The PC golf heavyweights are Microsoft's Links series and EA Sports's Tiger Woods series. Links is the long established gold standard for PC golf simulation. It pretty much created and sustained the genre over the years. There were other games that measured up nicely in comparison to Links like Activision's Jack Nicklaus 6 Golden Bear Challenge, but few games provided real challenges in both total sales numbers and product quality. This all changed when Sierra published PGA Championship 2000.
While the Links series could shrug aside Activision's course architect feature that threatened the "course pack" cash cow, Microsoft didn't seem prepared for the challenge that PGA Championship provided. The mouse swing method was invented by the good folks at Headgate Software and their momentum based TrueSwing 3 created a whole new golf experience. PGA Championship introduced a very deep career mode that no golf game had at the time. Throw in the course architect and some nice online play and Links seemed quaint and old-fashioned in comparison.
EA Sports snatched up the PGA Championship developers and put them to work on a popular, but greatly flawed Tiger Woods series. Their first attempts to fix EA Sports' flagship golf title failed pretty miserably, as far as the critics were concerned. EA Sports learned from each failure and to their credit, each new edition with the developers formerly known as Headgate Studios, was better than the previous version. Their latest and greatest, Tiger Woods 2003, has sparked a holy war among golf simulation enthusiasts. Links fans criticize Tiger Woods' physics. Tiger Woods fans criticize Links' post-card graphics that have long re-draw times, and even PGA Championship old-timers--who wouldn't be caught dead playing Links--find the hardest levels of Tiger Woods 2003 too easy.
Presentation/Graphics : 95
The graphics, to put it bluntly, are absolutely stunning. Tiger Woods 2002 gave a sneak preview of what is possible using 3D environments to reproduce the feeling of being on a golf course. Unfortunately the price for admission was just too high. The game was significantly broken when it was released and the hardware requirements for good frames per second were very steep. This year's version greatly improves both the graphics presentation and the hardware required to maximize performance. The golf courses are very dynamic environments. Windy conditions produce appropriate visuals--trees sway, flags flap, and poles bend in the breeze. Elevations are easy to interpret on the computer screen because they way the terrain is rendered.
The only redraw time occurs when switching holes. Otherwise, the course is a fluid 3D environment. Add in fog effects, dynamic galleries, and beautiful visuals and you have the eye candy standard for golf simulations
The available camera angles further show off the 3D engine. Keyboard commands allow players to move backward, forward, left, right, up, and down. There are additional pre-set cameras that show swing, ball-drop, blimp, and green reading views. The entire hole can be viewed from where the ball will be hit up to the cup in one sweeping low fly-by camera angle. As if that weren't enough, the game's camera angles can be adjusted through the included camera editor. What I really like about all of these angles is the default ball flight path view that is used after a club strikes a ball. The camera follows the path of your ball and switches to different angles that give a great view of where the ball ends up. This isn't perfect as there were a number of times where odd lies would confuse the camera in strange ways.
Tiger Woods 2003's console influences are evident when shot replay mode kicks in. Missing is the heartbeat from Gamebreakers players feel when hitting pressure shots, but a wide screen mode is used to show shots that arrive particularly close to or in the cup. This fits nicely with the player animations. Hit a great shot and a player will respond with the pump fist, golf wave, a hop and a skip, and in other ways. Hit a poor golf shot and the player's head will hang, hit his head, and other appropriate expressions of disgust.
The transition from 2D real time swing golfers to 3D full motion golfers is complete. If you choose to use Trueswing, a real time golf swing that will be discussed below, Tiger Woods 2003 shows off the nice animations it uses to model golf mechanics. Players look like they are hitting actual golf shots. They take the appropriate position when addressing the ball and swings are true to life. Bad lies require create club holding and swinging. Both are reflected graphically in Tiger Woods 2003.
Presentation/Audio : 80
I think that playing Tiger Woods 2003 for the Xbox through my Dolby Digital surround system has forever spoiled my judgment about PC sound in games. The ambient sounds are incredible through the Xbox. The PC ambient sounds are very good for this platform and do a lot to add that in the game feeling that is helped by dynamic environments. The audio compliments the graphics and what is on the screen is accurately reflected with the appropriate sounds. Good stuff, but sometimes overdone.
