Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Total Pro Golf 2

It's the seventeenth hole at Florida Bay on the last day of the Brodems Open. I'm in second place, behind Matt Murphy by one stroke. As one of my playing partners tees off on the 17th, I hear a roar from behind me. Then I see the leaderboard. Murphy birdied the fifteenth.

Two down. Two holes to play.

It's my favorite PC sports game of the year. It's Total Pro Golf 2.

Forget everything you thought you knew about sports text sims. This is not that game. It's bright and colorful, and it stretches the boundaries of what a sports sim can be and do. Designer Gary Gorski, after a promising start last year with the initial edition of Total Pro Golf, has refined the game, added features, and made it compulsively playable.

Here's the short version: Total Pro Golf 2 is a role-playing golf game. You create a character and try to guide him from the minor tours up to the championship levels of professional golf. You hire coaches, allocate practice time to improve various skill ratings, and play in tournaments. Manage your player wisely, and he make his mark on golf history. Manage poorly, and you might go bust on the minor league tour and your career will be over.

It's not just about management, though. You can play out any of your tournament rounds in either sim mode or the new tri-click mode. Sim mode allows you to pick clubs and aim (which, based on your lie, wind, and elevation can be trickier than it seems), while tri-click will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a golf game.

Playing rounds isn't required. You could go an entire career and just sim through all the tournament rounds. But playing the final round if you're near the lead is incredibly entertaining (although often agonizing). Remember the opening of this post? That wasn't something I made up--if you're in the top thirty on the leaderboard on the last day of the tournament, you'll hear the roars and groans from the gallery as they follow the leaders around the course, and you'll see an updated leaderboard at the beginning of each hole.

If you enjoy watching major tournament golf, you'll know that one of the thrilling moments is when you hear a roar from another part of the course. This is the first golf game to ever duplicate that experience, and believe me, it gives you a charge when you hear the cheers and see the leaderboard change. It's a level of drama that I've never seen in a golf game before.

There are eight courses that come with the game this year, and they're all beautiful as well as challenging. The course designer (Jim Swanson) has done a terrific job creating these fictional courses, and there are many more user-created courses available at the TPG community site at http://www.tpgcommunity.net/, including many based on real courses.

What I really, really like about this game is how well it simulates the struggles of a touring golf professional. To move up from the minor tour to the major, you have to balance how much time you spend practicing versus how many tournaments you play. It's a fine balance--the more tournaments you play, the more money you could theoretically earn, but try to play every week and there's no real time for serious practice to improve your skills in various aspects of the game.

Without those improved skills, you might make it off the minor tour, only to fail when you step up to the WSGA. It's a quantum difference in quality of opponents, and even if you easily qualified to be there, you might well struggle to finish in the top 120 on the money list to retain your tour card for the next season. And without devoting months to practice, your ratings will never improve enough for you to have any chance at being a dominant player.

It's a fine balance, trying to juggle all the different gameplay elements in an optimal way, and it's entirely possible that you could play for years without winning a tournament. Instead of being a champion, you might be a grinder.

A journeyman.

That makes this game special for me. Success is not guaranteed. I've lost careers by running out of money on the minor tour. I'm in my twelfth year of another career and still haven't won a tournament on the WSGA tour. Playing out the fourth round of a tournament when you're close to the lead is remarkably dramatic, and its doubly so when you're 32 and have never won a pro tournament before. Maybe there won't be another chance, and maybe it makes you take a few more risks, hoping against hope that you can thread the needle with a three-wood to reach a par five in two.

I'd like more, of course. I'd like to see Monday qualifiers for WSGA events when you're on one of the minor tours. I'd like to get a sponsor's exemption a few times a year, just to give a chance to get a taste of the tour. I'd like for Q-school to be the full six rounds instead of four.

The in-round gameplay balance could use tweaking. Wedges and chips seem more inaccurate than they should be, although the longer clubs seem to be spot-on in terms of gameplay balance. Using the tri-click feature is fun, but I'd really like to see the speed of the meter vary with your golfer's skill level. I'd also like to see the weekly expense rate be adjusted, particularly on the WSGA tour, to make financial choices more meaningful.

Most of all, though, I'd just like to see more. More courses. More of the custom screens (the artwork in this game is outstanding). More strategic options and choices. This game is both fully-realized and still full of potential. It's so well designed that you immediately begin thinking of how the game could be extended, how the golf world could be even more detailed.

It's a terrific game, and it's coming from a small team at Wolverine Studios. These guys have made professional golf much more interesting than EA Sports ever could.

Here's the website for the game: Wolverine Studios. The demo is a three-day trial of the full version, so you'll get to try out the full game.

Oh, and here are a couple of tips if you do download the demo. First, when you create your player, I highly advise recommending the game determine your potential. If you do that, your potential remains hidden, and you'll have to discover the caps in your various skill ratings over time. This makes selecting a coach much more interesting, because even if he has the highest instructional rating in a particular skill category, it won't matter if you've already reached your highest possible rating.

Second, here's an aiming tip. When you're targeting the aiming cursor, you can aim right for the flag if you're on the fairway. If you're not, though, you need to adjust for the lie. That means if you're in medium rough, for example, you need to aim beyond the hole, because the ball won't travel as far as a similar effort from the fairway. I didn't like this at first, but as I've played more (I'm at nearly thirty hours now), I appreciate how much more challenging it makes the game.

Later this week I'll have some gameplay tips as well as recommendations for course downloads.

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