There isn't any question that the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series is technically superior to every other golf game on the market: It's deeper, the characters and courses are drawn with impeccable detail, the controls are unerringly precise, and the game modes continue to expand with each new entry. Other games may be more quirky and entertaining—Hot Shots Golf springs immediately to mind—but as sports simulators go, Tiger Woods is the next best thing to paying green fees at Augusta. And yet it's still hard to resist mocking it a little, because the game carries itself so stiffly: Think Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge from The Simpsons, and you're close to the utter lack of charisma that plagues the commentary, the inexpressive players, and Tiger himself. In other words, it's just like the real thing.
Like other EA Sports standards, Tiger Woods has added just enough bells and whistles to this year's model—no more, no less—to tantalize Tiger Woods 2005 owners into shelling out another 50 bucks. Some of the changes are technical, including a more sensitive swinging system that requires the use of both analog sticks. The added control makes the extra effort worthwhile, but the game's multiple stick and button options can be as aggravating as patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. But the big new feature is a Rivals mode that lets you travel back in time for Match Games against golfers from the turn of the century to the present. This feature could be fairly interpreted as Woods' superstar ego running wild, but it adds all kinds of fun dimensions to the game, such as decking out your player in period equipment and garb, with plenty of options for silly-looking top hats, knee-high "plus four" knickers, argyle socks, and leather boots. And what's nobler than unearthing long-dead golfing legends in order to stick it right back in their face?
Beyond the gameplay: Broadcasters David Feherty and Gary McCord provide generally adequate and helpful information on world-class golf courses that can be hard for novice players to navigate, but the catchphrases need some retooling. Can't they think of any colorful synonyms for the green besides "the dance floor"? Also, is it worth pandering to the kids by occasionally calling a weak player a "wiener"?
Worth playing for: Though it breaks from the game's realist aesthetic, miracle shots like 60-foot putts on a hard slope or stick-rattling eagles from a 150-yard approach are not only possible, but a regular occurrence for solid virtual golfers. And the slow-motion, letterboxed dramatics that accompany them let you raise your arms in triumph as the ball draws toward the magnetized hole.
Frustration sets in when: Golf wouldn't be golf without three-putts, bunker balls, and water hazards, but it never gets more frustrating than in stroke play, when one errant hole can sabotage 17 holes of perfection. And as with previous editions, the amount of time allotted for competitors' reaction shots can make match play a dull slog.
Final judgment: Tiger Woods is an essential golf title in any year, but owners of previous editions will have to ask themselves whether they want Jack Nicklaus to retire in peace, or suffer a little virtual ignominious defeat first.