Thursday, September 23, 2004

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 (PC)

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 (PC) hit my desk on Monday, and I've gotten in about five hours of game time. The Tiger Woods series stands out among EA's sports franchises because it has been uniformly excellent since Headgate Studios assumed development responsibilities in 2000. Headgate developed the near-immaculate PGA Championship 2000, which refined the trueswing interface into the finest control innovation ever created for a sports game. It still ranks as one of the top five sports games I've ever played.

The Tiger Woods series has set the bar for graphics in sports games, and this year is no different. I have no idea how it was even possible to make the game look better than last year, but they have, and it's another significant upgrade. Visual fidelity is at an all-time high, and even minor nitpicks like poor tree bark have been addressed. These guys care about tree bark.

Since most of you have played a previous version of Tiger (and if you haven't, just go buy it if you have any interest in a golf game at all--it's that good), here's a quick list of what's improved and what's different from last year.

--Ball Flight. Trajectories are significantly more authentic now. In fact, they seem entirely authentic to me now.
--Animation. Swing animations are much smoother and more realistic looking.
--Course design. I'll mention this in more detail later.
--Career mode. This feature is now a combination of scenarios, tournaments, and legend tour. It's far more flexible than last year, it's more difficult, and it's considerably more interesting.
--Create a Face. Yes, a fluff feature, and last year I thought it was a waste of time, but this year the lifelike faces that can be created are remarkable.
--Putting. Putting was brilliant last year, but the greens have significantly more undulations this year and putt much more like real greens. They can be very challenging to read, and there are far more double-breaking putts.
--Legends. It's a real pleasure to see Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, among others, in the game. Yes, Nicklaus is there as well.

--Many of the courses from last year have been replaced, unfortunately. Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, and Sawgrass are the only holdovers for the PC version. That means some wonderful courses like Colonial and Royal Birkdale are no longer included, although you could always convert last year's versions with the course utilities. However, even though some of these new courses are interesting, and the holdovers have been redone in very impressive fashion, the course list isn't nearly as strong as last year, which is disappointing.
--I've been told that you can't use custom courses in Season mode. I haven't tested this in the game yet, but if true, it's a terrible design decision. EA has provided less and less support to the course architect over the years (it's not even in the game this year as part of the initial release, although it's supposed to be made available as a download at a later date), even though the courses created by amateur designers have in many cases been far better than the courses included with the game (Ken McHale's Augusta is a good example). Season mode is quite boring if you're limited to the stock courses, so I hope I'm wrong on this one.
--The one change I really don't like this year is an odd one: how the putter sits in relation to the ball. I think the putter is too high this year--it rests off the ground, ostensibly ready for putting, but it obscures far too much of the ball. It's quite annoying--to me, at least--and I'm still trying to get used to it.

My primary complaint about Tiger Woods over the years has been that difficulty has been focused on the swing and not the course. If your swing was right, you'd blast through any stock course out there, because course management was just far too simple. It was also too simple to read the greens because they lacked complexity. Both of those issues have been remedied this year. I've run more balls through the fairway than I can remember because it's now necessary to actually think when selecting a landing area. The greens are also far more complex than before, with many more multiple-breaking putts than I can ever remember seeing.

I haven't explored the 'Tiger-Proofing' feature yet, but from what I can tell it appears to be a simple way to adjust the difficulty of courses by narrowing fairways, increasing bunker size, increasing green slope and complexity, etc. There are a few scenarios I've played on Tiger-proofed courses, though, and they're quite a bit more difficult and very impressive, particularly the greens.

All in all, another stellar effort from Headgate, one of the truly great sports studios.

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