In the mid- and late-1990s, PC golfers had a half-dozen top-shelf simulations from which to choose. But when the tech market and the economy took a tumble, at the turn of the decade, so did computer golf. Today, there are just two serious contenders: Microsoft's Links and EA Sports' Tiger Woods. Fortunately, they're both exceptionally good. In fact, the latest version of the Tiger series, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, is quite probably the most entertaining and enjoyable golf game ever released. Though not quite as clinical as Links, it builds upon last year's impressive edition in several key areas and adds enticing new perks, such as an improved career mode and fully customizable golfers. For pure on-course excitement and graphical wizardry, Tiger Woods 2004 will be awfully hard to beat.
Let's look at the raw numbers, which, for this year's iteration, are extraordinary. For starters, the game offers an amazing 18 courses, including veteran venues Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Colonial Country Club, Pebble Beach Golf Links, Poppy Hills Golf Course, Prince Course at Princeville, Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Sahalee Country Club, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, St. Andrews Golf Links, TPC at Sawgrass, and TCP of Scottsdale. New for 2004 are Couer D'Alene and its floating green, the intimidating Bethpage Black Course, Hawaii's gorgeous Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Virginia's The Highlands, and TCP at Avenel. And if 17 real-life locales aren't enough for you, you can always engage in a little fantasy. Born from the minds of the programmers at developer Headgate Studios, and existing only in the digital world, The Predator is a stunning and treacherous imaginary course set in the wild undergrowth of the South American rain forest.
Once you've determined your setting, you'll want to decide on your virtual persona. Tiger Woods 2004 gives you plenty of decisions here as well, offering no less than 14 touring pros, including the enigmatic and talented Vijay Singh, the long-hitting John Daly, and, of course, Tiger himself. That the only LPGA personality to make the grade is the young and attractive, but unproven, Natalie Gulbis is interesting, to say the least.
Yet predesigned players are just part of the story. For Tiger Woods 2004, Headgate has devised a golfer creation facility that's second to none. Dubbed "game face," this nifty system allows you to construct the entire physical makeup of your custom golfer, piece by piece. You'll start with the head, where you'll decide on such minute details as eye shape, facial hair color, chin size, and eyebrow placement. Moving on to the body, you'll choose whether you're a muscle-bound oaf, a skinny waif, or something in between. You'll attire your computerized image and even add accessories, like wristbands and eyewear. And you'll make your adjustments graphically, morphing your alter ego via a comprehensive series of sliders and buttons. To increase the size of his forearms, for example, you'll move the forearm slider to the right while witnessing his incredible growth spurt in real time.
Though some will undoubtedly use the game face feature to concoct hideous creatures that have no place on a golf course, others will use it in the way it was intended--to duplicate their own physical appearances. The fact is that Tiger Woods 2004 is the first golf game to allow you to re-generate yourself digitally, and the results can be quite remarkable.
Like last year, Tiger Woods delivers an impressive roster of golfing opportunities. For many people, the key to the game will undoubtedly be its five levels of difficulty. In rookie mode, virtually anyone--even ultra-newbies--can get through a round of golf without too much shame or grief. At the intermediate level, those little hooks, slices, and incorrect reads that scarcely affected your shots in rookie mode will really begin to take their toll. At the top--expert level--any deviation from perfection will show itself. Here, all forgiveness is out the window. You're compelled to delve into the game's finer points and make use of your entire arsenal of shot-making weapons if you ever hope to stand a chance of a decent showing.
As usual, Headgate offers both two- and three-click traditional swings and a mouse-motion variant. It is the latter of these, the TrueSwing (pioneered by Headgate in Sierra's gone-but-not-forgotten PGA Championship), that is the real star of the show. Enacted by your golfer in real time, and duplicating the same sort of motion you'd use when swinging a real club, TrueSwing has come of age and is now so perfectly programmed that it must be considered the preferred method for serious golfers.
In Headgate's version of the mouse-motion swing, the tempo and pace of your entire backward and forward movement has an impact on the final result. So too does the point at which you stop the mouse, the length of the movement, and the amount of side-to-side deviation. You can even opt to perform horizontal side-to-side TrueSwings if your desk is too crowded to allow vertical up-and-down mouse movements. After your shot, the game delivers painstaking analysis of each factor of your swing, thus allowing you to work on perfecting the speed of your backswing, the general tempo, and/or the side-to-side variances.
When you're finally ready to take to the links, Tiger Woods 2004 really begins to show its stuff. Perhaps you'll open with a few minutes of practice on a putting green, driving range, or chipping area. Maybe you need to perfect a given hole on a given course. No matter what you want to do or where you need to do it, the game will oblige.
Newcomers will undoubtedly want to engage in a little competition. They may do so by selecting a casual round and then choosing their favorite game type. Tiger Woods 2004 offers more than a dozen game options and scoring variants, including skins, scramble, shootout, Stableford, and the nifty skills competition.
For all the trappings of a televised PGA event, tournament is the way to go. Here, you'll battle against a full roster of competitors. Those fairways and greens that seemed a little lonely in the casual rounds are now packed with cheering (and groaning) spectators. In fact, the fully 3D fans of this year's edition are easily the most convincing of any golf game to date. Add the new announcing tandem of real-world broadcasting icons Gary McCord and David Feherty, who trade banter, offer advice, and generally deliver far more accurate and believable commentary than last year's Feherty-Bill Macatee duo, and the ambience becomes very convincing indeed.
Advanced players will want to take the big step beyond single tournament play, entering a full season of events. Three seasons are offered by default, but you can add events, alter the rules, and generally customize the structure to suit your preferences. However, if you really want to see all that Tiger offers, you'll want to enter the game's career mode.
