Those of you who follow my writing know that I have a huge boner for Tiger Woods, so it’ll probably come as no surprise that I was very excited to get my hands on his latest golf videogame, EA Sports’ Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09. EA has the exclusive rights to the PGA Tour license, which is why the Tiger Woods series is the only golf sim around. You’d think that, with no competition, they’d just put out a mediocre product every year -- something that gamers accuse EA of doing with the Madden NFL franchise.
But the Tiger Woods games have consistently earned high marks from game reviewers, and Woods himself certainly approves -- he plays the game with his friends. Follow me to the jump to find out if Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 is as badass as its namesake.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 (PS3 [reviewed], 360, Wii, PSP, PC, iPhone)
Numerous additions abound in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09. New courses include Gary Player Country Club in South Africa and China’s Sheshan Golf Club, while the roster has been expanded with players like Se Ri Pak and Nick Dougherty. But the greatest strength of the game is its gameplay. With each passing year, the series provides an increasingly accurate simulation of golf, and it’s hard for me to see how much EA Tiburon can improve on what TW 09 brings to the table. The Shot Stick is back, and it’s better than ever because of a subtle but extremely helpful addition: swing feedback.
The lower left corner of the screen features a golf ball inscribed in a circle that represents the 360° of your analog stick. When you pull back on the left stick to wind up your swing, a marker will show if your motion was straight down (the ideal position, obviously) or not, and after you flick the stick forward to hit the ball, another marker will appear in the upper portion of the circle, signifying your deviation from due north (if any). This is a great way to find out if your analog stick motion tends to go in a certain direction; if so, you can fix that in the all-new Club Tuner (more on that later).
In TW 09, you have all the tools and assistance available that real golfers do (and some that they don’t). Hitting L1 or X (in conjunction with a left stick direction) while the ball is in mid-flight will add spin to it, and by tapping the same buttons during your left stick backswing, you can tack on up to a 22% power boost to your shot. The power boost is a classic risk/reward mechanic -- attempting to make your ball fly farther will make the swing accuracy less forgiving, so there’s an increased chance of the ball sailing wide of your intended landing spot.
Meanwhile, the right analog stick is known as the Loft Stick. With it, you can control the angle at which you strike the ball. Tilting your stick forward will lower the trajectory of your shot, so you’ll get less distance but more topspin. Going backward will add loft, which reduces distance but increases backspin. The game’s HUD is highly informative but relatively unobtrusive. All the data it conveys -- wind, elevation (if your destination is below you, use less club, and vice versa), lie (what the ball’s sitting in/on), etc. -- will factor into where your ball ends up, so be sure to look it over carefully before you begin your backswing.
You also have access to the same variety of shots that real golfers do; use the square button to cycle through Full, Punch, Pitch, Flop, Chip, and Putt (of course, they’re not all available or applicable in every situation). The R1 and L1 buttons add fade and draw to shots, and circle will zoom the camera toward your target. If all this sounds daunting, check out the manual, which explains a lot of the controls with helpful tips. With the new swing feedback system, the game’s control scheme has been perfected, which is a good thing, because you’re going to want to stay at the top of your game.
Also new this year is the Dynamic Skill system, featuring Woods’ longtime real-life personal coach, Hank Haney, as your very own performance coach. After each round of golf, you’ll get feedback from Haney, and he’ll provide you with drills so you can improve your four attributes (Power, Accuracy, Short Game, and Putting). You don’t just earn these and keep them, though. If you start sucking at the game, your attributes will drop accordingly -- so this year, you have to keep playing well, as opposed to just kicking ass while you’re initially building up your player. If you cringed when you saw the word “drills,” don’t worry; they’re all pretty simple and fun; it’s definitely not a chore to improve your game.
On the other hand, Haney himself doesn’t really add all that much to the game. His voice-over is boring and devoid of any personality (though, for all I know, that’s how he actually is in real life), and his “customized feedback” is pretty basic. But although the Performance Coach implementation leaves something to be desired, the fact that the game rewards you for consistency is a fantastic impetus for practicing so you continually get better, and it’s an example of brilliant game design. Even if you max out all your attributes, you can’t just rest on your laurels -- and once you see a rating go down, you’re going to be compelled (well, at least I was) to bring it back up again.
Dynamic Skills make themselves prominent in the game’s career mode, where you create a golfer and take him/her through the PGA Tour calendar. An assortment of clothing is available (though much of it must be unlocked by playing through the game), and some of it provides attribute boosts. For example, there’s a $5 million bunny suit outfit (I guess there are some furries at EA Tiburon) that will max out all your attributes. The game features all kinds of real brands, such as Nike, Cutter & Buck, Adidas, and Oakley, covering garments and accessories from polos and slacks to sunglasses and watches.
