Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 11 – XBOX 360
PGA Tour Golf did for golf what the Championship Management series did for football management. It stripped away all the mundane, all the parts that would surely induce boredom and made something that was inaccessible to the majority a definitive gaming experience in its own right. Suddenly tens of thousands of people who would rather undergo Chinese water torture than sit through watching golf on the television were now bona fide golf enthusiasts. It brought a blend of arcade quality thrills and genuine sporting tension that many sports titles had failed to master, let alone something that was famously described as a "good walk spoiled" by Mark Twain. It is no exaggeration to say that the game, more recently called Tiger Woods PGA Tour, changed the way we think about sports simulations.
Here we are with the latest annual update and much like Tiger Woods himself the games have of late hit a troubled period. Long standing fans of the series will know that it peaked in 2006 with an entry that had so much content within it that by the time 2007 came along nobody wanted to upgrade because they hadn’t even come close to completing it all. Perhaps this was part of the problem as since then Electronic Arts have insisted on not only including a spate of new gimmicks in each subsequent release – courses that morph as they are played being one of the weirdest – but also have avoided including so many different modes ever since. Maybe that’s down to "streamlining" the experience, or maybe something entirely more cynical altogether. Regardless, each title has been a bit of a mixed bag since that golden year for all EA Sports titles.
Still, wouldn’t it be strange if at a time when Tiger Woods is out there making painfully inappropriate public apologies, enduring one of the worst years of his glittering career, that Electronic Arts managed to deliver the best incarnation of the game to date? Let’s see if they’re on the fairway or buried in the bunker.
Those diehards who lamented the loss of the Gamebreaker feature rejoice because it has fathered a child in the form of the "Focus" meter. Rather than simply being able to do things such as overdrive a ball, or add ludicrous amounts of spin to correct a shot, this is all now reliant upon focus. To do anything out of the ordinary will require the use of this finite resource, something that is only replenished slowly when no focus is used in a shot. It adds a tactical element to the game that is less crude than the Gamebreaker system, which in truth could be used to guarantee a hole in one and other such unlikely outcomes, yet it comes at a terrible price. The all-important putt preview camera also uses a lot of Focus and as such it makes the already incredibly hard putting system even more frustrating. Last time around it could be used once per turn. Now, it’s something that can be used as often, or as little, as can be afforded.
The playing modes in the game have been nicely polished and tidied up. Create a golfer provides the player with a lot of options, if a disappointing shortage of haircuts and the career mode looks to be as broad as it ever has been. There are five extra courses to the usual fair and the PGA Season mode is as long and as arduous as ever. The skill challenges are the best they’ve been since 2006 also and live up their name in that they really are challenging. Still, it’s a shame that there’s not something a little more fun or as oddball as the "Tiger Through Time" time-travelling storyline, something that breaks up the monotony of long tournaments against decent opposition. Certainly though it’s the most complete career mode that the next gen consoles have seen and the most enjoyable to play in a long while.
Most interestingly of all is the option to play a Ryder Cup-style – or indeed the Ryder Cup itself – with 24 human players online. In single player competing in the Ryder Cup is welcome break from the usual tournament format and certainly is a high point of the career mode. There’s a genuine sense of achievement in competing in this one, let alone the scenes of jubilation if a player is lucky enough to bring it home. The idea of the "big one" is something that previous entries in the series have usually missed out on, there being no real way to gauge the ultimate success of a player outside of winning everything. The importance placed on a Ryder Cup win does give some direction to the proceedings.
It is good to see the experience system polishes as well, no longer about currency and development points but instead one interchangeable unit known as XP. These can be used to tweak golfer skills, purchase clothes, clubs and all manner of special items that will provide boosts to certain attributes. Now the decision about whether to buy that amusing floppy cowboy hat that will give a huge spin boost, or purchase that final point of power turning the player into a monster driver, comes into play. With previous versions it was usually the case a player either had too many development points and not enough money, or vice versa. Now there has to be more consideration applied to balancing out those skills.
Assessing the new gimmicks, EA have made much of the "True Aim" facility, where a player basically forgoes the right to all the bells and whistles and plays like a more realistic version of golf. While those who master it will no doubt feel very smug for doing so, the question has to be asked whether this feature completely misses the point of the game in the first place. After all, if we wanted realism wouldn’t we be down our local golf course or – for those with budget issues – the local pitch and putt whacking balls around with gay abandon? And just think… Now it will produce a new breed of "Tiger Bores" who will say things like "until you’ve won a competition on true aim you can’t call yourself a player."
The course look great though and are probably some of the most realistic looking and nicely rendered to feature in a Tiger Woods title. The sand kicks up nicely from the bunkers, as does the scrub when slicing out of the rough. There is a much improved level of detail across the board and it makes for a pleasant contrast to have real looking courses with the cartoon feel of the characters. The crowd that follow the golfers around still lack detail, even when the urge to smash a ball into them proves too great but maybe there’s something Kafkaesque about the faceless, grey crowd we’re supposed to appreciate.
All in all the graphics tick all the boxes without moving into the territory that could be labelled "stunning" and ultimately it’s not required. All the information that a good golfer needs is conveyed on the screen as clearly as it ever was and in terms of looking better than the previous versions it just about edges ahead in all key areas.
The commentary is equally perfunctory and prone to errors of judgement. Place the ball right near the hole only to be told by the female co-commentator "that will leave a tough putt". Of course, the male half of the partnership is equally critical. The commentary team seems to lack the excitable personality of the previous commentator, who would pride himself on screaming "it’s a thing of beauty Billy" like a kid who just got the toy he really wanted on Christmas day. Maybe it’s a small quibble but it did help make the game a bit more entertaining.
We also can’t help but feel that the game should offer some alternative commentaries for regions outside the US. The UK market for example would hugely appreciate Peter Alliss as the commentator as he is regarded by many as the "Voice of Golf".
For those of us with experience in the series, breathe easy. None of the new features are intrusive and there’s plenty here that improves on each of the next gen versions that preceded it. It might not scale the heights of the series but for the players that don’t know any better this will feel like the best in the series. Certainly it comes close but rather than a hole in one it instead makes for a very respectable eagle.
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