As the eagle-eyed amongst will have already spotted, the sidebar now houses a ‘Currently Enjoying’ section. No prizes for guessing the nature of the content in that little area!

The two games I’ve been playing the most in recent times have been EA’s Tiger Woods 07 on the 360 and also Psychonauts on the PS2. Going from an HD 360 game to a PS2 game that, even on it’s release, was a little weak graphically and ran below 30 frames per second is a little unwieldy but I think it’s worth it.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for golf games. I don’t know why. I don’t watch or play the sport. I’ve enjoyed the games since before Leaderboard on the good old C64 with highlights being the original EA PGA games on PC and the Jack Nicklaus games. There’s a lot about Tiger Woods 07 that I like. I think the core golfing game is rock solid and, although it trips me up a lot, the swinging and aiming motion are a lot more appropriate the the 3-click method that used to be the staple control for golf games for aeons.

And whilst I believe EA’s effort plays a great game of golf there’s some really major blunders in some of the game’s interface and communications that leave me wondering what went on.

Now, I’m no EA hater. I don’t begrudge a company making heaps of cash (no, not even Nintendo). I respect a company that is smart and shrewd enough to know how to play the business game to maximum effect and I totally believe EA deserve to be where they are. I think they’re bloody great at what they do and receive an incredible amount of flak from people who neither understand games or the business of games. So I’m not going to rant and say EA suck, I’m going to detail the poorer aspects they’ve made in an otherwise very enjoyable and compelling golf game.

Menus are a bit of a pain to navigate. This is mainly as a result of the lack of wrap-around in them. You know the bit where you’re at the topmost item and tap UP on the controller and you expect the highlight to move to the bottom-most item? Doesn’t happen.

Having said that, the way you a sort of preview of the sub-menu before you select it can be useful and save a bit of to-ing and fro-ing.

Shopping is definitely something that is more trouble than it may be worth. You play the game, you earn winnings. You spend winnings on numerous items of clothing and accessories. You can choose clothing for it’s superficial qualities but many of the items you can buy modify your stats to some degree. When you’re looking through the catalogue you are shown what stat(s) may be modified and by what degree. So far, so good. The problem arises in that, if you are already using an item that modifies your stats the game doesn’t compare that item to the one you’re considering purchasing automatically. If you want to check this you have to navigate to the item you’re using, mentally note it’s qualities, go back to the new item and make a mental comparison.

This just makes the experience more longwinded and less helpful than it really needs to be. For example, you may have decided to push a specific stat up. Well, if you’re going to make the most of it you need to check all your in-use items to determine which ones affect the particular stat you’re interested in and then work through the items in other areas to see what works best.

This situation is actually made more unhelpful in that many items affect more than one type of statistic. Sure, this is common for games where you equip your character with stat-modifying items but, in nearly every game I’ve seen, you can see the effects on all your stats before you commit to any change. In Tiger Woods ’07 there is one screen to view each item’s stats (one at a time) and a totally seperate screen to display your stats. The bulk of the item select screen is occupied with your game avatar which displays and animates in accordance to the accessories you happen equipped with or previewing. This is completely superficial and, I imagine, could have been swapped with a stats display. The simplest way of having the best of both worlds would have been to add a button to change this area between stats and graphical avatar.
It’s kind of odd that there’s a very useful filtering option in the catalogue that allows you to display items that fit a certain criteria (own/don’t own, locked/unlocked, level 1/2/3/4 etc). I’m no stranger to the amount of work and thought that goes into a game’s interface design but it is almost immediately apparant that this is a far more uncomfortable experience than it needed to be. I’m led to wondering if this was made deliberately obtuse so as to make it a little less likely that players would modify their stats too easily. If that was the case then deliberately clunking up the interface is as graceful a way of controlling that situation as games using invisible walls to pen you in was.

All in all, the shopping experience is where you spend your prize money. You pick and choose your rewards. This should be simple and satisfying. It’s a shame that it’s not either of those things.

EA Trax – No. I’m not going to bemoan EA’s choice of muzak in their games. I totally understand their branding and efforts here. My TV has a volume control and the game has enough options to make this as unobtrusive as anyone wishes. Music is so ridiculously subjective that nobody will ever be totally satisfied with someone elses choice of playlist anyway so, really, bitching about music in EA Trax playlists is just a waste of time.

There is a reason I need to turn EA Trax off though.

When playing a round of golf in Tiger Woods ’97 the bottom left of the screen neatly and concisely displays information about your shot. The club, the distance from the pin, the lie of the ball, percentages and (I think) wind speed and direction. It’s all there. (although par and yardage wouldn’t have hurt either). It’s neat, it’s functional, it works.

