It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
When gamers think of EA Sports, they invariably think of Madden. For good reason, too - the series has been on top of the sports genre for over a decade, and thanks to dubious backroom shenanigans, it's the only NFL licensed video game you'll play for the next three thousand years. Give or take a thousand.
The reality, though, is that the fat man takes a back seat to a man-child when it comes to being EA's true sports ringer. That title is reserved for another larger than life sports figure, Tiger Woods, who has seen his golf game go almost entirely unrivaled for the past three years. While the ESPN games took Madden to the brink, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has enjoyed what amounts to a 20-stroke lead over its meager competition.
So like any aging, well-paid athlete, the series has become a little complacent in its dominance. Though still a terrific golf sim, last year's Tiger Woods simply gorged itself at the buffet table of features and modes without changing much at all about the gameplay. Not planning to suffer that stomach ache twice, Tiger Woods 06 doesn't add so much as tweak, and the bulk of this beast remains unchanged.
The story behind the success of the Tiger Woods series is told through its intuitive analog-stick swing mechanic. For years now, the simple act of pulling the stick back and pushing it forward in different shapes to control draw and fade has functioned so well, it's become golf game gospel.
Prepare for blasphemy, because they decided to fix what wasn't broken. One stick still controls your backswing, but now merely determines shot direction instead of spin. If you pull it back to the left and push it up diagonally, you'll smack it in a straight line to the right rather than cut across the ball and hook it.
Getting that kind of movement requires deft use of the new Shape Stick. Using a little dot on a superimposed golf ball, you can now pinpoint exactly what kind of spin to give your shot. Hit the ball low or high for more or less loft, or shank it left or right for fades and draws. Optimum use of the Shape Stick - that is, the way to get the most dramatic results - occurs when you shape a shot during your backswing rather than before. In the past I've complained about the inability to choose where to hit the ball itself (a key facet of the pro game), and that's been adequately addressed here. You now have much tighter control over lofts and punches, making it easier to get out of sticky situations, while the old system was a bit more intuitive for hooks and fades.
The Shape Stick just seems a little extraneous; between the ability to add power during a backswing or adding spin while the ball is in mid-flight, you already have pretty decent control. Kinetic feel has essentially been replaced by a modicum of increased accuracy.
The swing changes aren't just for use on roughs and fairways, though. Putting has received a makeover as well, a welcomed change since the old system was a little soft. One-putting was routine for vets as it was merely a matter of determining distance and accuracy with a marker, then freely swinging away without any sort of repercussions for not swinging smoothly. It turned what is very much a feel-driven part of golf into an exact, calculable science, and then made it even easier with last year's ridiculous Tiger Vision gimme option.
But like the swing changes, the tweaks here merely make it different, not better. Taking a cue from the Hot Shots series, the slope of greens in Tiger Woods 06 is depicted by a combination of color coding and little dots sliding at various speeds along grid lines. You still aim with a marker, but now your backswing actually determines distance, putting the feel back in putting. Of course, that means it's probably too hard for newbies, so the game includes an 'ideal line' view that basically tells you exactly how the ball will break. This drops the view down to ball level and follows a little line from the ball into the cup. It's almost impossible not to exploit this by picking out an object in the background that happens to line up with the beginning of the line. At that point, it's merely a matter of determining swing strength and hello, one putt. Set it and forget it.
Though they might seem drastic on paper, the changes to swinging and putting do little to affect the overall gameplay of Tiger Woods 06. A vet of the series (and by vet, I mean anyone who has played a Tiger Woods game since 2003) will likely dominate right off the first tee, Shape Stick notwithstanding. I blazed through my first PGA tour match with a nine-under par opening round. So much for a learning curve.
Yet another minor tweak comes in Rivals mode, which replaces last year's relatively anemic Legends mode. Here you literally follow Tiger through four stages of golf history. Traveling back in time, you'll take on a variety of mustachioed, turn-of-the-century upper-crust stiffs as you rise in the rankings in an attempt to become the best ever. You navigate through the mode using a clubhouse that changes to fit the current historical stage, visiting the pro shop to purchase age-specific gear and accepting random challenges by fictitious golfers for extra cash or ability modifiers. At the end of each historical stage, you'll have to beat a legendary golfer to move on.
The idea is cute, but the level of competition isn't very high and the whole thing just isn't very exciting. I suppose the most hardcore of golf nerds will relish the thought of hacking through St. Andrews in the 1930s, but Rivals mode in general merely slaps a new skin on the same old gameplay. Playing against a crotchety old hoodwink from the middle of the century is no different than playing against a crotchety old hoodwink from the end of the century. They just have different mustaches.
Otherwise, most of Tiger Woods 06 is a retread. There are still five trillion ways to play, from Traditional modes like stroke, match and skins play to the PGA Tour Season events. The awesome Real-Time Events make a return, and this time you'll find a RTE on every single day of the calendar year, not just on periodic holidays and developer birthdays. The Skills 18 mode rewards you for hitting the ball through colored rings. Online play is available for the Xbox and PS2 versions, each with a nice assortment of modes. There's a lot of game in here.
There's also a lot of customization thanks to the world's most famous player creator, Gameface. You can still shape an eerily realistic likeness of yourself using the awesome array of fields and sliders, although if you've already perfected this in an earlier version, you can't import it in. Back to the genetic drawing board.
Speaking of which, the look of Tiger Woods 06 basically matches Tiger Woods 2005, which in turn mostly matched Tiger Woods 2004. The smattering of new courses looks fine, as do most player models and animations. The in-game load times are great in both versions, although the PS2 takes forever to access saved games.
Little has changed in the game's audio, which runs into some problems in its commentary. Gary McCord and David Feherty handle the action but haven't recorded many new lines. You'll hear Feherty say the same damn things he said two or three years back: "A birdie will help here…it usually does." You know what would also help? A new recording session. Luckily, the soundtrack is pleasantly understated.
Tiger Woods 06, though, is about as big as it gets for video game links. Four times now we have enjoyed what's mostly the same game, repacked with new goodies and repackaged for another round of potential newbies. This year they tried to futz with the gameplay, but the changes are so minute that most veterans will seamlessly transition from last year's game to this one. Whether or not it's worth the green fees depends a great deal on your love of the game, but chances are you've already aced this course.