SAN DIEGO--Although the world ran out of superlatives long ago to describe Tiger Woods' talent on the golf course, you can still sit and watch, mouth agape, as he continues to rewrite the history books with each major outing. You need look no further than the third round of the 2008 U.S. Open for proof of that; playing on a surgically repaired knee that was clearly bothering him, Tiger managed to counterbalance his inaccurate drivers with some amazing recovery shots, phenomenal putting, and, as evidenced by that miraculous chip-in on 17, not a little luck. The only way that most of us will get anywhere near that kind of performance is in a video game. While in San Diego to check out some U.S. Open action, we also had a chance to see and play the most recent build of EA Sports' latest golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, a game that aims to help you become the best virtual duffer you can be.
Amid all the new features in Tiger 09, perhaps the most visible addition is that of Hank Haney, who serves as Woods' real-life golf coach and, in Tiger 09, your mentor in the game (read about our time with Hank on the GameSpot Sports Blog). When you first fire up the game, Haney will be there to assess your skills in four crucial aspects: power, accuracy, short game, and putting. Playing through each of the four sets of minigames is similar to the challenges in previous Tiger games but, at the end of your skills evaluation, you'll be given a numerical assessment of each of your four skills. Thanks to the dynamic attributes in Tiger 09 (which replace last year's confidence system), it won't be long before those baseline attribute scores start quickly going up. You can achieve a maximum score of 10 for each rating, which can be boosted a further two points depending on the kind of gear that your golfer's using.
Naturally, the easiest way to get a big boost is to play a full round of golf. We set off for 18 at TPC at Sawgrass and fell right into the swing of things. From a control standpoint, the game doesn't feel like a big departure from previous entries in the series. On the default difficulty level, the right stick's swing feels as good as ever, but a new meter in the lower left-hand side of the screen will trace the exact path that your stick takes from the backswing all the way to the follow-through. In our case, we noticed a consistent tendency to start our backswing a little bit left of center; that type of factor didn't affect our ball striking on the default difficulty level, but it might be a problem once you bump things up a notch or two.
During our time with the game, we ran through Sawgrass, played a bit at the new Shanghai course, Sheshan, checked out 18 at Pebble Beache (complete with new roaring-wave effects that crash onto the shore), and also played nine holes at our favorite new course, the gorgeous and immensely challenging Wolf Creek. After playing full rounds, you'll get the chance to revisit some of your "special" moments on the course with Hank Haney, such as the long drive that we dunked in the sand on 14 at Sheshan, or that shot out of the rough that we managed to land in the drink at Wolf Creek. You'll get a chance to revisit an errant shot and then try to figure out what you did wrong and (more importantly) how to correct it with instant challenges.
In the case of the bad drive at Sheshan, Hank set up a power challenge for us, with the goal being to hit the ball into a circle near where we should have been aiming in the first place. We passed that challenge on the first try, which offered us a small boost to our power attribute. We were also offered a bonus-round challenge, which asked us to repeat that same shot as many times as we could in 60 seconds. For each successful attempt, we'd earn a tiny attribute boost and more time would be added to the clock. After our initial success, we managed to pull a big fat zero in the bonus round. Luckily we weren't penalized for melting down; bonus rounds are there strictly to reward the player.
After a round, the game (and Hank) will present a set of challenges to you, and you can choose to play them immediately or put them off until later. If you choose to try them later, the most recent challenges will be saved in the Tiger Challenge menu, which you can access at any time. The game will always present to you challenges in each of the four attribute categories--power, accuracy, short game, and putting--so you'll always have the ability to at least attempt improving your standing. It should be noted that, though you have plenty of opportunities for improving your attributes in Tiger 09, the dynamic-attribute system in the game also means that your skills can drop if you have a particularly bad outing. You might notice some big drops in the early goings of the game, as you gain experience on the various courses, but any performance blips won't affect your overall skills that much.
We've compared the new club-tuning feature in Tiger 09 to tuning a race car in the past but, having played with it a bit during our hands-on time with the game, it's apparent that the analogy is more apt than we previously thought. By accessing the club-tuning menu, you're taken to a driving range where, after hitting a few shots with various clubs so Haney can get a look at your swing, you're given full authority to tune your clubs for everything from power, to loft, and even swing bias (so, for example, you can accommodate for your propensity to push the ball left on your follow-through).
Much like some racing games, tuning can be seen as an advanced skill. After all, though you might be tempted to jack up the power ratings for every club in your bag, that boost comes at the cost of the so-called "sweet spot." Sure, you might rake off the tee with your power-boosted clubs, but you'll also have a much larger chance of missing the fairway or, worse yet, sending your ball flying into the woods. As a result, much as with tuning a high-performance race car, it's all about compromise; how much accuracy can you sacrifice at the expense of power? How much extra loft do you want to add, if it means that your ball is going to travel less off the tee?
Of course, the answers depend on what you're trying to accomplish on each course. For example, if you know that the next course you're playing has extremely fast greens, you might want to add loft to your wedges to reduce the amount that the ball rolls when it hits the green. We liked the ability to save your club tunings after you've got them where you like them, but we would like to see the ability to save club "sets" for various courses and situations. Why not have a wet-course tuning, or a "windy, Pebble Beach, fast greens" tuning that you could instantly access after you've spent the time designing them? As it stands now, if you want to get granular with your club selection and tuning, you'll have to do it in-between each round that you head out to play.
That said, club tuning is not essential to have fun (or even find success) in Tiger 09. If you don't want to mess with adjusting the loft of your woods, you can simply have the game adjust your clubs based on Hank Haney's assessment of your swing with a press of the button.
The Tiger Challenge, which received an overhaul in last year's game, has been revamped again. This time, you'll be taking on various fictional and real players in a more linear set of challenges that include everything from long-drive challenges and shot-accuracy tests to head-to-head rounds. To move through the mode and on to different golfers, you'll need to achieve a certain number of points, and the different challenges available to you will award you points depending on length and degree of difficulty. Also, you won't earn gold, silver, or bronze medals in this year's Tiger Challenge; this time around, it's either pass or fail.
Last year's Tiger introduced the Gamernet feature, which let players record, save, and upload shots they'd made, at which point other players could download and try to beat (or at least match) those same shots. Although last year's implementation of Gamernet felt separate from the main game, with Tiger 09, the feature will be more integrated into the single-player game. We didn't get a chance to check it out for ourselves, but we understand that challenges will always be available to you on each hole that you play. For example, if you hit an exceptionally long drive, you might beat that day's drive record for that hole, and then you'll have the ability to easily upload your new record for other players to try to beat.
Other features in the online portion of Tiger include simultaneous online play for up to four players, which sounds like a lot of fun. If you're looking to top out your created player without having to go through the rigmarole of actually, you know, playing the game, then you'll be able to purchase accessories (such as a giant bunny outfit or an astronaut's getup) that will automatically maximize your golfer's attributes. EA hasn't announced the cost of these special items yet--and, frankly, the idea of buying your skills sounds a bit cheap to us--but the option will be there for the lazy among us.
The Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has always treaded the line between simulation and arcade golf. At the highest difficulty level, you won't be able to do things like spin the ball in midair, or get the putt-preview camera that shows you the line that your ball will take to the cup. That said, like many of this year's crop of EA Sports games, Tiger 09 is aiming to ensure that new players will feel comfortable right away when swinging the stick, whether their thanks will go to Hank Haney's virtual advice or their ability to tune their clubs the way they want them. How much will features like these improve your virtual golf game? You'll be able to find out when Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 ships in late August.