Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09

I have a long love affair with electronic golf games. I sank hundreds of hours into the original Links series. I devoted weeks to building an immaculate reproduction of Augusta National in Jack Nicklaus Signature Edition‘s course designer, and I have relished innumerable head-to-head battles in Hot Shots Golf, Mario Golf, and other great and not-so-great golf games.

I am a fairly serious golfer in my so-called real life, but I live in a climate that prevents me from playing for six months out of the year. So golf games provide a certain vicarious experience for me that I don’t associate with other sports — all of which may help explain why I have never particularly enjoyed the Tiger Woods series of games.

Dating back to its roots as World Tour Golf, I have played nearly every annual iteration, and year after year I find myself thinking the same thoughts: these games are slick and well-produced, but essentially soulless. They’re full of pizzazz, but feel cold. They lack the spirit of the real game, which is a problem for a series that purports to deliver a realistic simulation of golf.

So when this year’s edition, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, arrived at my door, I expected more of the same. But a funny thing happened on the way to the clubhouse. Walking off the 18th green after a scintillating match-play duel with Vijay Singh at the nasty/gorgeous TPC Sawgrass, it hit me. This is the golf game I have been waiting for. This is the best Tiger Woods game I’ve ever played. This may quite possibly be the best golf game ever made.

How did it happen? Well, I can tell you how it didn’t happen. Tiger Woods 09 is not an overhaul of last year’s game, nor does it contain a long list of new features. At first glance, it looks like just another installment in the franchise. But a closer look reveals a myriad of improvements and upgrades — sort of an aggressive nip and tuck approach by EA Tiburon — all of which add up to a significantly enhanced experience for gamers.

EA has clearly committed itself to implementing adaptive technologies into its sports games. This year’s Madden includes an “Adaptive Difficulty Engine” that constantly assesses your skills and tailors the gameplay to match your style. Overall, it works unevenly, but the idea is a sound one.

Tiger Woods 09 matches this feature with one that works better and feels more aligned with the ebb and flow of golf. “Dynamic Skills” enable the game to respond to your play, fluctuating with your performance as it improves or declines. Instead of accumulating points for grinding through challenges, the game rewards you for improving your skills. If you’re knocking down pins with your short irons, the game rewards you with increased shotmaking proficiency in that area. If you play a couple of rounds hitting poor iron shots, your attributes will decrease. This gameplay refinement adds a strong element of realism to the simulation and helps separate the game from needless RPG leveling-up mimicry.

Longtime virtual golfers may remember the pre-analog swing stick days with some fondness. In older games the backswing and downswing were controlled by timed button presses that may not have accurately simulated the feel of an actual swing, but offered precise control and a fair challenge. Golf games began mapping the swing to the thumbstick a few years ago, and even though it makes sense on a simulation level, this control system has never felt comfortable to me. The position of my hands on a gamepad seem unconducive to a straight up and down movement of the stick, resulting in slices and hooks that feel arbitrary at best.

Tiger Woods 09 is the first game to address this problem in a meaningful way. Its “Club Tuner” feature lets you calibrate your clubs, from wedges to driver, to accommodate how you actually swing. A virtual version of Tiger Woods’ coach Hank Haney will take you to a driving range and show you — via tracking marks that reflect your movement of the thumbstick — how you are actually swinging the club. You may then head to the workshop to adjust your clubs to the way you swing; or, as in my case, you can learn not to curve the stick on your downswing by practicing on the range and monitoring that yellow tracking line. As in previous versions of the game, a three-point power gauge is available for players who prefer it, but with Hank available to help you, the thumbstick method finally feels like the right way to swing a club.

Tiger Woods 09 adds other useful improvements, such as a new online mode featuring 4-player simultaneous play, clearly stolen, er, inspired by Hot Shots Golf. You needn’t wait for each player to hit before making your shot, which speeds up play considerably. As in Hot Shots Golf, other players’ shots are indicated by real-time colored streaks that appear as the foursome plays the hole at the same time.

Instant challenges also appear, via EA Sports Gamernet, inviting you to compete in daily leaderboard challenges for long drive, approach shots and putting. These pop up unobtrusively and can be skipped, but they offer a fun social networking option for players who want to compete. Saved shots from each day’s winners can be viewed online via a menu option in the game.

Graphically, this year’s version looks terrific, with enhanced water, terrain and trees. I am happy to report that this is the first version of Tiger Woods to get skies right. They are beautiful and dynamic, and even include, finally, haze. The spectator models and animations have also been given long-overdue attention. Playing this game is finally the visual treat it should be.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 may be the most fully-realized sports game EA has ever made. It has nearly everything I want in a golf game. Everything, that is, except a course designer. This glaring omission — the most requested feature for a decade, inexplicably ignored by EA — is really the only thing preventing this game from scoring an ace. Hey, EA: somewhere in that Spore/SimCity mega-toolset is a powerful and easy to use course designer just waiting for its place on the Tiger Woods 2010 menu screen. Make it happen.

RATING 9 / 10