It’s another year, and another release of Tiger Woods PGA Tour for the Xbox 360, which EA’s release of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 08.  This year, the game adds recordings of every second of game play, which you can then upload to EA Sports GamerNet, allowing other people to share your experiences, and even try to top them.  The game also adds in a new Shot Confidence system, where the more confident you are, the better you play, and the better you play, the more confident you become.  Updates to the Photo Game Face system and the addition of the new FedEx Cup playoff courses with the usual additions to courses and professional players round out the options.

The question here is, with a new golf game coming out every year, is it enough of a change to justify spending $60 to play the latest game?  Read on, and see what we think about this title.

First off, the graphics in Tiger Woods 08 are very lush and beautiful, even on a standard television.  The game looks absolutely astounding, from the courses themselves, the trees, skies, all the way to the players.  The water reflects light and shimmers, the people move rather realistically, and the entire game is quite visually appealing.

There are really only a few issues with the game, graphically.  First off, as with many Xbox 360 titles, the text is very small, probably aimed at the higher resolutions that a HDTV will give you.  However, if you’ve got a SDTV, the text is almost unreadable unless you’re sitting only a few feet from the tube.  This could be solved by having the game sense what resolution the display is and resize the text as needed.  Not doing so is simply lazy, and unfortunately it seems to be quite widespread. 

Second, the Photo Game Face feature is very twitchy, at best.  The Xbox Live Camera is very light-senstive, and if you don’t have just the proper amount of light in the room you’re in, you won’t get a good facial image, and thus your character won’t look right.  More on this in the Gameplay section below.

As with just about every other EA Sports title (and again, many sports titles in general), EA feels the need to fill Tiger Woods 08 with more music that … honestly doesn’t have anything to do with the game itself.  This year, it’s a fair amount of Euro trance music.  Luckily, it’s not only mostly in the background, but is easily mutable.  But let’s be honest, who buys a game for the soundtrack anyway?  Yeah, it’s nice to hear songs in the background during a football, basketball or baseball game, but during a golfing event, it’s all about the silence, and music really doesn’t have much of a place in the game.

The commentary in the game this year is (as in previous years) by Gary McCord and David Feherty.  It’s quite solid, and there are a few times where the snarky comments got a chuckle out of me while playing the game.  There’s not a lot of repetition in the game, but again, it falls into the trap that many games with commentary run into:  Not every event in the game should be presented as if it was on television.  Major events?  Sure.  If you’re leading an event?  Fine.  If you’re an amateur golfer playing on the first hole, or twenty strokes back on Friday morning?  No, there shouldn’t be commentary, because you’re not that important in the grand scheme of things.  If the games made commentary a bit more rare, it’d feel more important when you were being talked about, and there’d be a whole lot less repitition.

If you’ve played Tiger Woods in the past few years, you know all about the analog control, where controlling your swing is as simple as moving the left analog stick.  Pulling the stick back pulls your club back, and pushing it forward moves the club forward to strike the ball.  The straighter your stroke is on the stick, the better your swing is.

The B button zooms your camera to the target, the X button changes your shot type depending on which club you’re using, the Y button resets your targetting circle, and the left and right triggers change your club.  You can also adjust your targetting circle and rotate your camera while zoomed in, and the right bumper changes the camera angle, while the A button and the left button can add power to your swing while pressed rapidly during the backswing.

There are additions, such as moving the draw/fade system to the left and right shoulder buttons with the B button pressed down, and the game features the usual amount of button mashing for putting spin on the ball and performing a power shot.  Unfortunately, especially early on in the game when your character’s stats are crap, the analog control is extremely sensitive, and you’ll find yourself slamming the ball at almost a 90 degree angle from where you’re standing pretty often. 

Returning to the game is the old-school tri-click sytem which was originally discarded because too many people thought it made golf too easy.  This is amusing, especially since the analog control system is too hard, especially this year.  Granted, it’s nice to see it back, if for no other reason than to give people the choice of how they want to control the game.  It’s really about the only thing that honestly gets close to saving the controls.

When you boot up Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, you immediately begin with the option to create your own golfer, or begin as a rookie Tiger Woods.  Going into the create mode, you’re then given the option to choose an image that’s pre-loaded into the game, or use the Photo Game Face feature. 

