One of the perks that Nokia has been promising since before the N-Gage even launched is wide-area wireless multiplayer action via the N-Gage Arena. So far, though, the Arena has only been used to post high scores and compete against the ghosts of other players. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 for the N-Gage isn't amazing, but it's a landmark game for Nokia's fledgling platform, since it's the first N-Gage game to offer real-time online competition, which also makes it the first N-Gage game with an appreciable advantage over its Game Boy Advance counterpart.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 is, for the most part, identical to the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 game released for the Game Boy Advance late last year. The gameplay imitates the analog swing mechanic found in the past few console versions of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. You push down and up on the D pad to swing the club, and you can put hook or slice on your shot by pressing diagonally. This imitation-analog control scheme doesn't provide the same level of accuracy as the old-timey three-button-click mechanic, but all the same, it works well enough. Additionally, you can charge up the power of your swing by tapping on either the 1 or the 3 key during your backswing, and you can affect the spin of the ball while it's in the air by pressing a direction on the D pad while tapping on either the 1 or the 3 key. For all the realism that the game tries to imbue with the swing mechanic, it seems counterintuitive to include such blatantly unrealistic devices while not including an option to disable them.
When you get on the putting green, though, you're given little indication as to the contour of the turf, thus leaving you to rely solely on your "caddy's tips," which give you a rough estimation of where you should aim to sink your shot. Relying entirely on the caddy's tips takes away a lot of the sense of control in the short game. Once you get to a certain level of proficiency, putting becomes so easy that you're free to slop around quite a bit when you're driving, since you know you can make up for it on the green.
The other significant quirk comes when you're lining up your long shots. Before you go off the tee, you can press the A button to switch to a top-down perspective, which lets you change clubs and lets you adjust your aim. However, when you're in this view, you can only move around the course as far as you can hit the ball, which means you'll often be lining up a shot without any real idea of where the hole or even the green is.
The game doesn't really do anything too radical to the sport of golf and pretty much sticks to the safe stuff in terms of gameplay options. There's a practice mode, which is good for a one-off game of golf, as well as a career mode where you can choose between full 18-hole tournament games and special three-hole scenarios. Either provides a decent game of golf, but the career mode feels pretty limited, so a few days of steady play is enough time to tear through the game's eight tournaments and 12 scenarios.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 does get some extra legs, though, thanks to the multiplayer options. Up to four players can compete on a single system by just passing the N-Gage around, and two players with their own N-Gages can go at it over the Bluetooth connection. The most interesting multiplayer option, though, is the N-Gage Arena mode, where you can go online and compete against actual live players in other parts of the world. The game has a simple lobby system broken out by different courses, and you have a short list of options for the number of holes you'll play. Rather than taking turns, everyone plays independently, and you can see how the other players are progressing in between holes. This is probably due largely to the bandwidth limitations of a GPRS connection, but because you don't have to wait for the other players to swing, an ancillary benefit is that the pacing keeps up. Winning and losing matches will affect your point standing, and there is a persistent leaderboard that keeps tabs on those stats. Knowing where you stand against all the other Tiger Woods players out there is a great motivator to play and to win. The biggest problem we see with the Arena mode in Tiger Woods, aside from not being able to watch your competitors golf, is the lack of any actual communication tools. One of the best parts of playing games online is the ability to gloat with impunity, but without any text messaging support, or even some canned taunts, there's no way to reap the benefits of being a poor winner.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 presents you with a three-dimensional behind-the-back view of your golfer when you're at the tee, but for most of the game, you'll be viewing the action from a top-down perspective. This is probably for the best, since the engine that powers the 3D perspective isn't particularly accomplished and features massive color pixels and flat-looking vegetation, which peppers the course in front of you. The model of your golfer, as seen from this perspective, appears to be a pretty pixelated, prerendered 3D model. The player animation is actually pretty decent, at least if you let your swing go all the way back. However, if you push forward before your golfer is completely wound-up, the motion looks chunky and awkward. There are a few other angles you're presented with, such as a close-up shot of the hole as your ball nears it, that just look clumsy.
The sound design in Tiger 2004 is pretty vacant. There are a few little synthesized tunes that play during menus, and there are a few little stings that play when you accomplish something noteworthy, but the quality of the music, both in terms of composition and fidelity, is middling at best. The actual in-game sound effects, which include the sound of you making contact with the ball; the sound of your ball hitting the turf, the rough, or the water; and the rare sound of crowd elation or disappointment, all sound rather hollow. There's an ambient track--which contains a few hushed bird whistles--that keeps the game from being totally silent, but all of these sound crudely synthesized.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 is admittedly flawed, but not cripplingly so. We've seen portable golf games with greater depth and a wider variety of options, but as the only golf game yet to arrive on the N-Gage, Tiger Woods is good enough. The shining feature in Tiger Woods--namely, the online play--also leaves room for improvement, but it's all a step in the right direction.