Reviewed: September 12, 2008
Released: August 26, 2008
Behind every great sports legend there is a coach or trainer (or both) responsible for the success of their pupil. The athlete may have some raw talent but it’s up to the coach to mold and refine that talent and create a superstar. Sadly, these men and women behind the scenes seldom share in all the fame and glory as their students, but EA is looking to change all that this year in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09.
While Tiger Woods is still a prominent figure in the game and on the cover, this year a big part of the game now revolves around Hank Haney, Tiger’s real-life coach who will now guide and instruct you through your virtual career in PGA Tour 09. Hank not only serves as your guide through the new game and training interface, he will also act as your mentor, offering advice and criticism between rounds.
PGA Tour 09 builds on the success of last year’s game by adding new courses, new players, and significant improvements to the core gameplay as well as a totally new online engine that offers simultaneous gameplay for up to four golfers. Your skills and golfing abilities are no longer under your direct control. They are now dynamic and will adjust themselves in real-time based on your gameplay.
The new Performance Coach will have Hank analyzing your most recent performance and create training drills based on the holes you had difficulty with on the last game. Completing these drills will give you stat boosts in the various skill sets of golf. And finally, we have a greatly enhanced version of EA Sports GamerNet with all-new Instant Challenges that will appear during normal gameplay such as long drive, approach shots, and longest putts. These allow you to boost your GamerNet score even during career mode and the Tiger Challenge.
Not much has changed with the core of Tiger Woods 09, and you will have the solid analog gameplay mechanic for actually swinging a club and hitting the ball. You can still view the target circle of where your ball might be landing, wind not withstanding and tweak your stroke with a forced fade or draw using the bumpers. For those who find the analog swing too complicated or finicky you can always return to the old-style 3-click swing meter of yesteryear. It might require more precision in timing, but it doesn’t feel nearly as natural as using the analog swing.
As always, you can tweak your ball spin in mid-flight and give yourself some extra “oomph” during your backswing by rapidly tapping the LB or A button. Again, it’s not entirely realistic, adding spin to a ball you’ve already hit, but it is a fun addition for a video game and can really turn a bad shot into something remarkable if you can tweak the ball just right.
Also back is the Putt Preview that will track the path of your ball on the green based on slope, elevation, and your putt strength mode. You are given a single peek per stroke so use it wisely and cautiously. Last year this preview mode had some reliability issues. Thankfully, the preview line is much more accurate this year. And if you think this option is “cheating” you can simply avoid using it or play the game on Tour Pro mode where it won’t even be available.
PGA Tour 09 offers up the same presentation we’ve come to expect from the series. You have the Tiger Challenge that puts you up against a tiered ladder of professional golfers and difficult challenges. This year the challenges are different in that you no longer compete for bronze, silver and gold status. You simply must beat a large variety of challenges, each one earning you points. When you have acquired a certain amount of points you are challenged by a Tour Pro, and eventually you will earn enough points to unlock the next golfer and a whole new set of challenges. This process continues through numerous pros leading all the way to Tiger Woods himself.
There is also the PGA Tour mode that will create a seasonal calendar of golf games and tournaments all leading up to the FedEx Cup. The first thing you’ll want to do before jumping into any of these modes is create your golfer. In addition to the near-infinite possibilities of the vast character designer, PGA Tour 09 brings back the Photo Game Face option that allows you to photograph your own face and map it to the in-game golfer. This feature was a long, slow, and unsatisfying experience last year. While EA has managed to speed up the rendering process to 10-15 minutes in PGA Tour 09, the results still look pretty bad. I don’t know why their system still doesn’t work when games like Rainbow Six can perfectly capture my entire head and put me in the game with no doubt that it is me.
Once you have your golfer visually crafted Hank will throw some challenges at you to judge your beginning skills. Initially, you are ranked on a scale of 1-10, although the top number does go higher later in the game, especially when you start boosting those stats with expensive equipment from the Pro Shop. Abilities such as Power, Accuracy, Short Game, and Putting all receive adjustments after a game. If you do poorly, your stats may fall and if you do well they will increase.
Hank will create custom training challenges allowing you to regain some lost points or even increase your abilities. These might include driving the ball so many yards or chipping into a range circle on the green or putting within a certain distance of the hole. You’ll complete the challenge once to get a fixed boost then you are offered a timed mini-game where you continue the challenge for additional fractions of a point.