There’s a lot to do in the career, and, of course, your ever-changing attributes add an additional layer of depth to the mode. When you start out, your attributes won’t compare to those of the tour pros, but you can still finish near or at the top of the leaderboards -- if you play all the rounds yourself. Naturally, simulating events will take your attributes into account; I simmed a day of the year’s first tournament and noted that I was something like 26 over par. But I played through the second round myself and was pretty much able to go hole-for-hole with the pros, finishing two strokes under for the round. Of course, by then, I had no hope of digging myself out of the hole that the simulation AI had put me in, but it’s good to know that you can hang with the big boys and girls from the get-go.
The golfer creator is just as deep as it has always been, and like FaceBreaker, it supports the Photo Game Face option. Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually get the feature working myself -- I uploaded front and profile shots of myself to EA’s new online portal, EA Sports World, but whenever I tried to access the pictures through the game, it claimed that I hadn’t actually uploaded anything. [Aside: The lateness of this review is mostly due to this hitch; I went back and forth with EA support for over a week, but still wasn’t able to get my mug in the game.] Perhaps the fact that the Web site is in beta has something to do with that; I have yet to be able to link my PSN name with my EA account.
Visually, there are some pros and some cons. Player models -- especially Woods, of course -- are highly accurate, though they could use a bit more detail (especially in the clothing department). The game’s animations are very realistic; there’s a wide variety of distinctive swing styles, and the positive and negative post-shot animations are fun to watch. The main portions of the courses themselves look beautiful -- grass textures are terrific, and while the water doesn’t look quite as good as the water in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, that’s an almost impossibly high standard, and in TW 09, it definitely looks great (check out the fabulous vista of the surf washing up against the bluffs at Pebble Beach).
Unfortunately, though, EA Tiburon skimped on anything that isn’t a main attraction, so to speak. Some trees look nearly as poor as the ones in GTA IV, and crowds are similarly weak. Structures like the famous clubhouse at St Andrews aren’t rendered with nearly as many polygons as they should be, and some of the vegetation and structures in the far background are laughably two-dimensional. The graphics aren’t “bad” per se, but they could (and should) definitely be better, especially when you consider that there is very little going on in golf -- just one player, the environment, and the crowd. It’s not like Madden, where the game engine has to render 22 players, people on the sidelines, the crowd, referees, and a whole host of other objects at once.
The rest of the game has even more depth than the career mode. There’s plenty to do outside of it; you can play with up to three of your friends (in the same room or online) in a wide variety of modes. Traditional play includes modes like Stroke Play, Match Play, Bingo Bango Bongo, and nine others, and there are also eight different mini-games that tend to be tests of specific golf skills (e.g., “Closest to the Pin Contest,” “Long Drive Contest”).
Most of these can be played online, and in that arena, EA Tiburon has finally delivered on a much-desired innovation: simultaneous stroke play. Up until now, if you were playing a multiplayer Stroke Play game online, players would have to take turns on the course. You can imagine that if you were playing with three players, you would have been doing more waiting than golfing. This time around, though, everyone plays each hole at the same time, and in a true stroke of genius (no pun intended), you can see real-time ball trails of your opponents’ shots. This is an absolutely huge sea change in online golf, and it speeds up Stroke Play games tremendously.
Yet another feature new to the series this year is the Club Tuner. This advanced tool allows you to tweak your golf clubs to suit your personal preferences and biases and get the most out of your clubs. For example, if you find that your Shot Stick motion tends to veer left, you can correct that here by building an offset into your swing. You can reduce the sweet spot on your driver to gain power at the expense of accuracy, or you can lower its loft to eke out some extra yardage. It’s rather complicated and difficult to comprehend, since there’s so much to mess around with. Thankfully, if you feel like you’ve screwed up somewhere, you can easily reset any particular club.
DualShock 3 support is a welcome feature, and although there are no PSN Trophies to be found, the game has an expansive internal trophy system. I don’t know why these couldn’t simply serve as PSN Trophies; they’re already in the correct format (e.g., “Birdie Buster - Record 12 Birdies In A Round”). Oh, well -- perhaps next year. Another cool extra is the game’s ESPN integration; a ticker along the bottom of the screen relays constant updates from the wide world of sports, and through the game’s settings menu, you have full control over what appears there. You can also turn on ESPN Radio SportsCenter updates, and there’s streaming video from ESPN.com as well.
As for the game’s EA TRAX, I greatly preferred the TW 09 soundtrack to that of Madden 09, but curiously, all the songs are instrumentals. And I don’t mean that the music is inherently vocal-free. For example, one of the songs is “Always Be,” off of Jimmy Eat World’s most recent record, Chase This Light. The album version has vocals, but they’ve been stripped away for the game. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I put it in the “Neutral” column of my review notes, and in any case, I like the music much better than the mainstream crap that permeates the Madden 09 soundtrack.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 is an incredibly deep videogame that will have gamers enthralled well into 2009. It looks solid, plays superbly, and is a truly refined simulation of golf that obscures its few flaws very well. EA Tiburon has set the bar so high for itself that I can’t envision many ways in which Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2010 can be a better game. If you’re a fan of golf at all, or you’re looking for a fun and addictive diversion from the usual fare of shades-of-gray shooters and racing games with one-word titles, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Score: 9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won’t cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)