The Tiger Woods series is struggling to find its way. After sticking with the troubled superstar over the past few years of scandal and an extended slump, EA Sports doesn't seem to know what to do with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 on the Xbox 360. This could have been a very good golf game, but its identity has been watered down with gimmicky Kinect support, a lame mode where you play as Eldrick Tont Woods from tyke to today, and extortionate downloadable content. Gamepad swing mechanics have been nicely overhauled, and the new Country Club mode promises to help the game establish an online community, but taken together, all the new features don't add up to anything meaningful.
There isn't much new in Tiger Woods 13. The look and sound of the game haven't improved much over earlier releases, although there do seem to be more nifty shadow effects on courses and a few more commentary lines from main booth jockey Jim Nantz. The core game is essentially brought forward from last year in its entirety. All the main modes of play are back for another round. You can play one-off matches, set up a golfer and begin a pro career, head online for multiplayer tournaments, head to The Masters again, and so forth.
The most significant addition is Tiger Legacy, where you play as the great one in various stages of his life, from childhood to the present day and beyond. Sadly, Tiger's life was extraordinarily tedious, if this game is to be believed. EA does nothing of interest with this feature. All it does is provide different Tiger player models to look at while you shoot your way through boring challenges like dropping balls into a backyard wading pool, hitting target scores in rounds, helping Tiger break Jack Nicklaus' record for victories in the Majors, and so forth.
A much more notable change comes with the gamepad swing mechanics. Standard button pushing has been tweaked pretty extensively in the new Total Swing Control for the gamepad. It works a fair bit like the left-stick-oriented control scheme from last year, but with more options and more attention paid to things like the tempo of your swing and foot position. In other words, it's a little harder to nail long drives that split the fairway, or make accurate approach shots that land you a couple of feet from the cup, especially when you nudge the difficulty above pro. But you get used to the changes quickly.
While this is a superior system, one that offers you a great deal more control in all aspects of making shots, it isn't so dramatically better that it makes the game a must-buy. That said, it does offer the best putting mechanics in the history of the series. Putting is spectacularly accurate here. The thumbstick perfectly tracks your motions when pulling back and pushing forward, letting you make some jaw-dropping 50-footers, or at least put up some valiant attempts and get close to the cup. Say good-bye to the annoying old days of cursing out your thumbs when a putt inexplicably came up too short or wound up running 20 feet too long because the controls let you down.
Kinect support is offered here for the first time, but it comes with a lot of irritations. Most notably, it really helps to use a stick or a shortened golf club like the ones made for the Wii to help guide your movements. A lot of effort is required to take shots, especially when driving. So if you don't have something to grip to help your balance, it's easy to wind up off-kilter or possibly even pull muscles by practically corkscrewing your body into the living-room carpet. Still, the motion-sensing gizmo can be almost breathtaking at times. When you slam a drive down the fairway it almost feels like you've really just slammed a drive down the fairway. Approach shots, playing out of the rough, escaping the sand, and so forth all require some serious touch as well. Get out of a tough spot, and you feel like doing some authentic Tiger fist pumps.
All of this good stuff is damaged by problems with the Kinect sensor not picking up your movements all the time. It drops out on a regular basis. You swing through a mighty drive, finesse an approach shot, or take a tense 20-foot putt for par…and then wind up doing it all over again, maybe even two or three times all over again, because the Kinect somehow didn't detect your smooth moves. This is annoying and tiresome, because the average round sees you taking a lot more swings than actually get registered in the game. There also is a lot of "all or nothing" with Kinect shots. You either nail your shot just about perfectly or implode so badly that you're firing gopher killers a few inches off the ground or blooping the ball 50 yards into a stream. There aren't enough just-missed moments of the sort that you would expect in a game where you're playing as a wannabe pro. At any rate, stick with the regular controls.
Other problems also get between you and the greens. While you are treated to a lot of content, with 16 courses in the main game, loads of freebies and easily unlockable equipment, and other extras, EA beats you over the head with pay-to-play DLC. A huge part of the game has been dedicated to yanking more cash out of your wallet for courses, skill boosts, equipment, and so forth. You can earn coins within the game that can be used to purchase these goodies, but this requires a spectacular amount of grinding.
If you really want the extras, most notably the numerous DLC courses that the game constantly teases you with, you pretty much have to pay for them. The same goes for the golf bag pins that provide you with various buffs during rounds. You get the first pack free, and can theoretically earn the rest of them with lots of time on the links, but it's hard to imagine finding the time to do so without quitting your job, leaving school, freeing your dog on the street to fend for himself, and so forth. With all that said, you do get a lot of content in the base game and don't absolutely need to shell out more money. But the lure of buying those instant-improvement pins is always very, very tempting.
One good aspect of the DLC comes with the new Country Club option. This feature lets you gather together online and play at specific clubs, just like in the real world where golfers join specific clubs and make them their homes. Coins are earned for rounds played at each club, giving you more opportunity to play those locked-out courses. This also works pretty well as a virtual clubhouse for players online, and even fosters a massively multiplayer online vibe within the game. It's easy to see how this concept could be stretched further to make an actual MMO game.
If you already have Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters on the shelf, think long and hard before buying its successor. The questionable additions like Tiger Legacy and the DLC sales pitches don't add anything to the playability on the links themselves, where it really counts. Only the superior gamepad controls and the iffy Kinect support make the new game stand apart from its predecessor, and even these improvements can't be recommended without some caveats. Unless you are dissatisfied with the old swing mechanics on the gamepad, or you desperately want to swing an imaginary golf club in front of your Kinect sensor, you could safely sit this year out.