Whatever professional problems Tiger Woods had over the past handful of years have seemingly dissipated, and with them goes any doubt that Woods is once again the premier golfer on the planet. Part of the "problem" with Tiger's game during his difficult times, according to the pundits, had been attributed to his new swing which, they said, fundamentally changed his approach and thus damaged his game. Interestingly, the very golf game to which Tiger lends his name has seen a similar change in its swing system as well. Yet unlike the real Tiger, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 doesn't seem to be reaping the full benefits of this switch just yet.
To be sure, the biggest news in Tiger 06 is the control changes, which, when you first hear about them, sound like a fairly substantial shake-up of the golf mechanics we've become acclimated to over multiple iterations. First and foremost there is the inclusion of the right analog stick, known in EA speak as the "shape stick." Players can use the shape stick to influence the flight and spin of the ball in a number of ways, including adding topspin or backspin, drawing or fading the ball, or various combinations in between. The shape stick manifests itself onscreen as a handy golf ball icon in the lower right-hand screen and a small cursor that you aim with the right analog stick. It's very intuitive: place the icon to the right side of the ball and the ball will fade right; place it to the left side of the ball, and you'll draw the ball. How far you push the icon to either side will determine the amount of influence you put on the ball. The gamebreaker also makes its way into Tiger 06. Though, unlike in games like NFL Street, use of a gamebreaker doesn't result in a guaranteed eagle from 200 yards out. It simply enhances your shot, adding distance to a drive or accuracy to a long putt. You can also use the gamebreaker against an opponent and drain his or her gamebreaker meter once your meter is full.
Another area of tinkering by the Tiger 06 developers has been with the putting controls. First, the greens look different this time around, thanks to some dynamic color-coded "beads" that travel along the green grid lines, accurately illustrating green breaks and slope. Second, putting power is now dictated by putting "zones," for lack of a better term, indicated by a blue arrow icon on the putting green. This icon indicates exactly how far the ball would travel if the putting surface were perfectly level. Obviously, few green surfaces are that accommodating, so it's up to you to judge whether to set that "zone" icon short of the hole (for downhill puts) or long (when you're putting uphill). You can use the shape stick for putting for more or less spin, but for the most part, judging the correct "zone" is more important than ball spin in the short game. In fact, it doesn't take you long to figure out that judging distance is the only requirement to sinking putts in Tiger 06 (more on that in a bit).
The caddy system of last year's game, which provided you with fairly explicit instructions on exactly where to place your putt, is gone and replaced with something called the ideal putt camera. Press a button and you activate the camera, which shows you the ideal path to take for your putt. Things aren't spelled out to you as explicitly as they were with the caddy, but it's still a big crutch to lean on for tough putts. Finally, last year's Tiger vision cone, the use of which essentially resulted in a guaranteed successful putt, has been (thankfully) removed.
There's no denying that these new controls do exactly as advertised. Putting a heavy fade with topspin on a tee shot is simply a matter of placing the icon at the correct point on the ball and letting loose with the lumber. However, because the same shot power and spin boost controls that were found in last year's game return in Tiger 06, you'll find very little, if any, need to use the shape stick. Just like last year, you can still find a lot of success in the courses in Tiger 06, even if you choose to ignore the shape stick altogether. To be fair, when playing with "tour" difficulty enabled, the boost buttons are out completely, so the only way you'll be putting spin on the ball is with the shape stick.
This problem is most evident in the putting game. One-putts aren't just common in Tiger 06; they're an epidemic, despite--or perhaps, because of--the new putting system. The ideal putt camera isn't really an improvement to the old caddy system once you learn its trick. At the risk of spoiling things, here it is: consider a short putt with a slight left-handed break as an example. When going through the ideal putt "flyover," you simply pick out a background object--a bush, a tree limb, a rock--which is on target with the line suggested by the camera. Once you're back to the normal putting view, you simply find that background object, aim your putt accordingly, and swing away. As mentioned earlier, if you can judge the distance of your putt correctly, the angle should be a piece of cake using this method. Even with the camera disabled, however, long putts simply don't seem to be as much of a challenge as you might expect.
It's easy to see the well-meaning intent behind the new controls in Tiger 06. The team wanted to add some challenge to the game, which, for all its successes, had been rightly criticized over the years for being too easy. Unfortunately, despite the tweaks, we're left with a game that seems to possess practically the exact same amount of challenge as last year's game. And while things like reactive Tiger Proofing (which alters a course's characteristics to become more or less challenging from hole to hole as you progress through a round) is a nice touch, golf's universal theme--the ongoing battle between the player and the infinite obstacles of a golf course--seems to be a bit lost, and it ends up playing second fiddle to the battle between your created golfer and other competent competition.
Or rather, somewhat competent competition. Tiger 06's revamped career mode, dubbed rivals mode, is a twist on last year's legends mode, which had you taking on famous PGA Tour pros in a number of challenges. In Tiger 06, the concept of beating golf's historical best is taken to a more literal level, as you and your created golfer will be hopping through multiple eras of professional golf's century-and-a-half-old tradition, looking to chase the elusive Tiger Woods down and prove that you are the best golfer of all time. Along the way, you'll take on luminaries from the different eras of golf's heyday, such as Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and, of course, Tiger himself. You'll also take part in various skills challenges and links games against a host of Tiger 06 original golfers.
