Player progression in sports games can be a tricky thing to emulate. On one hand, you can go the standard route: earning attribute points by finding success on the playing field, and then applying those points to your player's various attributes such as strength, speed, and so on. Then there's the more realistic method of improving in skills that you use on a regular basis in the game. With the upcoming Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, the developer behind the game is moving to a fully dynamic attribute system that appears to have a significant impact. We got our first taste of this system at this week's EA Sports press event, at which the publisher showed off the game for the first time.
When you first start Tiger 09, you'll meet Hank Haney. You might not recognize his name offhand, but he's apparently good at teaching golf; or at least Tiger Woods, whom Haney trains, thinks so. After introducing himself, Haney will want to take a look at your virtual golf game to get a feel for where your skills are across several aspects: power, accuracy, short game, and putting. To gauge your ability, you'll have some basic challenges to complete. For example, for the power challenge, you'll need to drive the ball past a line marker on the course. After you've passed the challenge--and it really shouldn't take more than a few tries, maximum--you'll be assigned a power rating based on the game's assessment of your shots.
You'll repeat similar challenges for the other central aspects of your game until you have some basic parameters from which to start out with your skills. You'll still have plenty of opportunities to improve your skills (or indeed watch them drop) as you continue through the game. In fact, simply by playing rounds in the game, all of your player attributes will change according to your skill with the sticks. If you manage to reel off a round of powerful drives and accurate chips, your power and short-game attributes will rise accordingly. If you find yourself hacking your way out of the brush due to errant tee shots, or dealing with the yips on the green, then your accuracy and putting attributes will take a dip.
As you golf, your coach will be on hand to offer you advice on how you can improve your game. You'll also have the ability to go back and try bad shots over again using a rewind feature that will re-create a shot exactly as it was the first time around. If you manage to improve your shot the second time around, you'll gain back what you lost in terms of your golfer's attributes, and have a little more knowledge on how to attack the same shot next time.
Another in-game tool designed to help improve your play on the links is the so-called club tuning. Here, you can tune any club in your bag in a similar way to how a mechanic might tune a race car. For example, if you're looking for more power out of your driver, you can adjust a power rating on the woods. However, just as with tuning a race car, every tuning adjustment has a trade-off. With your clubs, that trade-off comes in the form of the sweet spot on the ball. The smaller the sweet spot, the more difficult it will be to hit the ball perfectly off the club face. So if you're looking for more power from your woods, or more workability (the ability to put draw or fade on a ball) from an iron, you'll take a hit to your sweet spot. Of course, if you tune down these aspects, you'll gain a bigger sweet spot as a result.
Club tuning isn't just about tuning your clubs for better attributes; if for whatever reason you consistently hit the ball left, you can adjust your clubs so that they'll have a right directional balance, thus offsetting your bad habit. The more advanced equipment you're rolling with, the bigger adjustments you'll be able to make when tuning, and as a result, you'll need to retune your clubs whenever you upgrade your equipment. Granted, the whole club-tuning feature isn't exactly the most realistic feature, but with a little time spent on the different sliders, it seems as if you'll be able to make some significant improvements to your game.
Last year's Tiger saw the introduction of the Gamernet feature, which let players upload trick shots and completed challenges to a central server for downloading by other Tiger 08 players. This year, the Gamernet feature returns with a slicker integration into the overall package in Tiger 09. When you're ready to tee off, a random Gamernet challenge will appear associated with this hole, which you can then try to beat if you like. Should you best the challenge, you'll be able to upload your new challenge to the Gamernet servers, and also earn Gamernet points in the process. Another online feature is simultaneous play, in which up to four players can play together simultaneously, with no waiting in-between shots. If you finish the hole before your friend, you can go to the scorecard and wait for the next hole to launch, or go to spectator mode and taunt your friend during his or her backswing (we prefer the latter option).
Beyond those new features, Tiger 09 will include five new courses: Bay Hill, Gary Player Country Club, Sheshan, Wentworth, and the impressive Wolf Creek. Unfortunately, the total course count will still be set at 16 for the game, given that the new courses are coming in the place of some older ones. That said, the courses that are in the game--including standards such as Pebble Beach and Sawgrass--will all benefit from a graphical overhaul that will include better lighting, revamped hole layouts (where applicable), and a seemingly brighter color palette. New PGA Tour golfers in the game include Se Ri Pak, Nick Doherty, Darren Clarke, and Rory McElroy.
The development team behind the Tiger series seems perpetually looking to strike a balance between creating a challenging golf game that plays like the real thing and not alienating golf fans who might not have hardcore skills on the sticks. New tools in Tiger 09 like the club tuning and dynamic attributes aim to help find that balance, and we'll be keeping our eyes on the game's progress throughout the summer.