Here's the real appeal of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, EA Sports' upcoming online-only PC golf game: Your golfer is your golfer, and he or she will linger for as long as you play the game, and as long as the game's servers are running. That's a significant difference from how the long-running Tiger Woods PGA Tour console games handle things--where every year, you have to start your golfer from scratch, knowing that a year or so down the line you'll be scrapping him for a brand-new model.
Back in the '90s, I played the PC version of Links for years, and by the time I finally gave up on the game, I had a golfer who had accumulated hundreds of rounds of virtual golf. It sounds preposterous, I suppose, but the connection I had to that pixelated little duffer was stronger than any created character since. Tiger Online has that same potential--after all, the golfers you create in the game will persist as long as you keep paying the subscription fee, and it's that continuity that has me excited about the game's potential.
When EA Sports' Greg Rinaldi came by GameSpot HQ to give us a look at Tiger Online, I asked him about the subscription prices, and while he wasn't able to comment on exact pricing yet, he did tell me that it wouldn't be "anywhere close" to the monthly fee for a game like World of Warcraft, and the game would have different subscription packages available (three-month, six-month, etc.). For that subscription, you'll get six playable courses at the outset, and Rinaldi said the goal would be to add a new course each month, as well as other upgrades and features as the game continues. As to the possibility of microtransactions for things like new golf gear, Rinaldi admitted it was a possibility for the future, but no concrete plans have been announced. Considering the rampant microtransactions in other EA Sports games, however, it seems like more a question of "when" and not "if" they'll make their way into Tiger Woods Online.
What could some of those upgrades be? I asked about two console-specific features--namely support for the photo GameFace feature (which lets you import a digital photo to serve as the face of your golfer) and support for the Xbox 360 controller, which would give you a control option other than the default three-click swing that you'd expect in a PC golf game. Rinaldi said that both features are a possibility down the road but didn't give a timeline on when to expect them.
The game has gone through several private betas over the past few months, and developers at EA Tiburon are prepping the game for its upcoming public beta (though the date for that open beta is still under wraps for now). We saw the game for the first time in May just before E3 2009, and it has come a long way, evident in things like the new swing trainer, which EA first showed back in July.
The swing trainer requires you to upgrade specific areas of your shot by spending money you've earned playing the game. You can alter the attributes of any of six shot types: full, punch, pitch, flop, chip, and putt. Within the "full shot" type, you can upgrade any of the following attributes--swing plane, tempo, balance, swing speed, timing, and touch--and any upgrade you make will have a beneficial impact on your game. However, I'm curious to see how obvious those improvements are; for example, how will a maxed-out tempo rating affect a shot, as opposed to focusing on swing speed or touch? Also, as Rinaldi pointed out to me, you're not required to upgrade shots you don't use. If you never use a flop shot, for example, there's no point in sinking money into upgrading it.
Another aspect of Tiger Online is the idea of course mastery. Essentially an achievements system, each course in the game will have a series of objectives you need to complete in order to move up the rankings from course member, through course pro, and finally up to course master. These objectives can be $5,000 on a certain course, or sinking a 10-foot putt on a hole, and will gradually get more difficult as you go. Once you've obtained "master" status on a course, you'll be able to enter special tournaments available only to other players who've mastered that course.
It's those tournaments, and the idea of playing golf with others, that is at the heart of Tiger Woods Online. Even jumping into a single-player round, you'll be able to chat with other players on that course and even watch the arcs of other players' shots as they play on the same hole as you (though, it should be noted, you can turn these off if you find them distracting). You'll also be able to play in tournaments and in online foursomes with friends. As of now, the game will only support stroke play, though Rinaldi did say that other game types, like match play, will be added in the future.
The game runs in a Web browser, and with multiple graphical settings, it seems prepped to run on modest PC and Mac setups as well as high-end PCs. You'll be able to save your game at any point as well and return to your round the next time you log in, a feature that will sit well with someone who has only a few minutes at a time to devote to his virtual golf swing.
I'm looking forward to Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, but I'll admit to a certain level of puzzlement regarding its future. In a perfect scenario, the game turns out to be affordable, always updated with new content, and playable on a huge variety of PCs--from modest netbooks to full-fledged gaming rigs. If that best-case scenario does happen, what does that mean for the console versions of Tiger? At least in the short term, the console series will have a huge head start in terms of content and refinement. What happens, however, after Tiger Woods Online has been out for a couple of years (assuming it lasts that long) and the content of both games is more or less on even footing? I've only got the budget for one golf game per year, and I'm probably not alone there.
Am I overly optimistic in thinking this could signal the return of my Links-style love affair with PC golf? What do you think of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online?