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EA Sports sheepishly wheels out its golfing hero-cum-anti-hero for the thirteenth instalment in the Tiger Woods series...
Like a 'gimme' putt, Tiger Woods is an easy target. Following the much publicised controversy of the past year, it would be all too easy for us to write a review of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 where we poke much fun at his folly. Golfing terms such as 'balls' and 'holes' are certainly ripe for the punning, while this year's Ryder Cup only throws up more euphemisms (we don't envy the commentators who'll have to keep a straight face while referring to Tiger Woods' 'foursome'). But we're bigger than that here at TVG. We've always tried to avoid the politics and focus squarely on the games, so we're going to take the high road on this one. No more Tiger Woods gags from this point onwards.
A 'Photoshopist's impression' of what Tiger's in-game world might look like if it were anything like real life.
It might have been a bad year for Tiger, but this year's game is probably the most refreshing in the series' recent history. While Tiger Woods 10 added the official US Open license to its tally for the first time last year, this year's game will be the first in the series to feature the Ryder Cup. All the various matchplay formats from the tournament are well catered for and accompanied by the high production values and licensing gloss that EA Sports is famed for. There's even a 24 player online multiplayer version of the tournament as well, so no stone has been left unturned with the license. Now, if only EA Sports could look into getting that official Augusta Golf Course license for next year...
As always though, official licenses are nice and all but don't mean diddly-squat unless good gameplay is on hand to complement them. Unlike previous years, where EA Tiburon's gameplay innovations have veered more towards gimmicky than substantial, the headlining features for Tiger Woods 11 actually add a hefty portion of meat to the bone. An all-new Focus system and True Aim mode are not only finely balanced, but will also challenge veteran players of the series to master new ways of approaching the game. True Aim, in particular, finally offers the different slant to the series that it was crying out for towards the end of the last decade.
But let's start with Focus. This, as the horrendously annoying tutorial will tell you (bring back Hank Haney as far as we're concerned), essentially groups together all of the various shot perks that the series has layered-on over the years. So, imparting spin on the ball in mid-air, using 'putt preview', or increasing the accuracy circle of a shot are all under this unified Focus system now. The system itself works through a meter, which depletes as you use any of the shot perks mentioned above. Performing well on a hole will replenish the Focus meter, but the meter swiftly drains of Focus by and will be empty by the halfway house if you're not economical with it.
It's a superbly balanced system that detracts only small amounts of Focus for imparting spin, moderate amounts for extra power, and huge clumps for using the putt preview. More importantly, it adds depth to features that have been abused by players ever since their inception. For example, adding extra power to shots by tapping the A button (X on PS3) during a backswing had become something of a standard in the series. Maxing out the power meter was less of a goal for seasoned players and more of an expectancy. Likewise, with 'putt preview', the previous balance of only being allowed one preview per hole always seemed too generous (more often than not, this was all that was needed to sink a 12-foot putt). Now though, because there's a well thought out economy to all of these features, you actually have to think about it and strategise before using them.
True Aim, on the other hand, is an even more inspired addition. It'll appeal most strongly to hardcore fans of the series that need a new challenge or, alternatively, golfing nuts who want as realistic a representation of the sport as possible. Put simply, True Aim retracts the aiming circle from the game. So, when you follow the standard pre-shot process of holding the B button (Circle on PS3) to 'zoom to target', you won't find a helpful aiming reticule at the end that predicts the shot's landing zone. Instead, with True Aim, all you'll find are distance markers.
On top of this, when you actually take a shot the camera doesn't follow the ball down the fairway as it normally would. Instead, it follows the ball's trajectory from the perspective of your golfer. EA Tiburon's camera work is pretty skilful here too, as the camera edges closer to your golfer as the ball flies further away, which kind of ups the tension a little. This obviously makes adding spin to your ball a bit of an educated guess: it's often hard make out exactly where it's landing, so the best thing to do is study the hole well before taking a shot.
The True Aim mode isn't mandatory and can be turned off at any time from the options menu. If you fancy a challenge when you pick up your copy of the game though, we'd suggest setting True Aim to 'On' and doing a round of Bethpage Black with the greens set to 'Hard' and 'Fast', rough long enough to hide in, and the wind at 'Gale Force'. If you manage to finish par for the course, then you're a Tiger Woods PGA Tour master by our reckoning.
One final thing to consider is EA's Online Pass, which makes its debut in this year's Tiger Woods. The long and short of it is that EA is now making people pay for online access to its sports games if they buy them at a trade-in shop. A code on the game's manual unlocks the pass for free so that people buying the game first-hand won't have to pay a penny (as usual), although a fee of 800 Microsoft Points (£6.85) will allow gamers to access the EA servers if the code on their box has already been used by someone else.
As a company that provides servers for all of its games (even on Xbox Live), EA is certainly well within its rights to use the Online Pass system. That said, don't customers who've purchased the game first-hand then have the right to sell it on with all of the original features intact? As always, we welcome your thoughts in the comments...
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