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After strolling the links in the closed beta of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, we've discovered that EA might be onto something here. This is a game that comes to you completely through your browser, streaming via a small plug-in called the Unity Player. Since everything is hosted on the server, the game is playable on practically any recent Windows or Mac machine. And since the server takes care of everything, you can pause and resume your game from different machines. Even if your boss walks in while your shot's in the air, forcing you to frantically close your browser, you'll pick up from the same shot the next time you log in.
But here's the surprising thing: Though the game is certainly streamlined from its bigger siblings on console and PC, the core gameplay experience is shockingly similar. In a browser. With multiple tabs open. And a couple other programs running in the background.
If you've played any of the recent Tiger Woods releases, the experience will be very familiar: You'll swing your way through painstakingly recreated courses using either a venerable three-click shooting system or the Tiger franchise's trademark "TrueSwing" system, in which you swing your club by simply drawing back and flicking forward on your mouse. This edition brings back the putt preview (an on-again, off-again feature of the franchise), and in this early stage the TrueSwing seems a bit hypersensitive, but the on-the-course gameplay is otherwise almost identical to recent Tiger games. You even get a narrated intro for each hole.
It's off the greens that the big changes appear. For one thing, Tiger Woods Online currently includes just five courses. Now, they're five of the best: Pebble Beach, TPC Sawgrass, Sheshan Golf and Country Club, St. Andrews and Wolf Creek Golf Club. But even so, the limited lineup could be a bone of contention for players. Fortunately, EA expects to add new courses based on community feedback.
Also absent are the ridiculously deep golfer-customization options featured in recent Tiger titles; here you get your choice between just four pre-set golfers, with customization limited to clothing and accessories purchased in the pro shop. (This, too, could change as the game evolves - remember that the game is still in beta.)