Although Tiger Woods himself is (obviously) still at the forefront of proceedings this year, up-and-coming Irishman Rory McIlroy appears alongside him on the packaging of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11. It doesn’t need to be stressed with any real muscle that Tiger Woods hasn’t exactly had the greatest twelve months in history, but the great man is golfing’s solitary bona fide icon, and arguably the only one that the sport has ever produced. Whilst the old idiom about bad publicity has never been more accurate – and this will probably prove to be the most successful release in the franchise’s prestigious history – it seems odd that golf’s perennial poster boy appears have been apprehensively shifted to one side here. EA have said publicly that this decision was made before the scandal broke, and that it was a tool used to draw attention to the game’s new Ryder Cup mode.

Whether that is actually true or not is moot, because drawing attention to the new Ryder Cup mode is a move of outright ingenuity. Although the competition isn’t massively prominent (especially in America) the structure of the tournament, which involves twelve of the US’s finest battling it out against a dozen Europeans, has seemingly been created purely for exploitation in videogames such as this. It consists of a series of three different match play competitions; two teams of two taking part in ‘foursome’ matches in which players on each team use the same ball and alternate throughout the game; ‘fourplay’ is identical except that each golfer plays his own ball; and standard singles matches. It has such an unusual structure for a golf tournament that it does take a little getting used to, but once you adapt to it you’ll be hopeful that the mode is included in every series iteration from hereon in.

Because not only do the Ryder Cup modes encourage genial co-op play at home, the online component, in which you can construct and host your own version of the tournament (or just leap into someone else’s if you wish) represents the best way yet to enjoy Tiger Woods online. With the emphasis on teamwork rather than mere steely conflict, the cordial atmosphere of the sport is amplified superbly, and whilst countless other online games struggle to maintain the interest of their players (with so many of them founded on the application of unmitigated aggression) it isn’t hard to picture bountiful lobbies full of people in this one for way beyond the foreseeable future. In our experience with the online modes the visuals were every bit as crisp as they are in the campaign, and there were no frame-rate problems and no lag whatsoever.

Modifications to the gameplay are all successful though relatively minor – impressive real-time wind makes things realistically unpredictable, and the aiming circle is now much less accurate, which demands pitch-perfect precision in your shots – but there are two exceptions. The new ‘True Aim’ camera setting only allows you to see what your golfer would see, and it makes things initially very difficult. But how this change coerces you into relying on your own smarts makes the thrill of pulling off a perfect stroke completely intoxicating. Similarly, the new ‘Focus Meter’ means that you aren’t given free reign to modify your arsenal at will any more, and using accuracy and power boosts, previewing your putts or using ball spin all slowly deplete it, infusing each course with a totally refreshing facet of contemplative strategy.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 now faces exactly the same problem as EA’s other recent sporting masterpiece FIFA 10. By adding polish to the few areas that needed it and gently refining everything that worked wonderfully well in the first place, both franchises have apparently reached some kind of creative apex, and in the same way that FIFA 10 still surprises and smacks you about the head with its indelible freshness almost ten months after its release, the latest Tiger Woods game genuinely feels like one for the ages. Really, seriously… how on earth are the development teams behind either title ever going to top them? There is little doubt that they’ll find some way of pulling it off, but for now this is a game that simply has to be played, whether you’re a golfing aficionado or not.

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