It's about that time of the year when EA rolls out its big sporting guns. Madden is a big deal in the US, but in Europe Tiger Woods is the first EA Sports title of note this year. As ever the game has been met by forums full of people moaning about how it's yet another quick cash-in and that EA hasn't changed anything. Rarely do people consider that this is a golf game and as such EA can't rewrite the rule book. EA isn't forcing you to buy the game each year, so as long as some effort is made to improve on an already solid and growing foundation we're relatively happy. And this is exactly what it's done this year.
If you've played any Tiger Woods game since the introduction of the swing stick (left analogue on the controller) you'll feel instantly at home. The core controls haven't changed, much like a golfer rarely makes fundamental changes to his swing. Flick it back and forwards with two smooth, straight motions and you'll hit a nice long ball. Deviate from a straight line and you'll add unwanted hook or slice, or miss-hit terribly if the ball is sitting in a nasty patch of rough. The system works, so there's no good reason for EA to scrap it and start again.
Over the years there have been subtle changes, though, like the club face angle mapped to the right analogue stick, giving you more control without adding too many layers of complexity - tilt forward for less loft, pull back for more loft. Yet another seemingly small addition has been included in this year's game: a real-time swing meter. This sits in the bottom left of the screen and shows you what your analogue stick swing was like. It'll show you if you veered off to the left on the follow through or if you're swinging right across the ball. It's so simple that it's hard to see why it wasn't thought of before and it helps your swing immeasurably.
Another small tweak is the way GamerNet is integrated into the entire game. In last year's effort GamerNet was something of a revelation, offering a near-endless amount of challenges created by other players. The same is true of this year's game, but you'll also see challenges pop up as you play. This effectively adds a challenge mini-game on top of the round you're playing. For example, you might have laid up 100 yards short of the pin - nothing out of the ordinary in that - but then a GamerNet pop-up appears at the top of the screen proposing a 'nearest the pin' challenge. You don't need to do anything other than play your shot. If you manage to get nearer the pin you'll earn GamerNet points, if not you'll just continue as normal.
These seemingly minor changes to last year's game make for a more polished experience, yet aren't necessarily features that will entice Tiger 08 owners to buy 09. One feature that might is the new dynamic attributes system, turning what used to be an inevitable stroll towards a maxed out player into something that more closely resembles the career of a real-life golfer. If you're playing well your stats will go up, so hit plenty of long straight drives and your power rating will increase; hit plenty of greens in regulation and your approach stat will increase. Pretty much as things were, but play poorly and your stats will decrease - as your overall game would have had you hit a poor patch of form in real life.
On the face of it this isn't anything all that revolutionary, but it makes a fairly significant difference to your golfer's progression, especially once you've been playing for a few days. Tied to this is coaching from Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' very own coach. He'll spot three shots that you played poorly during your last round and offer stat increases if you replay them to a certain standard. After a while these feel like an easy way to increase your stats, but it's a novel approach to stat building that gives the sense that you're working on your game.
If you find that you just can't stop slicing the ball into the rough or you really need some more power with your driver another of the game's new features comes into play. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 includes a Club Tuner, which lets you alter the attributes of each club to suit your needs. So, if you need a bigger sweetspot in order to hit the ball straighter, you can make adjustments to do just that. It's not a free upgrade, limiting your maximum distance in the process, but it might just be what you need. The tuning menu initially looks quite daunting and will likely be something complete novices avoid, but the game offers a reasonable amount of assistance and even recommends changes that can be made.
As in previous games Tiger 09 includes a rather mammoth PGA Tour mode in which you compete in tournaments against real life pros, and a redesigned Challenge mode that sees you earning points in mini challenges before taking on a pro. When combined with the plethora of other one-off game modes and GamerNet challenges you have a game that will keep you happy for a very long time. If you're finding things too easy you can opt to play on Pro Tour difficulty, removing power shots, putt previews and mid-air spin control from the game. It's incredibly tough at first, with playing out of the rough becoming far more difficult and club loft now necessary for spin, but much more rewarding.
If you somehow grow bored of Tiger's offline offering you can eat up hours with the multiplayer functionality. The usual offering of four-player single-system and online modes are available, with the added bonus of simultaneous play complete with coloured ball trails flying through the air. Not only does this give multiplayer games a brighter appearance, but also speeds things up no end. We've found EA's servers to be slightly temperamental but, assuming everything is working, performance during games is great.
It's easy to pick faults with EA's latest Tiger game (the visuals are only marginally improved over last year, AI players still awkwardly glitch into place before each shot, new courses were available to buy the day the game went on sale suggesting they could have been included on the game disc, and items from the store still magically improve player stats) but it's still unquestionably the best golf sim available on consoles. Ramp up the difficulty and you'll find a game that requires dedication and a fair amount of skill. Existing Tiger owners will have to weigh up if the additions this year are worth another purchase, but if you've been out of the game for a while there's no better time to return to the links.