Flop Shot

A few years ago I flew from New York to San Diego. I was travelling a lot for work at the time, and had amassed a Croesian number of frequent flyer miles, so I turned them in for an upgrade to first class. This resulted in my sitting next to a doctor, a surgeon. True to the stereotype, this surgeon loved golf.

How do I know that this surgeon loved golf? Did he tell me about how he loved to play golf? No, he did not tell me how he loved to play golf. Was he wearing golf shoes? No, he was not wearing golf shoes.

I know he loved golf because he had a golf magazine, and he read it for the entire flight. For the entire seven hours that we were in the air, il dottore read and re-read his golf magazine. He read it while eating. He read it during takeoff. He read it during landing. And for all I know, when he visited the lavatory and flipped the sign to OCCUPIED, he took that golf magazine and stuffed it down his pants, enjoying the rich, smooth feel of its turfy goodness. So there are people in this world who really like golf. I’m not one of them. I played a little bit in high school, and more or less view golf as a way of ruining a perfectly good walk. The only thing more boring than playing golf, to me, is watching golf on TV. I am thoroughly convinced the only reason men love golf is because of the subtext of a man walking around in the woods trying to use his stick to get into 18 different holes.

And yet, and yet, I love golf videogames. They provide the illusion of skill without the effort, and combine all the good attributes of golf (nice scenery, clever physics problems, goofy clothing) while eliminating the bad attributes (having to talk to and be around golfers, the interminable waiting in between every shot, having to keep score yourself).

Which brings me to EA Sports’ new game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour ‘06 for the Xbox 360. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, sucks.

Let me be more specific: when compared to the 2-year-old Xbox release Links 2004, Tiger Woods looks worse, plays worse, has a stupider user interface, and is less fun.

Golf videogames don’t have to look stunning to be fun. Hot Shots Golf, for example, is a blast using only an iconic, cartoony style. Qualitatively, when static, the art in Tiger Woods looks about the same as that in Links 2004 But since it is OH MY GOD HIGH DEFINITION, they have (I assume) upscaled the texture maps for no particular reason. The upshot of this is that when a model with many polygons, such as a golfer, moves around their movement is jumpy and stuttery, and not at all smooth. So, you can play Links 2004, or you can spend $400 on your next-gen console to get something that looks worse.

If this were the only issue, I wouldn’t even mention it. The user interaction model is enough to make a grown man weep. Here’s a typical interaction with Tiger Woods PGA Tour ‘06: Please Press More Buttons, Thanks. Let’s say I’m just finishing up a skill event. The game will display the score and ask me to press “A” to continue. I press “A”.

Now, after that I used some skill points to increase my putting skill. I navigated to a menu and spent the points. That took about 3 seconds. And when I left that menu…. “Would you like to save your progress, Jeremy Clarkson? YES/NO”. And then I shot myself.

The interface on the course isn’t too terrible. I generally think that Links had a slightly better UI interaction, but not so that you would make the decision for one or another based solely on that. The one in-game UIism that doesn’t work well is the one that lets you steer the ball after you hit it.

Oh, didn’t I mention? You can steer the ball after you hit it. Did you ever go bowling with a group of 8 year olds? They will roll the ball down the lane, and as it heads toward the right gutter they will lean their bodies and twist left, trying to make the ball go left through sheer willpower. Apparently, Tiger Woods PGA Tour ‘06 was made for these people. This is so stupid that it sort of leaves me wondering why they didn’t just go whole hog and give the player a “shotgun mode” where you can snipe other players’ balls out of the air. That has as much to do with golf as steering balls after they’ve left your club.

As with all of EA Sports’ recent sports/RPG hybrids, you are given detailed, precise control over the appearance of your avatar. You can apply all sorts of fine bone structure and facial details giving the character whatever appearance you desire, as long as they end up looking like a vaguely halfwitted mentally-impaired troll.

The presentation of the game, which is intended to mimic a TV broadcast, is subtly wrong, and offputting. The announcers are sarcastic and biting in response to poor play in ways that ring false.

The game is, in short, an embarassment from top to bottom. This is the second EA Sports game I’ve reviewed this year that was in this sort of condition (you’ll read my review of NFL Head Coach in the upcoming issue of played.todeath magazine), and it has me more than a little worried. Something is amiss in Redwood City, and it doesn’t look easy to fix.

Even golfers deserve better than this.