Commentating is very hit or miss in TW2003. There isn't a great deal of variety in the comments made by David Fegerty and Bill Macatee. It may be that my Xbox time has made their comments less tolerable, but I think most people will eventually tune them out after a few rounds of golf. What's even more frustrating is that there are serious commentary glitches while playing online. In every game I played using EA Sports Online (EASO), there were at least three or four comments that left everyone scratching their heads. Balls hit straight down the fairway would get a "he's headed for the light rough." Balls sitting on the putting surface would get a "right club, wrong player" comment. This didn't happen very often, but it did enough to make the commentary that much more annoying.
Interface/Options : 95
There is a lot to do in Tiger Woods 2003 and almost all of it is fun. The interface is much more serviceable than the console version of the game because of the mouse driven interface. Changing clubs is as simple as moving your pointer over the club bag, waiting for it to open, and then clicking on the desired club. Changing the type of swing is a two-click affair. Changing the general shot type selection is fairly simple and involves selecting the desired type from a menu of choices. Shot type can be further refined using a slider bar that does things like increase the distance or the trajectory of the shot your trying to make. This becomes particularly useful when trying to hit "flop" or "pick" shots from sand traps. Wind speed, ball lie, and terrain elevation information are all available on screen. Grid lines can be used on the putting surface or turned off.
The golf swing interface is second to none. Tiger Woods 2003 offers players the choice of two "TrueSwing" types (vertical and horizontal) as well as more traditional multi-click methods of hitting golf shots.
TrueSwing is a real-time swing, so players move through their swing as the mouse is moved in one direction or the other. The ball is impacted as the player moves through his swing and there is a TrueSwing analyzer that will pop up after the ball is hit. This analyzer provides a wealth of information about where the ball impacted the club, the speed of the club, the tempo, and other items.
There are 12 courses included in Tiger Woods 2003, but even more can be created using the course architect and/or downloaded from fan sites. Setting up a round of golf is very easy. The initial opening screen has a "Play Golf" choice and clicking the button opens a screen that allows you to choose the type of game, rules, advanced rules (like using a handicap), and even side bets. Tour Challenge mode puts players in specific situations that they compete against, like closest to the pin, and longest drive.
Other choices include setting up a season, going to the course to practice, or playing a round against opponents. These include a selection of virtual golfers that range from the entire PGA Tour field to amateur golfers. There are 14 choices of golf games from the traditional stroke and match play to three variants of four ball.
Tiger Woods 2003's crown jewel is its career mode. Starting a career involves creating your cyber-golfer persona and purchasing clubs, balls, and other equipment. This is a much better "Tour Card" mode than that found in the console version which consists of a series of individual challenges. The PC version is set up to emulate a golfer starting with lower skills and slowly building those skills up over time. Skill improvement revolves around money. It is needed to buy golf lessons, upgrade attributes, and to enter golf tournaments. A neat feature is that players can go to a practice area and wait for other golfers to challenge them to a skills duel.
Each month during the career portion of the game contains specific events that must be completed before moving up to the next level of ability. Golfers start as amateurs and earn a little money here and there. This is good because the cost of upgrading attributes like distance, accuracy, putting, etc. is pretty cheap initially. But there is a cap above which you cannot upgrade until all of the events are completed for that month. This scenario plays out over each month and there is a tournament of various difficulty and number of rounds at the end of each month that determines if you are fit to move to the next level.
Gameplay : 90
Tiger Woods 2003 really is a tale about three different games. The single player game that isn't part of the career package is a more traditional golf game product. Players can choose difficulty levels (or edit their golfer's level), where they want to play, rules, and everything is pretty straightforward. The career mode is very different because the more this mode is played, the better the opponents become and the better your cyber-golfer plays. Then there is the online EASO and IP to IP game that offers its own set of challenges. No wonder the game comes on three CDs!
All of these modes are played within a golf physics environment that has received a little bit of criticism. Links series fans point to the ball flight and wind effects that they do not see in Tiger Woods 2003. PGA Championship 2000 fans find Tiger Woods 2003 too easy at its hardest levels, primarily due to the easier shot making.
The reality of the situation is that there may be a grain of truth in everybody's argument. I found the Links 2003 physics superior to Tiger Woods 2003's on a number of levels. Wind effects were pretty obvious in Links and Heaven help the golfer whose ball found its way to the side of a hill. But this is not to say that Tiger Woods has bad physics, it does not. Wind and lie effects are present, but they are not as overstated as the effects in Links or PGA Championship for that matter.
