It has been an eventful year for Tiger Woods, but while his personal life and his golf game have suffered, the good news is that his video game has not. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 introduces a number of new features to the long-running golf series that not only make it more realistic, but also add some much-needed challenge to the proceedings. You can still set the game up in such a way that birdies and eagles are easy to attain, but if you prefer a realistic challenge, you'll find that new features such as the focus system, the variable wind, and the optional true-aim control setup more than have you covered. Not all of the changes and additions to this year's game are as significant, but the vast majority of them are welcome, and given that Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 was so great, it's impressive that this year's game is easy to recommend as an upgrade.
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There are more than 25 professional golfers and a handful of novelty characters on the PGA Tour 11 roster, but while Tiger's near-perfect ratings for power, accuracy, control, and putting make him an obvious choice, it's far more rewarding to play as a custom golfer. That's not only because digital camera support makes it easy to put your face in the game, but also because whereas the stats for other golfers are fixed, custom golfers improve as you earn experience points across several different modes and spend them on stat increases and better equipment. The only downside to playing as a custom character is that, as part of the creation process, you have to choose one of 20 mostly dumb nicknames for spectators to use when they feel the need to yell words of encouragement in your general direction. Nothing detracts from the sense of occasion as you sink a winner on the 18th hole at St. Andrews quite like hearing some moron cheering for Big Dog, Blammo, or Playa.
After creating your custom golfer, you're encouraged to play through an eight-step tutorial that does a great job of introducing you to some of this year's most significant gameplay changes while also rewarding you with a decent number of experience points. The most significant new feature, which comes into play in a number of the tutorial steps, is the concept of player focus: an ingenious system that adds a layer of strategy to just about every shot you play by limiting the use of powerful player aids. You start each round with a finite amount of focus, and you spend a portion of it anytime you hit a ball at more than 100 percent strength, apply spin to a ball while it's in the air, temporarily reduce the size of your targeting circle with the new accuracy boost feature, or use the putt preview. The only way to replenish your focus, which doesn't happen quickly, is to play shots without using any of these things. It's a superb setup, because it forces you to take advantage of these arguably overpowered aids only when you feel you really need them, rather than using them as crutches on every hole.
The final tutorial encourages you to play a hole using the new true-aim control system, which makes the game significantly more difficult and realistic. The basic controls are unchanged, so you still swing the analog stick back and forth as if it were your club, but most of the aids disappear. A single arrow on the horizon shows where you're aiming; scattered markers that are often dozens of yards away from where your ball is likely to land are the only indicators of range and elevation; and draw and fade are applied by changing where you strike the ball rather than using a second targeting circle. Another neat touch when using true aim is that you watch your shots play out as if your head were following the ball. True aim isn't for everyone, but it's a great addition nonetheless, and since you can use it while playing on any of the four difficulty settings and in almost any mode, there's no reason not to try it.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 has so many different modes of play to choose from that the menu screens can be overwhelming. For example, simply hitting the "play now" option takes you to a second menu where you can choose from a dozen traditional modes (stroke play, match play, bingo bango bongo, four ball) and eight minigames (capture the flag, target, closest to the pin, T.I.G.E.R.). All of these modes are fun and afford you good opportunities to practice different aspects of your game. Most support and are best enjoyed with two to four players, but there are a few that work just as well when you're golfing solo. Depending on which of the modes you opt for, you might also need to choose which of the game's 17 real-world courses you want to play on before you can start. Alternatively, you can opt to play on a random course composed of holes from different courses, which is a great way to get a feel for just how varied the different locations are. Classics like St. Andrews, TPC Sawgrass, and Pebble Beach are joined by five new courses this year (Celtic Manor Resort, The Greenbrier, Liberty National, TPC Scottsdale, and Whistling Straits), a couple of which you might recognize as the homes of 2010 tournaments if you follow the sport. Incidentally, an additional fantasy course, named Highlands, is already available as premium downloadable content.
Venture online and there are still an impressive 10 different gameplay modes to choose from, though it's unfortunate that none of the minigames are available. You can play against friends, get paired up with random opponents for ranked matches, and--as in last year's game--compete in daily, weekly, and play-the-pros tournaments that let you play alone and then upload your scores to leaderboards. When playing in tournaments, you can see other players' names and scores on the leaderboards next to every hole, and a news ticker lets you know when other players have done something significant, which is a nice touch. New for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 is online team play, which requires a minimum of four players and supports a maximum of 24. You choose to represent either the East or West, and then when enough players have joined the session, everybody gets paired up with an opponent and starts at the same time. You get to watch your opponent's shots, and the shots from any other players who are on the same hole as you are show up as lines tracing their balls. Online team play is an interesting addition to the game, but getting a large number of players together at the same time can be extremely difficult--perhaps because it often means that the first players who show up have to wait around for more to show up. Even if you forgo the numerous options that, for example, let you choose to play only in certain weather conditions or with certain green speeds, you're more likely to end up in a four-player team game than a 24-player one.
Whether you're playing solo or with up to three friends on the same console, the new Ryder Cup mode is undoubtedly one of the more compelling ways to play when you're not using and leveling up your custom golfer in Career mode. Although the default course to play on is Celtic Manor's Twenty Ten Course--designed specifically for this year's event--you can take the Ryder Cup to any course that you like, and before you start playing you can even tweak your chosen team's roster. Because there are barely enough real golfers in the game to fill both rosters, female players like Paula Creamer and Suzann Pettersen make the cut by default, and if you want to swap them or any of the other players out, there are very few alternatives to choose from unless you dip into the opposing team. That it's possible to select European players for the US team and vice versa is strange to say the least, especially since Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 has no problem letting a player represent both teams simultaneously. If you mess with the default rosters too much, you might find that the game does have a problem remembering who is playing for which country and when, though, as evidenced by an American player wearing European colors while shooting for both teams, for example.
Look beyond the roster weirdness, and you find that the Ryder Cup mode's mixture of foursomes and fourballs is made much greater than the sum of its parts by the fact that when multiple matches are being played simultaneously, you have the option to play as a different team member every time you move to a new hole. Because the tournament employs a match play system, it doesn't matter how many shots you win a hole by, just that you win. So, with that in mind, if you manage to take a two- or three-hole lead as one golfer, it might make sense for you to lend your expertise to another. After every hole, you're presented with a scoreboard that shows where every player is on the course and whether they're winning, losing, or tied. Winning a round by one hole is worth as much to the team as winning a round by several holes, so playing through the whole tournament is an interesting balancing act.
Regardless of which of the numerous modes and gameplay options you're in, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11's visuals don't disappoint. All of the pro players are instantly recognizable, and other than some occasionally odd movements while walking, they're animated very well. Custom players can look every bit as good provided you don't go crazy with the editing tools, and depending on your taste in golf gear, you can make them look even better when you start spending your experience points (or real currency, if you prefer) in the pro shop. Courses are even more impressive, with lighting changes for different times of day, good-looking weather effects, and grass that--where it's long enough--moves in the wind along with the trees and even your golfer's clothing. The camera doesn't always do a good job of showing you what's going on when it tries to be clever on the putting green, but for the most part it does its job so well that you might wish the same thing were possible during TV coverage of the real thing. Your ears aren't in for the same treat that your eyes are, but last year's appalling commentary has at least been improved enough that it doesn't demand to be turned off.
That Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 improves on its predecessor is impressive. That it improves on it enough to be recommended without hesitation even if you own last year's game is remarkable. Even if you have little interest in the new Ryder Cup and online team modes, and don't anticipate playing with the new true-aim system, the introduction of focus along with a host of other less significant improvements out on the course still make this the golf game to own.