Thing is, when a new track starts playing, this information panel is entirely obscured by the pop-up EA Trax information panel showing song, band and label information. This panel stays on screen for about 5 seconds before sliding away again.
When I say the shot area is obscured I don’t meant partially or that it becomes semi-transparent. The entire area, pixel for pixel, is replaced by the EA Trax panel. Now, considering there’s three other corners of the screen the game could be using its amazingly strange and inconvenient that EA chose to use the exact size, shape and placement of the essential shot information area to display their EA Trax information. The solution would be simple – use another corner!

Now, I’m absolutely certain that EA have to show the EA Trax information if they’re playing licenced music. That’s all probably detailed in a long and boring contract. That’s fine, I accept that. It’s also very possible that, since many EA games use the EA Trax thing that, development wise, there’s chunk of code that deals with this that’s simply plugged into varios EA games. It would make sense – why write the same code to do the same function over and over again – write it once, use it many times. So, maybe that’s what they do and maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the placement of the EA Trax panel is hard-coded and simply has to occupy that area of the screen. OK then – you’ve still got three other corners – move the shot information panel to one of those!

Admittedly, five seconds of having the shot information panel being obscured by the EA Trax panel is not the end of the world. But when you’re playing a mode in the game with a time-limit per shot (such as online games or timed challenges) it really becomes an annoyance.

What’s next?

‘In The Cup!’ is a slogan that slides by in certain game modes when you get the ball in the hole (or cup). It’s presented nicely, scrolls for a few seconds and then fades out – giving you a sense of achievement. Great.

However, there’s some game modes where you attempt to complete three or four holes in a pretty tight time limit. You work fast, get your first hole and watch the ‘In The Cup!’ slogan do its thing. Then you realise that timer is still counting down while this is going on and you’ve lost three seconds out of your 60 and you’ve still another two cups to go (meaning you’ll lose another three seconds at the very least). Great. Another poor choice! Showing the message is fine – but it’s meant to convey achievement. In these timed game modes it actually serves as a penalty because you’re losing precious seconds as the game slaps you on the back. Another example of something good becoming something bad through a poor decision.

Online lag is somehow present. Now, I’ve only played a few games online and I’ve never hosted. I have a 4mb connection which I’m perfectly happy with. I’ve played Gears of War online and not seen any noticeable lag. Now, I’m guessing that Gears of War is a more demanding game with more to keep track of per-cycle (what with it’s faster pace and up 8 players running around at once) than Tiger Woods ’07. After all, golf is, by it’s nature, a turn-based game. Only one thing is going on at a time and, typically, it’s all done in the instant your shot is made. The rest of the turn is spent watching the shot played out. This part will certainly be handled locally – the calculations will have been taken from whichever player took the shot and then just played out on each 360 connected to the game. Sure, there may still be considering information to take care of but nothing along the lines of a more frenetic game.

So why is there lag? Why do I sometime fail to see a play swing or the ball move but see a spray of earth and then the shot change to view the ball flying through the air? Why does a friend’s ball come to the end of it’s roll and then disappear and reappear about a foot away? I suspect I know why, these are rhetorical questions.

Being silenced at the end of an online game is the final issue I want to mention. When joining an online game there is a simple lobby area. You can text-chat and voice chat. When the game and players are set you go and play. So far, so good. At the end of the game, after the last hole has been sunk you get thrown back to a result screen and then to the main menu. In doing so you are instantly cut off from the people you’ve been playing. No warnings, no second chances just dumped.

This can be worked around to some degree if you start a voice chat via the 360 dashboard instead of through the game’s lobby system. Even so, it’s a pretty abrupt way to end a game.

And that’s it. All of these points happen consistently in the game and are immediately apparent to most people. On their own they don’t really detract from the enjoyment of what is a really good, challenging, satisfying and rewarding golf game. There’s no doubt about it that Tiger Woods ’07 is a great golf game. A little more serious than the chibi-golf games you see from Japan but, hey, it’s official so there you go. I recommend it to anyone who likes a detailed game of golf and it’s great fun online.

These individual issues can all rear their heads through a single play session though and I can’t imagine any QA technician not spotting them, they’re simply too obvious. It’s just a shame such consistent and obvious quirks were not dealt with and were left to detract from what I think is a fabulous golf game. I’ll still be playing it day in, day out for a long time yet and I’ll still be enjoying nearly every second of it.

If you have the game, look me up and we’ll play a few holes!

2 thoughts on “Fore!”
  1. I love this game on the Wii, despite the fact that the Wii version looked like a poor PS2 game and has no online. Got to agree with you on the shopping front though.

  2. If you’ve seen the Koff in real life, you’ll appreciate how scarily accurate his golfing avatar is (kudos to the EA GameFace(tm) for that) – but as I told him, the head isn’t quite big enough!

    Still for a n00b he plays a mean 18holes of Skins! 😉

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