With only a matter of weeks left in the golf season (north of the border that is), soon golfers will be turning to the virtual links to get their fix. On the Xbox 360 that means the latest installment in EA Sports’ long-running franchise, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08. This leads us to the question asked of any yearly sporting franchise: is this year’s installment a meager “roster” update or an actual evolution in gaming? Grab your clubs and let’s find out.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 encourages players to create their own golfer and take them from the ranks of a rookie on the PGA Tour to a golf legend. As always you can customize absolutely every aspect of your created golfer, from their eyebrows down to the color of their socks. New to the franchise this year is the Photo Game Face, which lets you take photos of yourself, using either the Xbox Live Vision Camera or any digital camera for that matter, then upload them to the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 website. As long as you have an EA Member Account, and the photos are taken in a high enough resolution with decent lighting, that picture will become the face of your golfer.
Your created golfer will begin as a rookie on the PGA Tour with a minimal skill set. In order to improve your skills, you’ll have to endure Skills Training, start the PGA Tour Season, or take on the Tiger Challenge, another of the new features in this year’s installment. The Tiger Challenge presents a grid of 60 different challenges, ranging from traditional and arcade game modes against fictional golfers to actual one-on-one rounds with some of the PGA’s best, both male and female. It’s an excellent way not only to improve various aspects of your golf game, but also unlock new golfers and earn cash to spend on new accessories and better equipment. There’s just one problem. The Tiger Challenge has an unfortunate bug. In order to challenge one of the pros, you first have to complete each of the hexagon challenges surrounding that golfer. For Chris DiMarco, that includes a skins match against Henrietta Brockway. Unfortunately, once you finish the second of five holes with Henrietta, the game locks up. It does this every time so you’ll never be able to complete that challenge and face-off against DiMarco. Hopefully EA will patch this problem up.
The PGA Tour Season is likely where you’ll spend the bulk of your time. Most of the Tour’s tournaments are accounted for, including the new FedExCup Playoffs (does anyone really know how the point system for this thing works?). Five new courses have been added this year, for a total of 16, and the roster of professional golfers has been increased by 8, including new up and comers Camilo Villegas, JB Holmes, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Natalie Gulbis, Christie Kerr, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel. There’s also a new traditional game mode, Bingo Bango Bongo, which is a very casual match play event. In the game, a single point is awarded for being the first golfer to reach the green (Bingo), being the closest to the pin once everyone has reached the green (Bango), and being the golfer with the lowest score on the hole (Bongo). I say it’s a casual game because you don’t have to be the best golfer in the group to win either Bingo or Bango.
The biggest addition to Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, in my opinion, is the EA Sports Gamernet. In this new online feature, players can save highlights and share them with friends or better yet, save replays of a shot, hole, front nine, back nine, or entire rounds and post them online for other players to challenge. The golfer who completes the challenge first will earn points based on the difficulty of the challenge, not to mention have their name posted as having completed the challenge for all to see. The EA Sports Gamernet is a tremendous way to generate fan interest in the online aspect of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 and it adds countless hours of replay value to the title.
There have been a number of new additions and alterations to the swing controls in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08. Old school golfers can switch to the 3-click swing as opposed to using the left thumbstick to swing the club. For those using the thumbstick, new draw and fade mechanics have been added. Depending on your golfer’s handedness, you add draw to your shot by moving the left stick down and to the right during your backswing, and then follow through up and to the left. Adding a fade would be the opposite. The stick is a little sensitive though so it’ll likely take a few shots before you get a feel for adding a draw or fade, as opposed to hitting a slice or hook. Rounding out the new swing controls is the Putt Preview. By tapping the left bumper while lining up your putt, the game will basically show you the end result if you keep the line and amount of power that you’ve setup. It’s definitely more of a tool for beginners, but a welcome one none the less.
There are still several areas where the franchise can improve. Besides the aforementioned bug with respect to the Tiger Challenge, and the tedious Skills Training section, the gallery of fans continues to stand way too close to the greens and fairways. On some shots, fans will actually stand between you and the hole, which PGA Tour officials would never let happen in real life. It’s very frustrating to hit a ball out of the rough, only to hit a spectator standing between you and the fairway. You should also be weary of the automated club and shot selection. The game will always set up your next shot with the club it thinks will land on the green or closest to it, but a lot of the time I find it’s way off. It’s one thing to hit a sand wedge out of a bunker that’s 10 yards away from the hole as opposed to 200, so why even suggest a sand wedge for the later scenario? Why would I hit a driver off the tee if it’s going to wind up in the rough as opposed to laying up in the fairway with an iron? The automated club and shot selection doesn’t recognize the hazards of the course all that well and while I understand it’s simply there as a guideline, I imagine it must drive some beginners around the bend when they put their faith in the system.
From a visual standpoint, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 is a mixed bag. Player models look better than ever but the animations are still a little stiff. Unfortunately the audio is pretty bland the whole way through. Not only does the commentary remain unchanged from last year’s installment, it’s often inaccurate. I’ve heard comments that I made a lousy putt when it’s gone in the hole. I’ve heard comments of terrible drives when I hit straight as an arrow with 100% power. I’ve heard praises for my short game after hitting from bunker to bunker. I've even heard one commentator praise my shot only to have the other commentator pan me. Audio is definitely an area I’d like to see the developers target for improvement in the years to come.
Despite its shortcomings, which include inconsistent commentary, inaccurate automated club and shot selection, fan interference, and a bug in the Tiger Challenge mode, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 does introduce some wonderful new features to the series. Photo Game Face goes a long way to help players create a golfer that’s truly in their image; the EA Sports Gamernet adds a wealth of content for the online community; and the additions and alterations to the swing controls make the game a little more accessible than it used to be. In the end, I have little doubt golf fans will get their money’s worth out of this year’s installment.