There are certain game genres that are hard to mess up too badly. For example, even sub-par kart racing games are enjoyable for a few laps with friends. The flip side of that is that games in these genres are equally difficult to make into great titles. When’s the last truly great Tetris clone you’ve played? Among these genres is golf, a sport that’s been represented on home consoles since the days of the Atari 2600. In more recent years, EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has fine tuned the controls of golf, and introduced an analog control scheme that simulates the sport far more realistically than the old three-button-press systems. That analog stick control scheme has been in place for almost a decade now, and while it hasn’t exactly grown stale, the genre is overdue for a bit of innovation. While Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 represents yet another excellent golf title from EA, and does manage to change up the existing formula a bit, it isn’t a revolutionary links experience. Then again, it doesn’t have to be.
Anyone who has played any of the Tiger Woods titles of the past 9 years should have no problem picking up a club and teeing off with some level of success. The analog control scheme is still in effect, complete with the extremely helpful swing analyzer that debuted last year. Also returning to the series are the standard methods of affecting your ball outside of your swing. Putting spin on the ball, adding power boost to your drives, and utilizing the putt preview feature are all present and accounted for, as is a new helper, an accuracy boost, which shrinks the size of your on-screen target. This year, however, each of these superhuman feats of ball control come at a price; Focus. Focus is a new feature that limits just how much extra stuff players can do to their shot. A circular gauge in the lower left hand corner of the screen indicates how much Focus the player has left, and utilizing any of these tricks will deplete it. Hitting simple shots that don’t utilize any of these techniques will refill the Focus meter, adding an interesting element of strategy to the game, and making players really think about what’s more important; nailing that 350 yard drive or having a putt preview available once they get to the green. In online play, this new system can have dramatic effects on the game, while in Career Mode, it gives players something to think about while laying waste to the rest of the PGA on the game’s 17 courses.
Unlike in real golf, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has, for as long as I can remember, given players a convenient little target on the course so they know exactly where their ball will go if hit correctly. Since in real golf, this isn’t an option, Tiger 11 has instituted a new mode; True-Aim. True-Aim mode strips the golf experience down to its essence. There’s no targeting reticule, just a player, a club, a ball, and a general direction in which he’ll hit it. Instead of targeting a spot on the fairway, players will now have to read distances, which are marked on key parts of the course, and adjust their shot accordingly. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 is a challenging enough game as it is, and True-Aim makes it into an overly frustrating experience that only bonafide experts will bother with. I have no doubt that there’s an audience that really wanted this feature included, and for them, it seems like a perfect option. For most duffers, though, the tried-and-true classic method should be just fine.
Everything a player does in Tiger Woods 11 earns them XP. Instead of splitting up a player’s rewards between experience for building stats, and money for buying new clubs and apparel, XP is good for both. The result is a slower player progression, but it’s not so slow that it becomes frustrating, and in fact makes it more satisfying to build them up to pro levels. Tiger 11 does a great job of supporting the EA Sports World website, and uploading created player faces is easier than ever. How close a player looks to his real-world counterpart is largely dependent on the quality of the pictures it draws from, but with good photos, the results can be eerily realistic.
In addition to a full career mode, players can take on any of 48 player challenges to build up their stats and skills offline. These challenges are split up among 16 different pro players, and ramp up in difficulty as players get closer to the final opponent, Tiger Woods. Not only are these challenges an excellent test of a player’s skills, they do a great job of teaching players about shot selection, decision-making, and adapting to less than ideal conditions. Once a player has learned all these skills, and adequately pumped up his gofer’s attributes, they can test themselves in the Ryder Cup. This mode, the focus of the game and the “official” reason for a two-athlete cover for the game, pits the US against Europe in a series of competitions. Players take control of one player in a foursome, and play against computer-controlled opponents, one hole at a time. While one player’s hole is going on, other players will take on other holes with different foursomes. It’s a neat idea, but in practice it falls a bit flat. The fact that the Ryder Cup is only on one course doesn’t help it, and watching AI golfers slowly line up their putts before getting to their mercifully skip-able swing animation gets extremely tedious. A bit more variety and interactivity in this mode would have gone a long way towards making it great. As it stands, though, it’s just okay.
Online play consists of ranked matches, unranked player matches, and the new 24-person online team mode. This mode takes two teams of up to twelve players, and pairs them up for one-on-one action. At the end, the winners of the match-ups are tallied, and a winning team is declared. Due to the simultaneous online play, introduced in last year’s game, online play is quick, efficient, and a lot of fun, no matter the mode. There are also GamerNet Instant Challenges which present you with driving, approach and putting tests against the online community at large. These challenges are always on, even in single player (as long as you’re hooked up to Xbox Live), and are a great way to measure your game against others without having to go through a series of online menus.
At a glance, an observer might not be able to tell the difference between this year’s Tiger Woods and last year’s…or 2008’s, for that matter. This is entirely understandable, because with the exception of the Focus meter, Tiger Woods 11 looks pretty much identical to the last few Tiger Woods games. To be fair, golf looks like golf no matter what year it is, and the series has such polished visuals that there’s not much room for improvement without new hardware. Courses look fantastic, with a huge variety of grass textures, while golfers have a slightly less polished look. The one glaring visual problem is the crowd. Specatators have a very limited set of animations, and at times, the entire crowd will do the exact same animation at the exact same time. It’s a jarring thing, and it completely takes the player out of the game, but it’s pretty much the only glaring visual issue in the game.
Kelly Tillman and Scott Van Pelt handle the announcing duties, and do so pretty well. As with almost any sports game commentary, they do eventually get a bit old, but for the most part, they’re unobtrusive and accurate to the on-course action. Otherwise, the audio presentation is pretty much what you’d expect from a golf sim, with soothing ambient sounds that bring to mind sleepy Sundays on the recliner “watching” the PGA.
Players that were perfectly satisfied witgh last year’s Tiger Woods game will really have only one thing to sell them on this newest iteration; the Focus system. It’s a great addition that keeps players from relying too heavily on “trick” shots, and greatly improves head-to-head play, and it’s well worth the price of the game for golf fans. More casual fans who only tool around in the single-player modes may feel let down by a game that’s very similar to the last few offerings.