The popularity of this series surprises me to no end. My first opinion of golf went something like this: "So, you like to watch the grass grow? Why don't you go hiking or take a nature walk?" Golf itself seems less demanding than either of these two options. However, I now realize that I could not have been more wrong. Although I have never actually been on a golf course, I have tried my hand at hitting a few balls in fields, or large backyards, near my place of residence, and let me tell you non-believers this: it is much harder than it looks. On top of that, this series represents the game so well that it is uncanny. And I seem to keep coming back for more.
I am not sure what it is really, at first I could not understand the need for a video game based on a sport that has such a simple concept. Then again, I am still amazed by the number of people who play it and love it. I guess it is just one of those unexplainable phenomena. Needless to say that after playing both Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 and 2005, for both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox respectively, I was more than excited to get my first chance to not only play the 06 version, but to play it on the Xbox 360.
For anyone who may not be familiar with this series, Tiger Woods is developed and published by the people at Electronic Arts, and is usually available for any and every platform with any market share each year. Having said that, the 2006 version has already been released for all of the current generation consoles, as well as for the PSP and PC.
With this year's iteration, several changes have been made. First, and probably most notable, is the idea of creating your own player who begins as an amateur and must slowly improve to enter larger and larger tournaments before joining the PGA Tour. As the tournaments begin to increase in size, so do the crowds of fans who watch you play. The ultimate goal of course, is to win the Grand Slam (four major tournaments in one season).
With this focus on player development, we also lose a feature from the past iterations: the real-time events. EA has decided this year to focus more on obtaining a realistic sim with solid gameplay and less on smaller side goodies. However, I do not believe this to be a negative design decision. All of the other features are still included, such as the beloved trophy balls (bragging rights) and the critical club house. As well, the character customization is much more advanced, allowing players to truly represent themselves (or who they wish to be) on screen.
Other improvements include a cleaner interface as well as a significant improvement in the graphics thanks to the increased power of the Xbox 360. This is most notable in almost everything from the water effects to the fully 3D interactive crowds. Fans are reactive not only to the quality of your shot, but also to incoming "stray" balls that may not have been quite on target (practice shots as I like to refer to them). They will first try and move out of the way, but if you do manage to hit them, I am told that the ball will collide and fall appropriately. As for the grass, the lines in the fairway and on the green are just that much more defined, as are the individual blades in the rough. Your ball and your golfer's feet appear to be covered realistically. Note that I only hit into the rough to do research for this article, I really don't spend much time there, honestly!
Overall, I think this represents a solid improvement in the franchise, although some people may not be comfortable with the new controls. I have heard complaints that they feel "loose" due to the design of the 360's controller, but being trained to golf on the PS2, I do not personally find them to be a problem at all. If you are looking to pick up the latest in the series, or to pick up your first copy, I would recommend looking into this version over the previous generation's offerings once it comes out. Tee-off is scheduled for the 360 launch.