The Photo Game Face feature works by either using a USB camera to take images of the front and side of your face, or by sending in a picture to EA to have your photo recreated into an online image.  While I didn’t have a picture I felt comfortable sending in, I chose to use my Xbox Live Vision camera.  Since my living room doesn’t have what I would consider ‘perfect’ lighting, as I’ve got a ceiling light off to one side, a stand lamp in the back of the room, and windows along the right side, I noticed a problem with the process:  If you have poor lighting, or anything that isn’t perfect, your golfer will have…a bit of a skin problem.  I’m about as white as I can be, but the character that Tiger Woods created had a black ‘T’ in the front of his face, and the rest of his skin tone was dark as well.  The worst part?  You can’t go in and change the skin tone of a golfer created with the Photo Game Face feature.  This means that unless you have a good picture you want to send in, or have great lighting, it’s nearly impossible to get a good representation of yourself to show up in the game.  Basically, the technology is nice, but the implementation is lacking.

Once you create your golfer, however, going through the tons of customization features, you have a few choices:  You can either go through a number of Skills Training sessions, all of which use the same training range, which looks very similar to the one in Tiger Woods 07, you can play any of the game modes that were in Tiger Woods 07 or the one new mode that’s in this year — Bingo, Bango, Bongo.   Bingo, Bango, Bongo is where you play a hole of golf and get points for Bingo: the first to hit the green, Bango:  the closest to the pin when you hit the green, and Bongo: the lowest score on the hole. 

Other game options include the Tiger Challenge, which is much more in-depth this year, featuring smaller minigames and different challenge, and then the Career mode.  Career mode is…let’s just say that it’s very obvious that EA used a different development team for the PC and the 360 version, and it shows.  Your career mode options on the 360 consist of … the PGA Tour.  That’s right, as a newbie golfer who has never played anything before, you begin in the Champions Event, which supposedly is only for people who won a tour event the previous year.  Needless to say, with minimal stats, you have no way to win this or any other event. 

So how do you gain points in your skills, you might ask?  Why, you win Skills Challenges and Tiger Challenge events.  But you can’t go through challenges and build your golfer up to someone ready to challenge Tiger himself, no.  Periodically you’ll hit a cap in your skills, and the only way to surpass those caps is to beat mini boss matches in Tiger Challenges, which can be extremely frustrating early on, especially with the control issues which are excaberated by your golfer’s lower stats.

This is in stark contrast to the PC version’s career mode, where you start out as a guy playing with friends, trying to make it as an amateur first before ever sniffing the PGA tour.  Throwing you directly into the PGA tour without the ability to even make it most definitely not ‘in the Game’, as EA likes to think.

Online play is here as well, as is EA’s GamerNet, where you can upload shots or rounds to allow other players to attempt to beat your challenges.  You can also download challenges posted by other people, including ESPN celebrities, although outside of bragging rights, there’s very little reason to do that, and while you can play as any of the PGA or LPGA professionals in the game, really, like almost everything else in the game, until you get your golfer to the point where you can actually compete in the PGA Tour events, there’s honestly little reason to attempt any of these.

There’s also a number of bugs, where the game can’t seem to tell the difference between bouncing a ball off a roof and bouncing it off the pin (which is an Achievement).  The Achievements themselves have issues, as there are some tied directly into creating golfers with the Game Face option as well as some which are tied into uploading challenges to EA’s GamerNet.  It just feels like you need to spend hours upon hours building up a golfer to even make most of the game worth playing, and that’s honestly just not fun. 

If you’ve never owned a Tiger Woods game on the 360, Tiger Woods 08 really isn’t a bad choice, unless you happen to chance across Tiger Woods 06 or 07 first, since they’re basically the same game (especially Tiger Woods 07).  If you own either of those, however, there’s absolutely no reason to plunk down $60 for this title unless you have more money than you know what to do with.

The problem with having yearly sports games is that there’s never a huge amount of difference between this year’s version and last year’s, and that means that the incentive for upgrading is..minimal, at best.  Unlike other sports titles where roster updates (especially for rookies) mean that your team can signficantly change from year to year, in a golf game, there’s only minor changes, and to be honest, the addition of five new courses, one new gameplay mode, and an extended Tiger Challenge really isn’t worth the money.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of gameplay in the title, it’s just that most of it depends on spending hours within the Tiger Challenge and the Skills Challenges before your golfer is even close to being good enough to be competitive in the rest of the game’s content. 

Your best bet is to wait about six to eight months, and pick this up on the cheap, probably within a few months of the release of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09.