>From purely a physics point of view, Tiger Woods 2003 slightly trails Links 2003 and PGA Championship 2000. Fortunately, there are enough game play elements to make most reasonable golf simulation fans put up with this "easiness" and enjoy other parts of the game. Complaints about playing Tiger Woods on the hardest level and finding it too easy generally come from seasoned PGA Championship fans who have mastered TrueSwing over the years. The rest of us mortal players will find plenty to challenge us in the game.
Tiger Woods 2003 adds complexity to the genre by allowing players to choose what types of shafts, balls, and club heads they will use to make shots. Each piece of equipment further refines your game and forces decisions about what part of the shot you'll emphasize. Want to really rip the ball down the fairway? Choose those stiff shafts, but realize there is a tradeoff. Accuracy might be lost and it may be tougher to hit the ball straight.
The 3D environment will make putting a joy or will further fuel the "this game is too easy" argument, depending on your viewpoint. Because the camera angles are there and the putting surfaces are so nicely rendered, it makes reading the greens fairly easy to do. The grid lines make putts of unbelievable distance very possible. You'll even shake your head as the commentators misread putts. I'd suggest turning off the gridlines after a few rounds to provide more of a challenge.
I am a big fan of real-time mouse swings. I'd pretty much given up on the entire golf simulation genre until PGA Championship 2000 hit the scene. I'm very biased in favor of the TrueSwing method because I believe it does the best job simulating the momentum effects that are part of a real life golf swing. Not everyone agrees with me. There are many traditional tri-click golfers that love that method and there are even some diehard powerstroke aficionados. The big problem with TrueSwing is that it is not the best way to play golf online. "Edging" is using an artificial device to keep the mouse going back and forth or right to left in a straight line. The advantage isn't clear-cut since speed still has a great deal of impact on the success of any swing, but it clearly is a less than ethical way of using this real-time swing against online opponents.
Multiplayer online issues surround Tiger Woods 2003, as do all of EA Sports' games that use the EASO system. There is a free time period (that can be extended by filling out surveys), but after that time period is over, you'll have to start paying to play using EASO. At this time I could not find a set price for EASO, but its hard to believe that EA Sports could charge very much if anything for a very awkward interface that really doesn't add very much to the overall online golfing experience. I never would have believed it, but Sierra's much-maligned WON online system seems pretty good in comparison. Other than gimmicks like earning tokens that can be entered into cash drawings (read this as bribes to entice you to use EASO), I'm hard pressed to explain any advantage over other free matchmaking services offered by other game developers. Like Microsoft's Gaming Zone, which is way ahead of EASO in terms of ease of use and interface, and is free for Links 2003 players.
The conspiracy theory folks have started to complain about being dropped from Tiger Woods 2003 IP to IP games. The conspiracy, of course, is that people that use EASO aren't having these problems, so EA Sports is discouraging IP to IP play by not fixing it with a patch. I did not have any problem using the IP to IP features in Tiger Woods 2003 or any of the EASO eligible EA Sports products, so I'm not so sure there's any merit to the conspiracy.
Replay Value : 95
No golf game offers higher replay value. From the online capabilities to the course architect, people will be playing Tiger Woods 2003 right up until Tiger Woods 2004 is released. There are already over 38 Tiger Woods 2003 courses available for download on one popular fan sites.
Overall : 91
If EA Sports increased shot making difficulty and paid a little more attention to golf physics detail, Tiger Woods 2003 would probably be the first game I ever gave close to a perfect score. There's no "ready play" option online and that detracts a bit from the
multiplayer experience. The career mode isn't a real "career" in the traditional sense, but it works.
I can honestly say Tiger Woods 2003 is the gold standard. It is the first golf product that kept me up into the wee hours of the night as I tried to play "just one more" calendar event during my career. What a wonderful time it is for golf simulation fans! Links 2003 isn't a bad game and does some things better than Tiger Woods 2003; however, EA Sports has raised the bar in the golf simulation genre once again. After people played Headgate's PGA Championship 2000, there was a general "wow!" heard across the golfing community. EA Sports has picked up where Headgate left off and finally leveraged all of that talent they acquired from Sierra.