Golf is often seen as one of the "dull" sports, but still manages to pull in huge viewing figures and attract legions of fans. Part of its appeal as a spectator sport is seeing how effortless the pros make the incredibly hard game look, while playing it as an amateur brings about equal parts frustration and achievement. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 manages to capture that sense of frustration while also giving you a chance to improve your skills in ways just not possible in real life, but also serves as a way to while away hours and hours of time.
Fans of the Tiger Woods series will no doubt have played the previous next-gen efforts from EA and will have some idea of what to expect improvements wise this year. As ever Tiger 08 is more of an evolution than revolution, with the core gameplay mechanics of last year's game simply being built upon and added to.
At its core you have the same analogue stick True Swing system and the True Aiming system that made last year's effort so great. The True Aiming system, which gives your shot placement a degree of uncertainty (the landing area decreases as your player improves) has been bolstered by the new Shot Confidence system. As the name suggests, your player's confidence has an effect on the size of the landing zone marker. This is shown by a red ring outside the standard aiming circle and appears during pressure shots such as hitting over a bunker or over water. The game tracks your performance in these areas, giving your player the resemblance of a memory.
Also making its debut this year is a new Fade and Draw system, which makes playing these shots a hell of a lot easier. You line up your shot as normal, but then press the LB and RB buttons to move the landing zone to the left or right while your golfer's aim remains in place. The final big addition is the Putt Preview, which shows you how your current aim and strength settings will play out. This preview can only be used once per putt, so unless you've lined up the shot perfectly first time, you're going to have to make some adjustments without seeing a preview of the end result. Putt Preview is disabled on the hardest difficulty setting, so players who want no help at all are also catered for.
These changes make the golf in Tiger 08 the best it's ever been and the content to play with is also excellent. We've got 16 courses this year (four more than last year), a lengthy Tiger Challenge mode and a PGA Tour career to work through. Add in a load of mini-games and standard golf modes and there's enough content to last for months. Simply starting a new character and playing through until you've maxed him or her out will take weeks and it's great to see your skills improve and to win your first event.
Online too is packed with content. As well as the standard online game modes, this year's game includes what is arguably the greatest addition to a golf title since the analogue swing system. Called GamerNet, this new feature allows you to save performances and shots to post online and challenge the community with. Say, for example, you're in the rough, with a tree in the way of the green. If you manage to hit the ball off the greenside crowd stand, onto the green and into the hole, in a moment that none of your friends would believe, you needn't worry; simply save the shot for everyone to see. To make a real challenge out of it, you can set certain parameters, like where the ball must first land, meaning you can pretty much ask players to exactly replicate your shot.
What this means is that there's a ton of user generated content online; so much that it's unlikely you'll ever get through all of it. To make playing these challenges more than simple fun, you earn points for success and you can make use of the new Game Face technology to give your golfer your own appearance, giving you a little piece of fame. While the Game Face technology isn't quite perfect it's by far the best character creation tool I've ever used, with the number of hair styles and facial hair options being the only reason I wasn't able to make a brilliant virtual replica of myself.
With all this praise there has to be some problems, and sadly they're bigger than they should be. During the Tiger Challenge there are two challenges where the game will lock up, forcing you to restart the console. You can get around this by performing some system maintenance on your Xbox 360, but it's something that should never have made it past the QA department. Multiplayer gaming is also problematic, with numerous single-system games ending early due to the game screen going completely black. Online play seems less troublesome, but on occasion the game does end abruptly due to connection issues.
Given that this is now the third Tiger Woods game to hit next-gen systems I was expecting great things visually, but sadly it's a bit of a mixed bag. At times the game looks gorgeous, with superb lighting and beautiful views, but it's rare that some graphical blemish isn't in shot. Aliasing rears its ugly head so almost every edge in the game is rough, the frame rate bogs down fairly often and certain objects in the environment just look plain ugly - the crowd being one of the biggest offenders. Much of the music is also worthy of the mute button, and the commentary soon starts to grate after you've heard the same lines numerous times. And finally, the game seems to save all the time and takes an age to do so. We've seen games with near transparent save systems in the past, so having to wait after every challenge (no matter how small) becomes a little tedious.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 would have been without doubt the best game in the series for years had it not been for the high number of bugs and uneven graphical presentation. For the simple fact that the bugs can be worked around (and a patch is apparently coming very soon) it's not enough to completely ruin the game and therefore is a title that anyone with even a passing interest in golf should seriously consider. Hopefully next year EA will finally be able to put all the pieces together without something breaking.