If silver is the new black, and Blair is the new Thatcher, and Nintendo is the new Sega, then Tiger Woods 2006 must be... well, the new Tiger Woods 2005. In fact, you can probably scrap the "new" bit. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006 is another in EA's seemingly endless line of barrel-scraping yearly updates, and it's back this year with extra added cynicism and a shocking dearth of new features. With the same graphics, the same sound effects, most of the same game modes and pretty much the same courses as last year, this barely-reheated golfing soufflè must go down as one of the most shameless attempts to separate gullible gamers from their cash that the industry has yet seen.
There's only one problem. The game is still pretty good. The Tiger Woods series hit its peak in 2004 with perhaps the best console golf game ever made, and if EA has been treading water ever since then it's not really a surprise. Features such as the analogue swing system, the real-time events calendar and the Game Face character creation tool were genuinely innovative at the time. Furthermore, the game featured, and features, an enormous range of things to see and do and a vast array of items to unlock and characters to play. Newcomers to the series will have few complaints about Tiger Woods 2006.
So, what's new this year? The big one, for European players at least who suffered when the feature was inexplicably ripped out of last year's instalment, is online play. Sadly, it's almost completely broken. Games are marred by massive amounts of lag and there's a tendency for players to get inexplicably kicked off the service in the middle of a game. Worse, this problem affects the Xbox version as well as the PS2 version, thanks to EA's insistence on shoehorning their servers into the otherwise reliable Xbox Live service. Suffice it to say that anyone buying this title purely on the basis of its online play will end up bitterly disappointed.
Happily, things look brighter in single-player. The new Rivals mode pits the player against a series of real and imaginary golfers throughout the ages. It's just a twist on the previous versions' World Tour and Legends modes, and playing early 20th century fictional stereotypes like blacksmiths and aristocrats has perhaps limited appeal, but it's a fun and enjoyable introduction to the game and provides an accessible way for the player to level up their characters. Elsewhere, there's the usual brace of modes including a lengthy PGA season, more calendar-based events than ever before, a smattering of skins and strokes, a series of ring shot skills tests and even the somewhat bizarre Battle Golf mode. Simply playing through each of the modes and levelling a character from novice to expert involves dozens of hours' play as a bare minimum. Tiger Woods 2006 is not a small game by any means, and whether you're in for a short session or the long haul there's probably a mode to suit your mood.
The control method has been tweaked throughout. The new putting method, which uses the same analogue swing mechanism as the rest of the game, is a definite improvement over the old "hit and hope" method, although it's a bit of a shock at first as putts go blithely sailing past the hole time and again. There's also a new dual analogue swing in there too, which uses the second stick to apply fade, draw, topspin and backspin to the ball, although this is a less successful addition. Tiger Woods now features no less than three ways to apply spin and curve to the ball - as well as the new dual analogue approach, it's still possible to affect the ball's flight by aiming your stroke slightly off-centre, or by battering L2 while the ball is in flight - and it's simply overkill. One single method of applying spin would have sufficed; three is slightly silly, and also helps to make the game rather easier than it needs to be.
It's the somewhat aptly-named Gamebreaker feature that really unbalances Tiger Woods 2006, however. Hitting good shots in a consistent fashion fills up the Gamebreaker bar, and when full this can be used at the player's discretion to tip the scales overwhelmingly in his or her favour. Shots played under the influence of a Gamebreaker fly hundreds of yards further than should be humanly possible, or are magically sucked into the hole from the edge of the green. Alternatively they can be used to sabotage your opponents' crucial shots. This is amusing and frustrating in equal measure: as well as looking irredeemably stupid, Gamebreakers often wreck close contests. The problem is that to get a Gamebreaker, you need to play consistently well, but once you've got one, it gives you an immediate and substantial advantage. In short, a narrow lead is often turned into an unstoppable one by virtue of a well-timed Gamebreaker. If you're just larking about with a few mates, it can be a funny feature, but if you're even mildly competitive then this will be one of the first things you turn off in the options menu.
The problem is, once you start turning off Tiger Woods 2006's unique features, you might as well be playing the 2005 or 2004 iterations of the game. Both of these are available for a fraction of the price of the new release. And, if truth be told, it's hard to say if any of the new features found in Tiger Woods 2006 can really be classed as enhancements. They're different, sure, but did the game really need a dual analogue swing? Is the Rivals mode significantly better than last year's Legends tour? Do the refinements to the Game Face system really make any material difference whatsoever? Ultimately, no. For all the things that have been changed in Tiger Woods 2006, the only one that can really, honestly be said to be better is the new putting system. And a new putting system isn't worth forty quid of anybody's money.
Tiger Woods 2006, then, is a very awkward beast: a decent game that is almost impossible to recommend. Maybe if the online play actually worked properly then it would be worth a punt, but as it stands it's something of a rip-off for all concerned. If you own any previous version of Tiger, there's nowhere near enough new stuff here to justify a purchase. And if you're new to the series, you might as well pick up last year's edition - or the peerless 2004 release - for next to nothing. Sadly, EA's complacency is coming close to wrecking a once-great series, and they're going to have to pull something special out of the bag next year on the next-gen systems to regain the reputation they're rapidly losing. Tiger, Tiger, burning bright? No. This year's Tiger is more like a mangy tabby.