional golfer, the latter is a T Hawk from Street Fighter look-alike.
Then again, they may be rebadged versions of previous attractions, but on the whole the Legends Tour and Scenarios - coupled with the lucrative four-rounds-to-a-course PGA Tour and all the other trimmings - make for a mountainous undertaking. There is genuinely enough content here to keep you going for months; so much so that your pained reviewer was actually told off several times for trying to get too much done in-game before putting anything into writing.
Then again, the need for an expeditious write-up wasn't exactly aided by our desire to see what sort of stupid things we could do with this year's suite of customisation tools. The eccentrically titled GameFace II occupied us for almost an hour when we first played the game as we attempted to use the myriad slider bars, beard adjustments, eyebrow curlers, chinbone rearrangers and other tools to create a podgy set of features along the lines of our own. You can even customise your golfer's swing, changing things like the way his or her knees flex and their hand positions using another raft of slider bars. But, in the end, all we wound up with was a fair-haired man with a chiselled face like Edward Fox and hair like Ivan Campo, but that may be a testament to our impatience more than anything. Suffice to say, if you enjoy tinkering with these sorts of tools then Tiger Woods' 2005 outing will probably keep you entertained both on and off the fairways.
Tiger Proofing is the other big customisation racket in 2005. To put it plainly, it's a level editor - you buy up existing courses by winning Legend Coins in the Legend Tour mode, and you can then fiddle with the layout of individual holes by narrowing or expanding fairways, changing textures, sinking bunkers, dampening greens and fairways, leaving the sand or roughage unkempt, and so on. The idea is to be able to make your own courses and challenge your friends, etc. etc., but, in order to keep single players happy, EA has made it so that when your custom course reaches a particular level of prestige, the legendary golfing line-up will come along and challenge you to a game on your new set-up. It's a nice extra.
The inclusion of Legends aside though (and it isn't going to revolutionise the game, particularly given that in playing terms they're just slightly sharper and less hazard-prone than their AI contemporaries), GameFace II and Tiger Proofing are two of the biggest additions to the 2005 version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. And surely that's a problem.
Fire In The Hole
Or it would be if the other changes - tweaks, really - that affect matters 'on the links' weren't so effective. There are three that need explanation. Ball-in-Stance is the first, and rather overdue, addition - by holding L2 on the swing screen, you can use the analogue stick to pick one of three stances, which change your golfer's feet positioning in relation to the ball. With the ball ahead of them, it'll go higher. Behind, it'll stay low. Since this doesn't limit your club selection (unlike the flop and punch shots), Ball-in-Stance is one of the most effective tools for getting out of tough spots behind a line of trees, up against a bunker wall, or perhaps under a canopy.
Of the other two major changes, one of them, Tiger Vision, is probably destined to divide opinion. Tiger Vision affects putting. Sometimes, when you're on the green, nailing a long distance putt or holing the ball on a very bumpy surface can be more even than your caddy's tip (which estimates in feet and inches - and now metres - how far left, right, beyond or in front of the hole you should aim) can manage. In these situations, you can now deploy Tiger Vision, which plunges the green into near-darkness and gives you a few seconds to align your aiming marker where Tiger's putting prescience dictates. Chances are that, however outlandish Tiger's judgement seems to be, doing so will send the ball into the hole or leave it resting very close by indeed. It's a powerful tool, then, which is why the game only allows you to fall back on it a couple of times per round.
However it's going to upset people who thought the game was a bit too easy last time out, and it's certainly a bit too close to a Get Out Of Jail Free card when it's actually far more satisfying to win when you don't have that sort of crutch to fall back on. Fortunately you can turn it off in the menu, and anybody who doesn't like the sound of it will almost certainly take to the other new addition, Tour Difficulty, which forces you to make more of an effort to get your initial swing right by eliminating spin control when you're coming out of the rough or bunkers, and turning off caddy tips so you have to do your own putting unassisted. In a nice touch, you can triple the odds on any wager you make on a general match by opting to turn Tour Difficulty on beforehand - improving both the challenge and the contents of your winnings pot.
But, but, but. For all the tweaking and twiddling in the world - and the vast majority of the changes between 2004 and 2005 seem to concern fiddling with variables and fine-tuning in some way or other - Tiger Woods remains the same game. It looks the same (the occasional impressive water reflection the only real giveaway), it sounds the same (with the same commentators who, were it not for their amusing bickering and charming Irish lilt, would almost certainly have been turned off long ago), and far more importantly it plays the same, and still suffers from a lot of the same problems.
The AI, for example, is still perfectly capable of getting into an unfortunate loop of whacking the ball out of bounds, which it repeats until the shot limit's exceeded and you win the hole almost by default. It doesn't happen as much as it used to, but when you see someone like Adam Scott tearing up the jungle repeatedly it does grate. After all, this has been a problem for a couple of versions now.
Then there's the fact that for anybody who's played any previous version, there's going to be a period of near-boredom to begin with as you go through the same process of building up your golfer's attributes - from the point at which every shot seems to go 20 feet left or right of where you actually aimed, up to the point of near perfection that everybody got to after a month or so with any previous version. Granted, it's not obvious how EA can best combat this (starting off with a maxed out player would, after all, be rather unfulfilling) but it'd be nice to see more effort going into crafting an engaging endgame rather than throwing endless resources into increasingly elaborate ways of remoulding a man's chin or right eyebrow. We also have to ask how many people get decent mileage out of the now-2500-item-strong Pro Shop - we find it more of a hassle than anything else.
Online play, then, ought to be the game's saving grace. (It seems odd to be talking about Tiger's need for a saving grace when the game stills stands as one of the finest and most relentlessly playable sports games of this generation, but then EA's set a high standard with previous version.) Unfortunately our review code, while finished, was unable to authenticate with Sony's DNAS system and take us online, so we're left waiting for a boxed copy of the game in order to present our thoughts. Naturally, if the game supported Xbox Live in Europe this wouldn't be an issue, but we've whinged about that enough already.
We do know that we're to expect daily online tournaments, mini-games and player versus player wager matches from Tiger Woods' online facility, but given EA's failings with online console products in the recent past we're not prepared to stamp it with any authority until we've had a chance to play it - and make sure that the disc doesn't leap out of the tray and try to throttle your grandma whenever you click "Join Lobby". We'll update this review over the weekend when we've decided whether we like it or not. Handily, online multiplayer is unlikely to swing the score one way or another at this point...
And that score, as you can see, is a few strokes short of what the series arguably should be writing on its scorecard at the end of a round. The Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has been generating frenzied copy for several years now, but it doesn't feel like it's taken a significant step forward in this or the previous version. We're not knocking the new characters, new courses and new trademark-able customisation tools - we'll certainly get a lot of fun out of them. In fact, there's more to do here than any other sports game we can think of, it's one of the few multiplayer sports games that just about anybody will play whether they care about golf or not, and it's well executed and designed in a great number of ways. What's disappointing is the sense that the game's unsure of where to go next, and anybody who played the previous versions will probably feel a bit let down by EA's lack of ambition. As they stroll forward to the tills with cash in hand...