For a very long time, most golf simulations could be summed up in one word. Unfortunately, the same word was applied to the sport itself: boring. While lush courses, accurate play and complete tour rosters populated these titles, only the dedicated fan could derive any enjoyment from this dry section of the sports world. If ever there was a genre that required revision, this was it. Fortunately, Tiger Woods and his PGA Tour games from EA have provided a much-needed transfusion, capturing much of the fiery spirit the “Gretzky of Golf” brings to courses.
Before I continue, I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to video games. Handheld, console, PC – I can’t get enough of them. If only there were more hours in a day… No, wait… That’s for another article. Actually, outside of the digital realm, I’ve never played golf before. I don’t watch it on TV. In fact, the closest I ever got was taking aim at ball collectors at a driving range. What does this have to do with the current incarnation of Tiger Woods PGA Tour, you may ask? Well, the 2002 iteration of the series departs from its roots by taking a more novice friendly, arcade like approach to the game. It’s obvious from the first few notes of the game’s theme song, “#1” by Nelly, that this isn’t your daddy or even your grandpa’s golf.
Nowhere is this more readily apparent than the mandatory training tutorial that Tiger Woods runs players through before it unlocks the other game modes. This may seem restrictive at first, especially to those who want to leap directly into play, but it is necessary to get a basic understanding of the Total Precision Swing system that the game uses exclusively. Most golf games up till now have used power bars and three button press systems to determine factors such as power, accuracy and spin on the ball. Although that was an effective command scheme, there were two problems that inevitably arose. First, it reduced the total skill of the game down to a fast-twitch system. Those who had quick reaction times were assured near perfect shots or play, whereas slower players were trapped with whatever they managed to smash out on their gamepads. Secondly, it removed the experience of feeling like you had any control over the ball itself.
The Total Precision Swing system attempts to remedy these problems by tying the success and failure of a shot to the player’s control of the analog stick. If the motion of pulling back on the analog stick is interrupted prematurely or is held too long, a swing will inevitably lose power and fall tragically short of its target. To compensate for this, an extra power boost or spin can be placed on the ball by quickly tapping the L1 and L2 buttons. Additionally, slices or hooks can be made on shots (many times unintentionally) by directing the stick left or right during a swing. While effectively conveying the feel of holding a club in your hand, there are control issues. Even minute, imperceptible shifts within the preparation of a shot can affect its outcome, which means surgeon-like precision is needed to consistently launch a ball straight down the fairway. Similar control issues arise within putting, which is quickly reduced to estimation of distance. Although your caddy will advise how you should proceed, there is no grid or distance meter available to make a well-informed putt. This may not be too hard for a close shot, but for long putts away from the hole, it’s nigh impossible to be accurate.
But don’t feel too bad, because the game characters will feel the pain of missing a shot also. Tiger Woods 2002 features some of the most detailed 3D characters ever to grace a sports game. Each has their own individual personality and expressions, which are all nicely animated. Launch an amazing shot off the tee? Sit back and watch as your avatar smiles, tips their hat and waves. Errant shot off the green into a water hazard? A large frown and kicked club will probably be shown when the camera closes in. And these are the tamer reactions that you’ll find from the PGA Tour Pros, like Vijay Singh and Jesper Parnevik. Some of the more entertaining reactions come from the fictional characters, going so far as shadowboxing or performing a Samoan war dance.
This may seem rather out of character with the basics of the game, but in Tiger Woods 2002, it feels right at home. Apparently, Tiger and his friends have been hanging out with Happy Gilmore in the off-season, because characters are apt to take a running start up to the tee in a launch reminiscent of the Adam Sandler flick. The cameras get in on the action as well, heightening the drama around such shots with slow motion, bullet-time sweeps around the action (a la The Matrix) before resuming regular speed. There are also moments within the game called “Gamebreakers”, usually tied into a crucial putt or chip onto the green. During this time, the rumble feature of the controller comes alive to simulate the golfer’s heartbeat, and the screen compresses into letterbox format to highlight the success or failure of the moment. It’s an effective way of conveying the pressure and tension that the golfers are going through. However, the camera is by no means perfect. There are many times when it attempts to frame a shot dramatically, but in doing so manages to either lose or hamper the ability to control the ball.
Even with its flaws, the obvious impact of the camera upon play is the flyby on each hole. The game features six courses, modeled after their real counterparts. However, the courses are only available once they’ve been unlocked. This is where Tiger’s Challenge comes in. Arguably the focus of the game, the challenge is technically broken down into two separate and different sections: scenarios and challenge mode. Scenarios are pressure situations that measure how good a golfer you are. Making par from sand traps, or rallying back late in a game to win are examples of how the game really turns up the heat. The challenge mode allows you to challenge either a real or fictional golf pro for a cash prize. Whereas most golf games use cash for the purchasing of equipment, clothing or courses, Tiger Woods 2002 uses the award money in a character point system, allowing you to buy improved skills for your player, such as more accurate putts or powerful drives. Along with these two modes, there are the customary modes found in most golf games, such as skins, practice, tournament, match, and stroke. The coolest mode, however, has to be Speed Golf, a completely new feature to the Tiger Woods series. In this mode, you and a friend compete against each other to complete the hole as fast as possible, while winning cash along the way. This is one of the coolest ideas to turn golf on its head, and is a very solid mini-game in its own right. The only problem is that you cannot play against the computer, which is too bad. (I’d sprint out and buy a golf game whose entire premise was like that.)
As for the rest of the game, there are a few oddities that are pretty hard to explain. For example, the music presented on the menu screens are a great mix of hip-hop, dance and jazz flavored tunes, but is featured nowhere else within the game, with the exception of Speed Golf, which gets its own frenetic dance beat. I don’t know why exactly that mode gets music and the others don’t. Maybe they feel like there should be a respectful silence during a round of golf. If so, then the sound effects from the crowd need to be reined in also. For some reason, the crowd upon the golf courses are almost always applauding or cheering, even when nothing has happened onscreen. While it can be argued that they’re cheering for other golfers, it can’t be explained when you’re playing a one player game without any competition. There was one time that I was in practice mode, getting ready to tee off, and the crowd exclaimed, “Awww,” as though I’d blown the drive already! The courses are rather nicely detailed, with varying weather effects such as rain and mist well rendered in 3D. I would’ve expected better particle effects from Tiger Woods 2002, especially when I tried to blast a ball out of a sand trap onto the fairway or the green. Finally, I would’ve hoped that the wind was more effectual within the game. There is a direction indicator on-screen, which tells the strength and direction of breezes. However, during shots, there’s no indication that these affect the ball in any way.
There’s definitely something that I’ll give Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002: it performs an amazing job of providing an environment for novices to pick up and play the game. Veterans of golf simulations shouldn’t be alarmed, however, because the title offers tons of complexity with the control of the ball and computer-driven competitors that will appeal to even the most seasoned player. Do I think that I’ll wind up with a newfound interest in golf? Not really. But I will say that I’ve got more of an understanding of the game by playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002.