Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004
The next instalment in EAís golf franchise is arguably the best golf game ever. Come inside for the reasons why.
Mark Twain, he of "Tom Sawyer" fame, once called golf "a good walk ruined." Most people not being paid millions of dollars to hit balls around would be inclined to agree. For most of us, the ritual is a ham-fisted attempt at extracting leisure out of a cavalcade of hindrances. First, you have to find a decent course, then lug your overpriced gear down to the links, secure a caddie, and only then does the real frustration of playing serf to that encased ball of rubber begin.
Videogame designers hit on something when they decided to develop the very first golf games. They gave millions of duffers the chance to actually fool themselves into believing that they were getting somewhere in this unforgiving sport. But they did something else as well. They turned what is, letís be honest here, a visually boring activity to watch into one of the most engrossing experiences in videogames. As technology has evolved, the way we virtually play golf has changed enormously. The array of control mechanisms is expansive, but few would argue that the introduction of the analog swing has had the most profound effect.
Now in its fourth incarnation, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has gone through some changes itself, but of late the games have settled on an approach to the underlying intricacies that is easy to get into, yet provides enough depth to keep you learning for many hours into the experience. While Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 does not break too much from its previous outing, the title still provides the best realisation of videogame golf on offer.
Power is controlled solely through the use of the left analog stick, with your rhythm having a noticeable effect as well. The on-screen display indicates the maximum length possible with the current club, and using the D-pad itís possible to gauge shorter shots, indicated as a percentage of a full-power swing. Sounds a little complicated, but itís really not. The smoothness of the swing mechanics helps a lot with judging exactly how hard to hit each shot, and within five minutes youíll be swinging away with confidence. Those seeking a touch more power will welcome the power-boost, which oftentimes gives you those extra ten yards required to drive a par 5 in two strokes.
Once youíve got the basics down, there are also draw and fade shots to master, though youíll be able to play through a significant portion of the courses without this being required at all. Spin control takes on a much more arcadey feel, leaving reality far behind. All spin is managed once the ball has taken flight, giving you the ability to coax it in the desired direction upon landing. While it does seem a little incongruous with the real life accuracy of the rest of the game, itís a minor mental leap thatíll nevertheless have you engrossed in each shot you make.
The middle-game, too, is rich, with a smorgasbord of shot types on offer, including pitches and chips for those just-off-the-green shots to floaty flop shots for scaling intervening trees. Youíll never feel like youíre lacking a shot, with every situation catered to. If thereís a chink in the gameís armour, it has to be the minor annoyances experienced during putting. The grid-based contour map from myriad games before makes a return, but the greens seem a little too difficult to read at times. EA has included Caddy Tips, which tell you the strength and direction you should be hitting, but following these instructions to the T is bound to result in controllers sailing across the room. After some time, though, youíll figure out what the caddy means and use that as your starting point for sinking eagle after eagle.
Newcomers to the series are well-catered to by the excellent learning curve. There are courses to suit all skill levels, with a few options available to lighten the load even further, such as minimization of the effect of winds and a guarantee of good weather conditions. The mollycoddling isnít required though, and those looking for a challenge will find plenty to keep them busy.
And I mean plenty. The value for money offered by Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 is astounding, with dozens of full, four-round tournaments to take part in and all the single-round match types--all of which are available for multiplayer--you would expect from a quality golf game. Unlike the PlayStation 2 version, the Xbox iteration is lacking in online capabilities, a shame considering how well implemented Microsoftís Xbox Live! service is proving to be.
The other main mode is World Tour, in which you jet off to exotic destinations like Australia and the Mid-West on a rampant tour of golfing carnage, tackling pros at every stop, leaving none but frightened children and swooning admirers in your wake. Add in real-time, calendar-based events and a variety of short scenarios and challenges into the mix and youíve got the recipe for one hefty serving of golf. The game has enough stats to make any RPG cower in shame, allowing you to keep track of your battle through the ranks en route to attaining the coveted number one rating.
Outside of the excellent play mechanics, the highlight of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 is EAís Game Face custom character creation system. Starting from a generic template, you can adjust every single nuance of your marionetteís appearance until youíve created a near-perfect likeness of yourself, and the system is so well done that this attaining this level is entirely within reason. Fashion junkies will be able to while away hours just trying on clothes and accessories and trying out new hair-dos. You start out your career with a mediocre set of stats, which can be upgraded using cash earned in the various game types. Much as in strategy RPGs, equipment, too, is able to give the numbers a boost, meaning that itís only a matter of time until you assume the lofty heights to which you strive. In general, the upgrade system works well, allowing you to bump up your abilities just in time to take on the next opponent in the challenging World Tour mode.
Visually, the series has come along quite well over the past four years. Courses are still of high quality, and thereís the welcome introduction of dynamic scenery. Itís amazing what an effect small additions, like trees swaying in the wind or a squirrel running up a nearby tree, can have on the enveloping ability of a game. Sound is still somewhat of a disappointment, but the decent commentary is competent enough to fill in the gaps where youíre not rocking down on your own tunes, which are accessed from the Xbox hard drive.
All this AV talk is moot, though, because, letís be frank, no one buys a golf game solely for its presentation. At the end of the day, itís gameplay that matters, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 excels in this regard. You wonít find a better golfing experience anywhere. Since I started off with a quote, Iíll end in a similar fashion. Sir Winston Churchill once remarked that "golf is a game whose aim it is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose." I donít mean to be impertinent, Winny, but this time around, EA have crafted some damn fine weapons. Fore!