Free to play games are the ‘in-thing’ at the moment and EA have been making big strides in developing their presence in this scene. Their latest effort, Tiger Woods Online has left beta and is now open to the public, but the question is, is it any good?
The simple answer, is yes, though how good you think it is all depends on whether you are a paid member or a freeloading guest like me. Members get access to all the courses and all the tournaments for the length of your membership. As a guest you have to rely on the changing Open Courses which you can play for free, or you can purchase points to play a round on the locked courses.
Fortunately there are always open courses available if you don’t want to pay to play. At the time of writing there are three open courses, TPC Sawgrass, Pebble Beach and Torey Pines, three very good courses out of a current collection of twelve, this a roster which is currently expanding very rapidly. When you have chosen the course you want to play you enter a browser based MMO-lite game with chat functions and the ability to see the shots other people are playing at the same time as you on a hole. The game itself looks very nice considering it runs from your browser with the help of the Unity Player, the water effects are amongst the finest I have seen in any game, browser based or not.
When you are ready to tee off you can chose from two control methods, my favoured is three-click-swing where you click the mouse to control the power and accuracy of your shot. The other style is True Swing where you move the mouse back and forth to swing the club, fine for some, but I find it a bit fiddly, a control system more suited to a gamepad. On each hole you get a voice over fly-by, very slickly done and a good way to get some tips for how to approach the hole.
Outside of the action the MMO elements come to the fore, after completing a round you are awarded experience points and in-game cash. With the experience points you rise through the ranks of the game, this impacts on what tournaments you can play, some tournaments are for ranks 1-10 and others are for more experienced players. If you want to show off you can have a message appear on Facebook when you level up. In-game cash is used to develop your golfers’ skills in the Swing Trainer, here you can increase the power of your drives and the amount of fade or draw you can put on your shot. One of the most useful parts of the Trainer lets you buy more Putt Previews; these handy things let you see the route your ball will take on the green, great for fine tuning a putt to help you finish a round under par. You start off with only three previews, but you can buy more if you have the money. Some may consider them a form of cheating; personally I think they are a great tool to help out newbie’s.
There is also a Pro Shop where you can buy new clubs, balls or even new clothes to improve your shots or increase the money you earn at the end of a round. Basic items can be bought with in-game cash while more advanced ones require points, regardless of whether you are a member or not. An interesting aspect of the game is the Cut, if you play an 18-hole round and finish under a target score based on your skill level and the performance of others you will earn bonus experience points. You can really boost your experience by making the cut for successive days, it is a great tool for encouraging you to play every day. As a round can easily be completed in your lunch break you will find it easy keep your streak going. You can also sponsor other players in an attempt to earn more money from their success in beating the cut. You and your friends can also join groups to play with each other and set-up personalised tournaments (lookout for The Reticule group!).
A word about the costs is needed, you can purchase points on their own, at the moment 1000 points is £8, 2500 points is £20 and 5500 is £30. With courses at the moment costing 100 or 150 points to play for non-members they seem to provide decent value for money. Points will go faster in the Pro Shop as items last for a set number of rounds before they wear off so it is worth working out whether they are really worth it. Memberships can be bought on a month-by-month basis for £6.99 or you can buy a year’s membership with 1500 points for £44.99. You will have to pay that next year again if you want to keep access to all the courses.
The golf itself is really good and it feels accurate to what you are doing as long as a lag-spike doesn’t get in the way of things, and the MMO style features add a lot more to the game. I was unsure at first about how much you get from the game without paying, but while you are limited to the courses you can play on, there is plenty to do on a course with various challenges to complete and different difficulty settings to tweak around with. If you do want the full experience you will want to get a membership so you don’t have to worry about spending points to play on the courses.
It may not be a hole in one, it is more like an Eagle. If you like golf or golfing games then this is a must, even if you don’t then I recommend checking it out with a free membership, it is worth trying it out.