The time-travel theme comes through in a number of cute touches--such as various architectural looks for your home base clubhouse, a big variety of period-specific clothing and equipment to dress your created golfer up in, and opponents that look like throwbacks to the era from which they originate. Unfortunately, it isn't seamless. While it's fun to play with old-style equipment--dual-shaft wedges and leather stitched balls are a couple of examples--the relative similarity in performance for all equipment in the game doesn't really ring true.
We love the fact that Tiger 06 pays respect to golf's storied history, placing icons like Nicklaus and Hogan in the game. The problem is that these PGA legends are a shadow of their real-life selves in the game. Each legend acts as a boss for his or her respective era, and in order to move on, you need to beat that "boss." Whereas real golfers trembled at the thought of taking on Arnie or Jack in sudden death, you generally have nothing to fear from the legends in Tiger 06's rivals mode. Once you've pumped up your created golfer's power and accuracy attributes, even the best in the game (save for Tiger) won't be able to keep up with any part of your game. Legends regularly miss midrange putts, can't drive anywhere near as long as you, and generally just don't put up the kind of fight you would expect them to. As such, rivals mode doesn't even approach challenge until you are ranked in the top 10, facing off against real-life PGA Tour pros like John Daly, Rich Beem, and Stuart Appleby, and playing on some of the surprisingly difficult fantasy courses.
Those who aren't really interested in chasing down PGA legends, however, will still find plenty to do in Tiger 06. What the game may lack in challenge, it nearly makes up for in its sheer number of play modes. The hardcore may skip directly to the PGA Tour season mode, where you take your created golfer on the tour and play events throughout the calendar against the pros. Getting through tour events is a fairly quick process, thanks to the game's speedy load times (especially on the Xbox), and the challenge put up by the pros here is a bit more stiff than that found in rivals mode. Then there's the real-time event calendar, a host of traditional game modes (such as stroke, skins, stableford, best ball, four-ball, and alternate-shot play), and the skills 18, which challenges you to put your shot through a number of colored rings suspended in midair and earn points in the process.
Online play consists of a number of match styles, including stroke and match play, as well as the same battle golf mode found in the single-player game, where competitors battle it out on the links in order win one another's clubs. A number of different options are available to choose from when setting up challenges online, from tees, to putting surface, to hole difficulty (either normal or tour difficulty). Unfortunately, there is no option to turn off the ideal putt camera, and it will inevitably act as a crutch for online matches. You can take your own character online or play a PGA Tour pro if you choose. The performance, while not exactly stellar in terms of lag (or lack thereof), is passable enough to get you through a round and therefore adds some life to the game.
For the tinkerer at heart, Tiger Woods 06's create-a-player tool remains one of the best in the business. Using this powerful feature you can create virtual likenesses of yourself, or take your created duffer in an entirely different direction and whip up something entirely strange. Whatever you decide, using the powerful and flexible tool--which lets you adjust everything from brow depth to ear shape, and everything else in between--you can be assured that your creation will be unlike anyone else's out there. Over in the pro shop, the inclusion of a variety of era-specific clothing is a fun touch--especially the rainbow-colored, vertical-striped pants from the '70s that we all remember and would sooner rather forget. The developers did a smart thing with accessories this time around by splitting tour winnings and attribute points into two separate categories. In previous Tiger games, you had to pay money to improve your golfer's attributes, such as putting, driving, and accuracy, which meant that you often had to skimp on the fun stuff until later in the game. Now, money is meant only for clothing and equipment, and points are tied directly to improving your golfer's game. Go ahead, feed that inner clotheshorse...you know you want to.
Graphically, Tiger probably peaked last year and plateaus this time around. Player models are attractive and feature a huge variety of swing styles to keep things interesting. New courses such as Pasatiempo look great, and there's even some background movement--such as animals scurrying about--to keep things from becoming too static. Random camera glitches sometimes prevent you from being able to see the ball when your opponent has it, but it's not too distracting.
On the sound front, we like the ability to choose from one of five distinct voices for your created character, and some of the opponent characters you face have some funny lines, especially a clone of Carl Spackler from Caddyshack who you meet in rivals mode. Once again, Gary McCord and David Feherty make up the booth duo, and as in previous years, McCord is ever the optimist and Feherty ever the wiseass. It's a successful pairing that continues to make for enjoyable, if unremarkable, listening.
Much like Tiger Woods' real game, Tiger 06 has gone through some significant changes in the past year, most notably in the swing mechanics. Unfortunately, the result is a game that still errs on the side of approachability and ease. You will find success early and often in Tiger 06, and though that may not sound like such a bad thing, it isn't necessarily true to the spirit of the sport, where triumphs--however minor--need to be earned, not simply offered to you for the taking.