Our trip to see the latest iteration of the Tiger Woods franchise, its first outing since development was handed over to the team at EA's Florida studio, had two major objectives. We wanted to see what the team was doing with the Xbox 360 and PS3 editions, of course, and we've already talked about that in some depth... But for many gamers, the main event this year may well be none other than the Wii version of the game.
Unlike the "normal" console versions of Tiger, the Wii edition has only seen one previous iteration - so it's perhaps not surprising that there was a lot more to be changed here than is evident in the other versions.
What's more, while there was obvious feedback between work on the PS3/360 versions and the Wii version, with features like Shot Confidence making the transition, the vastly different hardware of the Wii made a direct conversion entirely impossible.
As such, the Wii edition is a totally separate game. Features have been aligned where possible, so you'll see the same courses and golfers in both games, and as mentioned, the new Shot Confidence feature is present. We discussed Shot Confidence in some depth in our coverage of the 360/PS3 version - you might want to pop over there for a look.
However, the Wii edition was developed by a separate team, and it shows. The whole approach speaks to an entirely different audience as much as to a different control system.
"There's definitely a very different audience for Wii version, and you need to have a kind of intuitive, pick up and play approach," EA Tiburon's Tom Goedde explains. "We're not going to take any of the depth that you expect from Tiger away from people, though - it still has the deep career mode, and so on. Instead what we've tried to do is to present the same thing in such a way as to better attract casual gamers, younger gamers, a whole wider audience."
Perhaps the best example of that is the Tiger Challenge mode, which has long been the heart of the singleplayer game - it's how you progress your character and move through the game. However, it has often boiled down to a fairly lengthy set of challenges, with entire 18-hole games as a "challenge" being common.
On the Wii, the 50 challenges in the series are laid out very differently, in a series of linked hexagons which the player must move through. Most challenges on the outer edges of the hexagons are short and interesting. There are occasional match play rounds, but also putting challenges, or long drives; small bites of gameplay that allow people to focus on individual skills. Complete a hexagon, and you unlock a full match against a golf pro in the middle box - a boss character, if you like.
Being a Wii game, it won't surprise anyone to discover that there's a party mode in the mix, which sets challenges for up to four players to compete in. The foursomes mode is, perhaps, more interesting; a form of four-player game, it lets the players who aren't at the tee try and put their opponents off by encouraging crowd noise, playing with the screen or even making gusts of wind appear. Only time will tell if this is infuriating or fun, but it's original, at least.
On a more practical note, the team has also completely rebuilt the swing system used by the game, following feedback from the first iteration of Tiger on the Wii. It claims to have done massive play-testing of different swing systems using the Wiimote, and the solution it has reached is certainly an interesting one - and quite a departure from its previous approach.
Whereas before, the velocity of the swing was being read by the system, Tiger '08 will instead work out the power of the shot based on how far back you bring the club head. Velocity is still measured, but the team claims that most people find position much easier to work out accurately than speed - and the new system certainly seems a lot more intuitive at first attempt.
To fade and draw the ball, meanwhile, the game now gets you to cock your wrist to twist the Wiimote - a somewhat realistic motion, since opening and closing the club-face is exactly how this works in real life. However, for the purpose of the game, the motion is exaggerated greatly.
While the system does read some of the subtleties of how you curve your shot and applies them also, the key to the approach is clear; large gestures make the general motion of the ball predictable and simple to influence. It's only in the final proportion that subtle motion and fine accuracy are factored in, so even young or casual players will be able to send the ball in the right direction, while far more experienced hands can fine tune their game to their hearts' content - at least in theory.
Sadly, the new photo game face system doesn't feature on the Wii - for the simple reason that there's no way of importing photographs into games on the system. Equally, the GamerNet online functionality is lacking, with EA pinning the blame for that on Nintendo's somewhat immature online service for the Wii. However, most players are going to invest in the Wii version for the control scheme, rather than anything else - and there's no denying the level of thought and research which has gone into that aspect of the game.
For the Wii, Goedde says, "it's all about accessibility. I want to make sure that my six year old nephew can come over and play the game with me, straight away. Our goal is to make it so that he can pick it up, play it, have some success and some fun - but at the same time, a golfer or a gamer can get all the depth that they want out of it. That's a challenge that the whole industry has to take on with Wii, and EA is making a lot of changes to how we develop games in order to meet that challenge."
The Wii version of Tiger Woods, arguably the EA Sports game most obviously suited to the controller, will be a fine test of the company's mettle in that regard. From what we've seen, it's shaping up to be a very interesting progression over its last effort in the field - and if not, perhaps, a "gamer's game", then quite possibly just the thing to get your dad waving his Wiimote again this autumn.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 is out in Europe in early September, with all of the various versions launching simultaneously. We'll be teeing off with both the regular console version and the Wii version a bit closer to the launch date.
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