Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 08 Review (Xbox 360)
I was on a long drive to a quick weekend getaway with the family recently and found myself lost in quiet thought. While my kids watched the backseat DVD player and the wife dozed off in the passenger’s seat, I started thinking about talking sports with my Grandkids 25 or 30 years from now. I thought about how blessed I am to have been able to watch some of the greatest ever play in their prime. From Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jordan, Roger Clemens to Joe Montana, over the last 20 years I have seen guys come up, dominate and, at times, transcend their sport. I’ve seen the yard stick for which generations of players will be measured from the time they were wet behind the ears to Superstars to living legends and Hall of Famers.
But, of all the greats that I have seen, the one that, to me, stands head and shoulders above the rest is Tiger Woods. While I’m sure I could make a great case for a number of different athletes, no other sports figure in my time has dominated his sport quite like Woods. From his 13 majors to his eight PGA Player of the Year awards, Tiger has dominated the golfing word like no one else. And the scary part to the rest of the field, young Mr. Eldrick is only 31 years old and may be yet to hit his prime.
Much like his real-life counterpart, the virtual version of Tiger has been tearing up the sports gaming world since 1998 with the release of Tiger Woods ’99. Though reviews have been hot and cold over the years, with many gaming fans and critics complaining that the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series was simply too arcade-ish, you can’t argue with the bottom-line. This franchise has been a cash cow for EA Sports and, too many, is second only to Madden on the list of most anticipated yearly release.
The release of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, on a remarkable eight different platforms, marks the 11th year that a Wood’s branded game has been unleashed on the gaming masses. This year, I thought the marketing behind the game flew way under the radar compared to EA Sports' usual media assault. So, when the game finally made its way to my console, I really hadn’t built major expectations.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes, let me address the issue that we can’t avoid. One of the main new features that was promoted before the release was the new GameFace option that lets users use their Xbox Live Vision camera, or imported photos from the ‘net, to create a shockingly realistic player model for use in all of Tiger’s modes. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve probably heard that during the first couple weeks of release this feature did not work properly. If you had the Vision camera you could make it happen, but the overwhelming traffic did not allow a vast majority of users to upload their photos via the web interface. Others had issues where they thought a picture went through, only to sign onto the game and find a completely different photo. While this issue certainly is a black eye for the game, for the purposes of this review, I was one of the few lucky ones that got his pictures uploaded on the first try. Therefore, I can only go from my personal experience. And that experience was a good one.
The GameFace, for me, created a character that struck a shockingly eerie resemblance to me. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but it’s the best I’ve seen of similar modes. Don’t be fooled, it’s not a photo simply stretched over a model. These characters actually show emotion and move facial features like they were there from the time you broke the seal. Impressive feature all in all, but shame on the folks at EA for not being more prepared for people doing something crazy like wanting to use it.
The other new feature that was hinged directly to the internet is the new EA GamerNet that I think is really getting its first major micro-test with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08. I think GamerNet, if successful with Tiger, will be something that you’ll see rolled into most future EA Sports releases. In this game, GamerNet is used to set up online “challenges” for others around the world to complete and for you to try your hand at. You'll also use it to share your best shots and rounds for the world to witness. While I’m not sure how much interest most will find in this mode, I think it’s a great statement about EA’s sudden, and long overdue, interest in the online gaming community. Between this mode and the online leagues being introduced in NHL 08, the future finally looks bright for the EA fan that likes to take it online.
On the course itself, the first thing that will jump out at many, besides the addition of a few new ones, is that EA still has not fixed the issue with the crowd. For no logical reason, the gallery is positioned along the course in many places where you simply would not see people standing in the real PGA. Furthermore, in most of those cases, they are standing dangerously close to the fairway and, often times, change an entire round based on physically knocking down errant shots. And, if you’re like me, there will be more than a few of those thanks to the new hypersensitivity of the analog swing system.
I’m a big fan of the analog swing and think it was one of the most logical jumps in the golf genre when we started seeing it years ago. But, something strange happened in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 that might shock a lot of folks who are quick to label Tiger as arcade golf – the stick got sim on us. Using the analog stick is really unforgiving this year with even a minor sway resulting in a major hook or slice. While this can become frustrating very quickly, you have to keep reminding yourself that golf IS unforgiving and literally a game of millimeters – not inches. An inch means a lot in golf. Whether it’s leaving a putt short or opening that clubface just a hair too much, golf may be the most unforgiving game out there. It only stands to reason that a golf game should be the same.
But fear not “oh ye of the clumsy thumb” in news that will likely thrill many diehards out there, the Tiger team has brought back the old reliable 3-click swing system that can be used instead of the analog stick. It’s refreshing to see a developer who is smart enough to see that some people didn’t like the change and wanted the option to go with the old school click method. I myself am an analog guy, but it is certainly nice to have the option back.
With the slightly longer learning curve with the touchy analog stick in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, the addition of the new confidence system was a welcome and really nicely implemented feature. Like real golf, the better you do with a certain shot type, club or hole; you tend to gain confidence in your ability. I’ve always said I’d be much happier in my real game if I only took my 9-iron and putter out because those are the clubs I know that I can hit well. The game tracks your performance over time and you can gain confidence. The result is reflected in the size of the true aiming target that you use during play. If you’re hitting those pitches consistently at the pin, over time you’ll see that that giant circle that once covered the entire green now is just a small area around the flag. Doesn’t mean it’s a no-brainer, but you can certainly feel the difference when you’re golfer is swinging a club that he believes in.
All of these new features and gameplay can be used throughout Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, but are really utilized mostly in the Career Mode that is the centerpiece of the game. Within this mode, you’ll find the PGA Tour Season (including the new FedEx Cup), the Tiger Challenge and the Skills Drills used to turn your created golfer into a wild animal of his or her own.
The Tiger Challenge has been expanded to include more than just one on one events against the cast of fictional and real duffers. You’ll also compete in more specialized skill events and specialty matches including the newly added Bingo, Bango, Bongo – a surprisingly fun and challenging game. But, if you don’t have the talent or the patience to build your player from scratch, fear not cheaterpants. For just a few hundred Xbox Marketplace points, you can purchase a maxed out golfer to take on tour.
While Tiger Woods himself continues to reach new heights in his golf game, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise also made noticeable improvements in the last year. While the roll out of some of the new modes were a little off the fairway, the actual execution is pretty impressive. While I think the analog swing got a little too sensitive at times and the Ranger needs to get those people off the course, the addition of the confidence system and the return of the optional 3-click swing make the overall gameplay the most realistic and enjoyable we’ve seen in the series.