Blows the eagle chance but picks up the birdie.
Many people don't understand the allure of golf video games, and I can't blame them. If golf isn't already among the least athletic, most action-less (and some would say, most boring) sports in the history of sports, golf video games have to smother it with layers upon layers of numerical information. They’re all about taking the maximum potential distance of a club, accounting for the maximum percentage coverage of the club on the ball dependent on its lie, adding or subtracting the height of the hole relative to your current position as well as the height of the triangle created by the z-projection of the wind multiplied by a factor as given by the in-game wind physics that effects the velocity of the ball flight in the air given the loft of the… I think you get the picture.
Usually, some semblance of style or edge tries to offset the repetitive and laborious nature of golf: Outlaw Golf has over-the-top players and an offensive announcer, and both the Hot Shots Golf and Mario Golf series have bright, playful courses and plump cartoonish characters. So it is a wonder as to how the more sim-like Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, and this 2009 installment, can be so popular without any of the pizzazz.
But as any follower of the series would tell you, its no-nonsense realism and clean presentation are far more appealing than just some frilly window dressing. Here, many courses are not only taken from actual 18-hole courses on the PGA Tour, but they are practically exact duplicates. The trees and the grass textures may not look impressive, but the layout and the undulations of the fairways, the putting greens, and even the bunkers are realistic to the “tee”. How the trees sway in the billowing wind and how some tee mounds have divots from tee shots made by golfers who supposedly came before you are just two details underlining the calm but serious tone.
In fact, everything from the style of the interfaces to the quality of the hole-by-hole commentary and the flow of each stroke to the next seems to have taken a heavy dose of Adobe Photoshop professionalism. It's a steady stream of slow and methodical, but seamless and pristine gameplay. It’s the type of atmosphere that makes you want to focus and figure out the mathematical nooks and crannies of each stroke, as well as make you want to step back, relax, and enjoy the view. In that sense, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 captures the very essence of golf, apart from the glorified landscaping project and the pretentious, expensive clubhouse elitism that golf can be.
A bevy of modes and options also ensures that you won’t get bored easily, at least for players who would rather pick up a club than a gun. Whether it’s receiving million-dollar checks for winning events during the PGA Tour season, completing all the rule variants of golf in Tiger Challenge, or showing off your skills to players online, the content is just about as interesting as a golf title can get. You can also model your custom character from the jawline down to the shoe size, plaster your face on the model (using the Xbox LIVE Vision Camera), and purchase a few stat-building items in the shop like watches and a nice pair of shades. You can even adjust the distance and workability of your character’s set of drivers, woods, and irons using the Club Tuner, train your skills by going through drills directed by Tiger Wood’s coach Hank Haney, and choose your character’s swing animation and celebratory (or throw-club-into-the-nearest-living-being) reactions.
One definite improvement over last year’s installment, which started all of your character’s stats at a big, fat chicken-egg zero, is dynamic attributes. This time around, your character’s power, accuracy, short game, and putting ability move up and down depending on how you play instead of how much you play. If you hit extremely long drives off the tee and hit a high percentage of fairways in regulation, then your power stat will climb up. Hit your ball close to the pin from within 100 yards and your short game will improve.
It sounds like a system that is both fair and intuitive, especially compared to what was (or wasn’t) there before, but one glaring flaw reveals its weakness: Dynamic attributes don’t scale to difficulty. Whacking a ball to within five feet of the pin is nigh-impossible when the wind is blowing 25 mph towards the ocean, and when the hole is on a deep slope, and when the fast putting green has already sent many balls rolling off the cliff into the watery abyss of Pebble Beach, and when a wall of interwoven birch trees are in your freakin’ way. But the system doesn’t account for context, so even if by some miracle you manage to get the ball on the putting surface twenty yards from the pin, your accuracy or short game will likely plummet.
Other multiple blips land the title unexpectedly into the rough, and in some cases, right out of bounds. Some minor features are flat-out missing – no caddie, no rain effects, no square grid for the landing area of a shot aside from the chip shot, and no ability to save and quit your progress on a course. In particular, no information on the slope of the ball’s lie is given, even though it can greatly affect the ball’s trajectory and loft. It’s also jarring to see the rather fugly crowd still clap like stiff manikins and your golfer swinging the putter wildly no matter if the ball is eighty feet away (which is understandable) or eight inches away (which is not). If that weren't enough, the facial modeling for nearly all the golfers, with the exception of Tiger Woods’ face, looks like it was done with Vasoline-encrusted sandpaper.
As for control schemes, the game certainly favors those who use the analog stick to mimic the backswing and follow-through rather than those who use the traditional three-click swing (which is only available on Easy and Balanced difficulty), but not in the way the game intended. Not only does the gauge for the three-click swing occasionally experience slowdown, but the Xbox Live notification that alerts you whenever a friend comes online or sends a message to you covers the widget for accuracy. I’m not sure how the testers missed this small detail, but I would like to invite them to a face-to-face session of “meet the pitching wedge”.
Like many yearly sports game franchises, Tiger Woods Pro Tour 09 needed at least two more months of polish for it to reach its highest potential, especially for a series known for its simulation-driven attention to detail. It has almost economically repaired the franchises' most rickety issues while leaving some minor kinks untouched, which doesn't ruin its refined style, but still doesn't prevent that voice in the back of your head from telling you that something could have been more precise. Even so, Tiger Woods Pro Tour 09 has enough class to disguise the numbers game of golf, and clears enough distance left by its predecessor for an easy lay-up for next year's installment.