Tiger's Back: The real-life Tiger Woods is out of commission, has been since his amazing U.S. Open win on one knee back in June, so the only place you'll see him swinging a golf club is on your home video game console with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09. Though there is no substitute for watching the real Tiger in action, this game comes pretty close to satisfying your golf jones. The new version comes with five new courses, including the Gary Player Country Club in South Africa, Wolf Creek in Nevada and Florida's Bay Hill Country Club, along with updated versions of 11 other courses.
Dynamic Skills: EA Sports brings over the "My Skills" concept that debuted in the new Madden but the difference is that it works infinitely better with golf than football. Your skill level is always changing, even during a round, depending on your raw performance -- ball striking, accuracy, power, everything is taken into account. Instead of mind-numbingly building up your attributes from the ground up, you establish your skill level right away and build on it from there -- or lose ground. This is a huge plus for veteran Tiger Woods players who can skip the apprentice-level drudgery.
Free Lessons!: Tiger's real-life coach, Hank Haney, offers post-round instruction and gives you opportunities to enhance your attributes by responding to his customized feedback. Like many facets of this game, at first it seems cumbersome. Then you realize he's analyzing shots that you actually made in your round and making you replay your worst shots until you get it right. The process slows you down on the way to the next round but the payoff is well worth it if you go through all four of his lessons -- one each for power, accuracy, short game and putting.
Hit The Range: The "Club Tuner" puts you in a massive driving range where you can pull out all the clubs in your bag and adjust the settings according to your swing. It feels a little convoluted at first -- you actually have to read the on-screen explanation for what to do, argh -- but once you figure it out you realize it's a critical component to this game. For each club you select, ask the CPU what your power-to-sweet spot ratio should be according to how accurate your swing is; the better your swing, the more power your clubs will be tuned for and vice versa. As always, Coach Haney is there to grade your progress with the newly tuned clubs. And when you buy a new set of irons or fairway woods, you'll head right over to the range to tune them up.
Online Glory: EA has enhanced the GamerNet to allow you to earn points while in any game mode. While you advance through your career, you'll be challenged on nearly every hole to best other gamers from everywhere in the world in long drives, approaches and putts. It's integrated into the game play: When you hit a great shot, you can upload it and challenge other players to equal your feat, and vice versa. Also new to the online mode is Simultaneous Play, which allows you to complete a foursome without having to wait for anybody to hit. Just plow right through the whole round.
An Early Look:
Things We'd Change
Not A Looker: This game doesn't push the envelope graphics-wise. It doesn't look bad necessarily, but it doesn't look great either. More often than not I'll take finely tuned game play over exquisite graphics, but why can't I have both?
Can You Spare A Dime?: I wanna buy stuff in the Pro Shop! Problem is, it takes a while to accumulate any kind of coin in this game. You only get $15 bucks for hitting a green in regulation, for crying out loud. Then EA offers you the chance to buy equipment and gear using real money in the form of the "Microsoft Points." Maybe some naive kids will fall for that, but not anybody with any pride.
Stingy with Achievements: There's a fine line between being too generous with achievement points (on the 360) and being miserly with them. This game borders on the Scrooge side with the points. Within a few days of game play you might have a handful, but many of the rest will take a while. There are 40 achievements in all. Among the most difficult, or at least time-consuming: par or better on every course with the same created golfer -- for only 25 points.
Weak Alternative: If you don't like using the analog stick for swinging, you can toggle to the three-click swing, which is basically like kicking a field goal in a football game. It's nice that it's there but EA didn't do much to make this feature appealing, and it isn't even available in the higher difficulty settings.
Mini-Fun: EA continues the trend of blah mini-games with this title, offering the usual assortment of "hit the pin" setups. Simple games such as "Target" and "T-I-G-E-R," a variation of "H-O-R-S-E" don't do much to capture the imagination.
The first couple of hours I spent playing Tiger Woods 09, I can't say I was impressed at all. The graphics weren't great, and I didn't seem to be going anywhere. But the game grows on you because the more you play, the deeper the CPU's understanding of your skills and the richer the experience becomes. It's a bit of a slow burn but if you have any patience at all, you'll be hooked. Precision is the key and when you achieve it, it's very satisfying. Finally, the best thing I can say about this game is it made me dust off my clubs and hit the links for the first time in months. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.