I enjoyed this method of character development significant more than last year’s system of assigning the points like I was rolling up a D&D character. After a while I did find Hank’s challenges a bit annoying and it really slows down the overall pace of the game, especially when you are finding your rhythm in a four-game tournament, but you are always free to skip any or all of the challenges. The weakest part of my game was the Short Game stat so I continually did those exercises between matches to keep that ability in synch with the rest of my skills.
Also new to PGA Tour 09 is the Club Tuner. Personally, I found no real use for this new feature and I wouldn’t even have used it if I weren’t trying to be thorough in my review. For those who might find it useful, this system allows you to test and tune each club on a testing range and tweak them to perfection for a totally optimized golf game. The day my clubs become the weakest part of my game is the day I might come back to this new feature.
Speaking of clubs, you now have real-time feedback thanks to an animated golf ball icon in the lower corner of the screen that shows the accuracy of your swing and any spin you may have put on the ball. I found this visual tool far more useful in correcting my analog swing than tweaking the clubs in the Club Tuner.
Multiplayer is back and better than ever with a totally new engine that allows for simultaneous gameplay, but only for Stroke Play matches. For those who read my PGA Tour 08 review, that was really my only complaint for playing online – it just took too long to have to sit there and wait for everyone to take their turn. Now, everyone plays at once and your positions are tracked with markers and multi-colored ball arcs. The host can even setup a shot clock forcing you to take your turn in a set amount of time or receive a penalty stroke. If you finish a hole before the other players you can switch over to spectator mode and watch your friends play out the hole. You can finish up an entire 18-hole round in less than an hour.
Mini-games are back in force with favorites like One Ball, Battle Golf, TIGER, driving and putting challenges, and many others. There is a special course all setup and ready for you to create your own challenges and countless hours of multiplayer entertainment, either locally or online, and several of these mini-games are now integrated right into the Tiger Challenge. One Ball and Battle Golf are still two of my favorites.
The biggest enhancement this year is the new and improved GamerNet system that allows you to create challenges and post them online on the fly while you are playing any of the other modes. If you make a spectacular shot or finish a hole or even a course with a low score you can post those results online and challenge others to beat you. Naturally, everyone else is doing the same so there is a growing library of online user-created content that can be as much fun (and far more stable) than many of the other online modes.
Instant Challenges are superimposed over your normal gameplay so you can see the current top performer for longest drive, closest approach, or longest putt, then try to beat that marker for additional GamerNet points. Leaderboards are tracked daily, weekly, and all-time and there are several channels to surf through looking for potential challenges.
I feel I need to comment on some quirky AI issues. First of all, for being the star of the game, Tiger Woods sucks. After several days of obsessive gameplay working through the Tiger Challenge I finally get to play the “master” and he two-putts every hole and puts it in the sand and even in the water. I beat him by 13 strokes. Not much of a “Tiger Challenge”. And even the other golfers you’ll go up against will make and miss shots with extreme irregularity. If Annika Sorenstam is consistently sinking 10 to 20-foot putts then misses the one that is only 6-inches just when I need her to miss, it feels more like pity than bad luck.
PGA Tour 09 looks amazing and there are plenty more exotic landscapes to see with several new international and domestic courses being added to the library this year. Play at the Gary Player Country Club in South Africa, or head over to England and play at the Wentworth Country Club, or how about Sheshan Golf Club in China. Bay Hill, one of my favorites, makes its debut and Wolf Creek in Nevada may be the most ingenious and treacherous course you’ll ever play.
Everything from the striped fairways to the meticulously manicured greens to the rocks, trees, shrubs, and shimmering lakes is about as close to reality as you can get. In fact, when I saw an early comparison demo of PGA Tour 09 versus last year’s game I thought the graphics had taken a severe turn for the worse, but in reality the game looks much more realistic. Sure, PGA Tour 08 was gorgeous, but it was also overly green, almost like a fantasy course inspired by the actual location. Now you see the bald spots in the fairway and patches of yellow grass in need of watering.
The golfers look amazing, with each pro looking like their real-life counterpart, both facially and in their animations and specific golf swings. Some new international golfers have been added to the pro roster this year including Si Re Pak, Darren Clakre, Nick Dougherty and Rory McIlroy. There is a huge library of animations for swinging, and positive and negative celebrations, that you can purchase and customize your golfer with, as well as countless combinations of clothing and accessories guaranteeing that no two golfers will every look alike. As always, many of these visual upgrades also come with their own stat boosts.
The overall presentation of the game including menus, ESPN ticker, and season calendar works nicely. You’ll also get the standard TV-style presentation of the larger matches with commentary and preview fly-bys of each hole. There are bleachers full of spectators when teeing off and sinking that final putt and crowds will line the sides of the fairways to cheer you on. There are some sweet camera angles and pre and post shot animations. I love the new camera that follows behind the ball in mid-flight. You can also cycle between several shots for the replay mode and save your GamerNet clips locally or online.
