With each passing year, as reliable as the change in the season, we see EA return with a new, more polished golfing game. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 builds incrementally on half a decade of refinements, but it also tries to make it something altogether new. To accomplish this, EA has overhauled the presentation, the modes, and even the swing mechanics. The end result is a mix of true advancements and superficial ones. It largely feels like the update you'd expect, with some stylistic changes. In a way, this should be taken as a good sign that EA hasn't changed things so much that it will jar the millions of Tiger fans out of the experience they've learned to love. However, given that everything is still so familiar at the core, there's no way of getting around the feeling that all these new options are ultimately still baby steps in the evolution of the franchise.
This is perfectly fine, as Tiger 06 offers pretty much the best all-around, everyone-accessible golfing experience out there. Plus, the dual analog swinging, smoother putting system and increase in overall polish make it the best of the Tiger franchise yet.
That's the overview, but you really should examine the specifics to decide if Tiger 06 is something you want to add to your collection. If you don't own any golfing titles and have been considering jumping into it, it's probably a safe bet to dive right in with 06. However, if you've been with the franchise for years, even sporadically, you'll want to consider exactly what it has to offer that's truly new and different. For starters, EA gave the course options a nice bump with a total of 15, a mix of fantasy and licensed; seven of them are brand new licensed courses, including TPC Sawgrass, Pasatiempo, Sahalee CC, Doral Golf Resort, the Nicklaus-designed Reflection Bay in Vegas, as well as Cog Hill and Pumpkin Ridge. So, although there are fewer courses total than some previous iterations had, EA makes up for it with all these new options. The only thing that seems out of place is exactly why they have removed some of the courses from previous versions. They seem to be rationing out the courses in an effort to plan for future installments.
We don't want to be too assuming, though. There are all-new mechanics that play into the balance of Tiger 06, as well as reactive Tiger proofing, which alters courses to challenge your skill level -- each course would have to be balanced to these things. So, 15 is a number we're not complaining about. The new dual analog swing mechanics we speak of are mostly optional (unless you want to pull off a fade or a draw), but Tiger fans will immediately want to sink their teeth into them. One stick is still used to swing the club, as usual, while the other is reserved for placing the strike point on the ball, which will incur front-spin, backspin, or your fade or draw. By taking part in this mechanic, you will be more vulnerable to a miss-hit, which immediately brings you one step closer to simulation. This is a major plus for fans that have been crying out that Tiger can be too easy. But, you have to get into the menu and completely turn off power hitting and spin control. There's still the "Tour" mode option which increases difficulty, but if you're into simulation you'll want to take advantage of turning off the marker readouts too -- this way you won't know exactly how much percentage swing is needed to yield the marker distance.
Having this kind of flexibility is admirable, but at the same time the lack of commitment has yielded a lack of balance. Beginners will still knock in eagles and pros will do the same despite these settings, even if there is more of a chance than before of finding yourself in triple-bogey territory. Having said this, it may be time for EA to commit to a style, instead of trying to walk the line between simulation and come-one-come-all playability. Or, if they're going to have both, the modes need to properly reflect the styles. Because it's still quite easy to hole out if you've never played the game, which has been an ongoing issue for those who take the game seriously.
The biggest area that has seen a control mechanic overhaul is putting. Perhaps the team was stubborn to avoid gamers' years of pleas to include a putting grid or even a control style that resembled the real world, but it's finally succumbed to the notion. Every time you hit the dance floor, you get a grid. You also use a dual analog swing with different putters and max distances, so it perfectly ties into everything you do from tee to fairway. It's more intuitive and slightly more challenging. You won't be using the second analog "spin control" too much, but you can increase or decrease your putt distance slightly by using it. It's a nice bit of refinement for playing the greens, but there still seems to be some balance issues. You will knock in some insanely long shots when your putter's max distance closely matches the distance of the hole -- it's a bit of a loophole, basically since it becomes easier to judge a longer distance when that happens. Beyond that, the grid implementation is minimalist -- unless you have some serious bumps and curves in the green, it's still hard to read. And this will just have you resorting to the "ideal putt camera." In fact, for some reason, the grid moves with your marker, which makes it difficult to keep track of the green's shape. Don't misunderstand that comment, as the "raindrop effect" on the grid does help you understand the speed of the curves, but you still walk away with the sensation that you're reading the grid and not the green.
The series needs to make another jump to the point where you understand the green detail with microscopic accuracy. That's what golfers do. They see only their putter, the green, and all its detail. They remove twigs from their line, pebbles even, they are careful not to walk in another golfer's line, and they look for all those slight variations that make a difference. So, while all these changes make for a more intuitive and consistent experience, there still seem to be the same core balance issues that have long existed in the franchise. It works more in favor of those looking for pick-up-and-play golf as opposed something serious.
This is important to consider, because the Tiger franchise has steadily moved to become more focused on the rewards, the detail of Game Face, and all the bonuses, as opposed to the core gameplay fundamentals. When you've knocked in more eagles, birdies, and chip-ins than you can count, it takes away the thrill of seeking the pin. Certainly, as you might guess, we're more in favor of a Tiger Woods product that challenges more than it circumvents the issue of double or triple bogeys. That's our take, but it's an important point to consider no matter which side you're on. Are you playing Tiger to unlock Pro Shop goodies and upgrade your character, or do you play because each match is a genuinely challenging round of golf?
We don't want to sound down on Tiger 06, though. It's an impressive game and we wager anyone who plays it will enjoy it thoroughly. It's just that this year's version seems to be the hitting the ceiling for the current design. It's time for the team to take a year off or leap into the next-generation. The Rivals mode, for example, is an appreciated evolution of franchise mode. Beyond the classic PGA Tour, it has replaced the Legend Pursuit. Now you travel through different time periods, facing off with greats from the past, wearing time period clothing and earning the right to buy that gear. It's a great idea that adds a lot of character to the single-player experience. But, save for the excellent clubhouse designs, you're still playing on the modern courses with modern commentary. So, the presentation suffers and it only adds to the feeling that the PGA Tour 06 is more of a face lift than a sequel.
Likewise, even the visuals, which were once drool worthy are now just smooth and respectable. They've slightly increased texture resolution (faces look great) and added in some waving grass effects, which are nice, but it's not like they've overhauled the art assets, the lighting engine, weather effects or even supported widescreen. All three console versions run fairly well, but each suffers minor slowdown and framerate stutter at times. Xbox suffers the least, though, and looks the best.
All that that said, the new menus, the refined Game Face, all the modes, including Rivals, is the most put together the series has been. Online is available in the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC versions. Like many online experiences, nothing is guaranteed, but overall it works well enough. Back to the point: when you quantify all of these changes, Tiger 06 is still just a tweaked version of Tiger 2005. For example, the PGA Tour mode is still a baseline presentation -- you're not getting picture-in-picture updates or reports on your opponents' performances, which could go a long way.
So, on the whole, there's a lot to love and plenty to put on your wishlist for in the future. Tiger 06 has a plethora of challenge modes, multiplayer options, rewards, and an impressive amount of replay value if you follow real-time events and online play. The newly implemented swing mechanics are also for the better, even if still in need of balancing. Whether you decide to bring Tiger 06 home is going to depend largely on what you want out of it. If you were hoping for bigger changes, you may want to see how the next-generation pans out or see what next year brings. However, if you've been totally satisfied with each of the previous years' upgrades, then Tiger 06 is unquestionably something you'll want to add to your collection. Hole-for-hole, it's still the best console golfer around -- the presentation and polish is slicker than ever, and there are loads of challenges and events to keep you busy.
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