Review: Electronic Arts Tiger Woods PGA Tour
March and April have been very good months for golf fans with iPod touches or iPhones. First, Gameloft delivered the cartoony, beautiful Let's Golf, and just as April draws to a close, Electronic Arts has finally released Tiger Woods PGA Tour ($10), a competing option that will appeal more to serious, detail-focused golfers and less to ones who see price, Wi-Fi multiplayer, or "fun" touches as critical.
The bullet point listing of Tiger Woods’ advantages over Let’s Golf is fairly simple: EA is offering seven different PGA courses with 126 holes versus Gameloft’s four courses and 63 holes; it also includes the likenesses of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Annika Sorenstam, and Natalie Gulbis, plus a more sophisticated character customization system to let you make your own player. Though this system oddly opens with a skin color meter and a gender toggle, then continues through a very short series of clothing color and style selections, rather than including features such as body size, face, or dimensional adjustment, it’s more versatile up front than Gameloft’s unlockable item-based character customizer, and lets players use earned in-game cash to buy additional equipment. Prices seem amusing at first—a $5,500 starting price for a tee, a $3,250 pitching wedge, and so on—but they’re actually just proxies for enhanced stability, pitching performance, more accurate putts and the like.
You thankfully needn’t purchase any of these items in order to really enjoy playing this title. EA has come up with a touch-based control scheme that’s entirely different from Gameloft’s more traditional metering system for Let’s Golf, requiring you to first swipe an on-screen ball downwards to pick your power level—generally, the indicated number of yards reachable by your current club—then upwards either straight or on a curve to shoot left or right. This system, and some smart accompanying interface tweaks to enable precision targeting, becomes completely intuitive by the third hole, and is a truly excellent way of using a touchscreen for golfing action. It gives you more of a sense of interactivity and control than Let’s Golf, and generally scales nicely to the putting system, which adds caddy aiming tips and refocuses the power meter to help you sink putts more frequently. If you miss or make a shot, you generally feel like your skill’s responsible, and that’s what a good game control scheme should do.
Aesthetically, though both games use 3-D engines that let you watch the ball as it soars through the air towards the end of each hole, Tiger Woods PGA Tour isn’t precisely comparable to Let’s Golf because of some very different design choices the companies have made. Gameloft went with a bright, cheery color palate, highly detailed background art, surprising little ambient animations, and a decent frame rate. Playing Let’s Golf courses constantly has you focusing on lens flares, tree details, and things going on around you. By comparison, EA’s courses are rendered with more muted, deliberately realistic colors, and though the course scenery is less complex and there’s much less ambient animation—you don’t see leaves falling, planes streaking across the sky, or other effects—the courses all look very good, and everything proceeds at a smoother frame rate. Tiger Woods and his counterparts all move so much, and so smoothly, that you tend to focus on them rather than the courses, which use a more obvious level of detail-adjusting engine to constantly manage how many polygons and what sorts of textures are being displayed for course artwork. Neither game has the sort of perfectly clean textures or beautiful water effects we’d like to see, nor any sort of crowd presence, but they’re still both great uses of the iPhone OS’s 3-D hardware. We’d give the visual edge overall to Let’s Golf because of its detailed courses and more vibrant colors, but we prefer EA’s interface, character models, and character animations.
Audio is similarly approached differently by the two companies. Let’s Golf uses upbeat in-game music and sparing but clear voice samples, plus in-game shot sound effects that are designed to be more interesting than realistic. Lacking music, EA’s courses use constant, two-person play-by-play and commentary voice samples, plus environmental audio effects that range from impressively subtle and cool—faint bagpipe music in the winds at St. Andrews—to sort of bland elsewhere. Tiger Woods’ audio helps bring the courses to life, while Let’s Golf’s helps keep the action feel fun. Once again, it’s different strokes for different folks.
Depth is one way in which Tiger Woods trumps Let’s Golf. While Gameloft has done a great job of offering a quick “Instant Play” mode that grabs a few holes at random from multiple courses and drops you into a game with little effort, EA’s quick play alternative takes a little more time to set up and can produce random three-hole selections from a specific course. By contrast, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has a complete tournament play mode with a calendar of events, cash entry fees and prizes, and numerous rule and team play rules to choose from. You can adjust green and fairway speeds, rough length, tee colors and pin types, too. But whereas Gameloft includes a wireless multiplayer mode, EA doesn’t; it’s you against zero to three CPU players or handed-off friends.
The final major factor to consider here is pricing. EA has repeatedly gone for high initial price points on its titles and showed less interest than other companies in lowering those prices over time; Gameloft by comparison more frequently offers its products at aggressive initial prices, then adjusts downwards later as appropriate. Tiger Woods PGA Tour sells for $10 versus Let’s Golf at $6, but it also includes many additional holes spread across three more courses, and includes additional tournament depth that Gameloft is missing. In our view, and though we don’t say this often, EA has done a very good job of justifying a $10 asking price here—the absence of wireless multiplayer and more flashy artwork are the biggest things that we’d cite as missing for a flat A rating.
Overall, Tiger Woods PGA Tour is an excellent golf game for the iPhone and iPod touch, providing the sort of great controls, smooth graphics, and longevity we look for in top games for the iPhone OS platform. While Let’s Golf may offer a few aesthetic and other frills that we’d loved to have seen here, there’s no doubt that Tiger Woods is the best iPhone OS golf game currently available for serious golf fans; as compared with the less ambitious prior iPod version, it demonstrates conclusively just how closely Apple’s devices can rival Sony and Nintendo portable devices for certain genres of games.