There are a few visual oddities starting with the crowds who, while all dressed differently, all move in perfect synchronization. It is just weird to see a hundred people all stand up and make the same handclapping animation at once. My other minor complaint is the swaying trees. As much as I hate playing in 20-30mph winds, watching trees swaying back and forth, even down to the lower trunk levels is really weird and distracting. Maybe the tops of trees and the tops of the trunk, but the lower base of the trees shouldn’t be moving like the tree is about to be uprooted.
PGA Tour 09 delivers a solid soundtrack of licensed music courtesy of EA Trax that you’ll only hear in the menus, and even then, if you have the ESPN option toggled on then you’ll be hearing live updated news from ESPN radio. Again, unless you spend hours in the menus most of this is not even noticed. I only got my ESPN updates when I went shopping at the Pro Shop or was tweaking my character stats.
The sound effects are outstanding with all the sounds you’d expect to hear on the golf course like wind, water, the crowd, an occasional jet flying overhead, and even some location specific birdcalls. I was impressed that the sound designers took the effort to match the species of birds to the region where the course was located. I’ve played a few of these courses in real life and it’s remarkably lifelike.
My biggest complaint this year is the commentary, both Hank’s and the new announcers, which is so bad I am deducting points not only from the sound section but the entire game – it is THAT bad. First off, Hank offers some less-than-informative feedback considering he is the hook for the title this year, and his acting is more of a reading-off-the-page style. It’s not as noticeable in the Performance Coach as it is in the painful opening introduction to the game. But things get really bad when we are forced to listen to the detached and incorrect commentary of newcomers, Kelly Tillman and Sam Torrance. What they are saying is good stuff and even humorous, especially the color commentary, but when Sam and Kelly start commenting on the gameplay in progress their remarks are so delayed it doesn’t even make sense.
Obviously, comments like “It’s headed for the trap” are meant to be heard while the ball is in flight – not 10 seconds after the ball has come to rest and not when the ball is 2 inches from the hole and not in the sand. Not only is the commentary late, it is simply wrong about 25% of the time. The sound even causes major hiccups in gameplay where I will sink a majestic 40-foot putt then everything and everyone freezes for 3-5 seconds while the game loads up the applause sound effect. This is just plain poor coding on the programmers part and PGA Tour 09 should have never gotten out of QA with this serious defect that shows up on nearly every single shot of every single hole in the game.
As with past Tiger Woods titles, there is limitless gameplay potential with PGA Tour 09 and you honestly have no reason to stop playing until PGA Tour 10 inevitably replaces this game next year. The numerous game modes and mini-games for both local and online play will keep you invested for hours and the new GamerNet challenges will inspire a whole new level of competition, both in creating challenges and accepting them.
The Tiger Challenge mode alone will keep you busy for a week or more. There are 9 Challenges in each player section, each one worth a set amount of points. There are enough points available so you don’t have to complete every challenge in each section to advance, but you will have to do most of them. This was a nice feature that allows you to complete the challenge, even if you get stuck on a difficult challenge. Winning the FedEx Cup can take days or even weeks depending on how many games you can play in a single day.
Achievement hunters will have considerable challenges ahead of them, as the goals for these points are varied and quite clever. Some are obvious like driving a ball more than 400y, hitting the flag, play all the mini-games, or even create a golfer using the camera and Game Face. Then things get tricky when you are asked to post a challenge worth 1,250 points or complete a 100+ point challenge in any four GamerNet channels. Or how about finishing a round of golf under par using only irons or unlocking every last trophy ball. There are 40 achievements that should take you a month or more to earn the full 1000 points.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 is a solid offering and worthy successor to last year’s installment. There are numerous new additions and enhancements, and while features like the Game Face continue to disappoint, others like the GamerNet Challenges, Performance Coach, and Club Tuner really elevate the experience and add a whole new level of realism and immersion into the Tiger Woods franchise. Plus, with all the new courses and additional pro golfers not to mention the slick new simultaneous online gameplay, this is the biggest and best next-gen Tiger Woods to date.
If you love Tiger Woods PGA Tour then you are going to want to get this game...heck, you’re probably already playing it, but if you are still on the fence about this title, rest assured, you won’t be disappointed. PGA Tour 09 continues to reinvent itself each year, making itself accessible to gamers of all skill levels and enjoyable by anyone who loves a good round of golf and some healthy competition.