By jumping into a career, you get to experience a feature set not offered in other golf games. You'll begin as a poverty-stricken chump with a lot of desire but very little skill, and thereafter you'll work your way up the ranks. You'll compete at an amateur level at first, where your opponents are really quite horrendous, flubbing shots and knowing virtually nothing of course management. Furthermore, the game tends to be seriously forgiving at this lowest level, allowing your drives to fly straight and pure and your eight-foot putts to consistently drop into the cup. As a result, you'll soon be well on your way to advancing to the next level, where things begin to get considerably tougher.
What makes Tiger's career mode so intriguing is its seemingly limitless versatility. You don't simply play a series of standard 18-hole events; you do whatever it takes to win money and advance. If that means accepting a closest-to-the-pin challenge from some club monkey at the local practice facility, you do it. If you're asked to enter a long drive competition, you do that too. If Ping offers you a sponsorship deal, you grab it and don as much Ping apparel as possible. Nine-hole skins games, hazard extrication, recovery challenges--it's all here. Along the way, you'll win trophy balls, gold medals, and, of course, money. With the extra bread, you can buy lessons and enter more competitions. You'll also pick up skill points, which you'll then use to turn your mediocre short-hitter into a menacing long-ball pin-seeking machine. Of course, it is imperative you do improve, as the shot-making becomes that much more difficult in the following levels.
Unfortunately, the career mode is still not all it could be. Lessons, for example, are not particularly informative. Take the flop shot, for example. You'll head to a given fairway, where the proper application of a flop shot is curtly explained in a single paragraph of text. You are then told to flop your way on to the green. Rather than slowly learning the proper flop technique through practice and drills, you are suddenly and magically able to do it. Total lesson time: 30 seconds or so. Granted, the lesson costs you a few hundred dollars of your winnings, but it just doesn't feel right buying your way to better golf.
And, strangely, the career doesn't offer a season-by-season schedule of tournaments. It actually feels somewhat ad hoc, preferring to keep you constantly entertained by its unusual parameters rather than ever delving into the career of a PGA player. Though definitely fun and exciting, it never allows you to feel the rigors of real life.
Conversely, the game's presentation leaves little to be desired. Building on last year's exemplary effort, Headgate has created the prettiest golf game to date. It's tough to say what's more impressive--the golfers or the environment--but both are superb. When you first take to the course, you're immediately struck by the fluidity of your golfer. In a perpetual state of movement even before he strikes the ball, he effectively replicates all the machinations, all the twitches, and all the preparation of a real pro. His real-time swing is smooth and accurate, and it's noticeably varied, depending on his position and the lie of the ball. The animations become even more impressive after his shot. If he is moderately successful, he may tip his hat to the appreciate crowd. If he pulls off a long putt or drops one on to the green from 250 yards away, he'll pump his fist, look triumphantly to the heavens, and perhaps do a little jig. You'd swear you're watching a televised broadcast, except your golfer looks so much like you that you know it can't be.
The environments are, in a word, fantastic. Flags flap in the breeze as flocks of birds fly overhead. The sun gleams and emits the most convincing lens flare. Animated translucent fog banks skitter across the fairways, and surf pounds up against the shorelines, sending clouds of foam skyward. Individual rain droplets flitter down on the course, thus impeding your ball's ground movement. At sunset, everything takes on a warm orangey hue. It is a superb show that must be seen to be appreciated.
To further enhance this incredible visual spectacle, Headgate has incorporated the most stunning camerawork to grace any golf game. When you launch a drive, the camera follows the ball through its flight path to its final resting position, over the treetops and down close along the grass. If it's a particularly good shot, you'll see an instant replay--perhaps from a reverse or aerial position--that adds even more drama to the proceedings. Prime putts are often shown from a magnified ground level perspective--up tight to the hole with your own gleeful image prancing proudly in the background.
Though Tiger Woods 2004 doesn't follow the traditional Links approach of multiple concurrent cameras, most golfers will find they won't really need them. Aside from the standard overhead map positioned on the right side of the screen, players can move the fully customizable main cam to virtually any position within that particular hole. Reverse views, distant aerial perspectives, remarkably tight close-ups of the stance and the lie--it's all possible. Once you've settled upon a given perspective, you can switch to that view again, on any subsequent hole, by merely clicking the right mouse button.
Tiger's latest soundscape is solid. As alluded to earlier, Feherty and McCord are informative, rarely annoying, and sometimes downright funny. The sheer number of commentary sound bytes has been increased from previous versions, and the chances of hearing erroneous remarks have been dramatically lowered. Ambient effects are varied and believable. There aren't too many birds--as was the curse of many golf games of the past--sensitive crowds, or running water sounds. Galleries do tend to overreact on some shots and underreact on others, but it's not too distracting.
Even with its multitude of options and game types, players will want to occasionally seek out a little human competition. For its latest golf effort, EA Sports has ensured this is easy to do. Whether you prefer hotseat, network, or Internet golfing, the game obliges. Certainly the quickest way to drum up a willing partner or four is through the EA Sports Online service, where we found no shortage of evil people waiting to whomp us on any given course. The game proved solid as a rock, through our cable connection, though we couldn't help but wonder how some of these players got so darned good.
With Headgate now firmly in command of the Tiger Woods series, it has taken the game to new heights. Not a quantum leap forward from last year's installment, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 nevertheless cleans up a few problem areas and adds several welcome amenities. Links veterans may argue, but the title for the most entertaining golf game is most definitely in Tiger's corner.