For a sport that spent its formative years in plus fours, and still regards a pair of tartan trousers as the height of sartorial refinement, it’s rather appropriate that the highest accolade in golf isn’t some gaudy trophy, but an ill-fitting jacket in a rather unwise shade of emerald green.
Of course, it’s not what the green jacket is, it’s what it represents that’s important, and to Electronic Arts, that’s an awful lot. With no Ryder Cup this year and Tiger Woods currently spending some time on the putting green in purgatory for chasing the wrong kind of birdies, EA desperately needed a headlining new feature to lure players back onto the links. So for them, finally landing the licence for golf’s most prestigious event, the Masters, is almost as big as winning the tournament itself.
Vitally, EA’s Tiburon studio has managed to capture not just the look, but, more importantly, the feel of the Masters and the Augusta National course on which it’s played. From Jim Nantz’s reverential introductory voice-over and the TV-style presentation, to the way Rae’s Creek winds itself lazily around Amen Corner and the recreation of ever historic bump, hollow and Azalea petal using laser scanning technology, everything here is appropriately accurate and pristine. To golfing disciples like me, this is hallowed ground, and despite this being only a simulation, it still feels like an auspicious occasion to finally be able to tee it up next to Jack Nicklaus and walk where Arnold Palmer strode.
Just as important as all this dewy-eyed nostalgia, however, is EA’s success in replicating the severe challenge the most famous eighteen holes in golf presents. While on the surface, the perfectly manicured course has all the benign tranquillity of a stately home’s grounds, beneath the serenity lies a horrific test of skill. At EA’s Augusta, just as in reality, the greens are lightening quick, and balls don’t so much sit on them as perch uncomfortably, ready to take flight again should they be unsettled by nothing more than a threateningly cast shadow or the slightest breath of wind.
While you can play a round at Augusta whenever you like, the game also provides you with the opportunity to try and emulate some of the greatest moments in Master’s history, including Phil Mickleson’s escapology act from the undergrowth in 2010 and, of course, all of Tiger’s finest achievements. It’s certainly not a new idea for a sports franchise. FIFA, Madden and NBA 2K have all recently incorporated variations on the theme. But I did find that this being videogame’s inaugural trip down to Georgia, added an extra novelty and gravitas to the scenarios here.
Besides the Masters, the other big new presence in this year’s game is your caddie, who provides you with constant companionship on the course. Fully voiced, with an impressive amount of variety and relevance to his comments, he’s always there with an unflinching faith in you that often stretches beyond your abilities. Every time you address the ball, he considers all the elements in play and presents you with different possible shot options, each one ready to play and handily colour-coded by risk level. It’s then just down to you to choose the one you want and swing away.
The caddie is the ultimate contextual assist system. He’s exactly the kind of faithful sidekick any golfer, especially a novice, would want, and as your mastery of each course grows, so will his talents. In fact, the caddie provides such a comprehensive service, I found it all too easy to come to rely on him too much, which can slightly backfire as there are times when his advice is either not the best, or enragingly, non-existent. Constantly using him does also mean that you miss out on much of the strategy that makes golf what it is, but if you’re after this, you can, of course, ignore him and set up your own shots. Although, when you do, the camera can be incredibly stubborn to move around.
In respect of the rest of Tiger 12’s gameplay, little has changed. Once again, you have the option to play your shots by flicking the controller’s analog stick or jabbing on its buttons, with the swing stick still a challenge to use accurately when finesse is required. The Focus system also returns, still artificially granting you extra power, spin and accuracy on your shots, while the series continues to recreate the effects of different ball lies on shots impeccably. In the one slight change of huge significance, EA have, at last, got the putting just right. It demands precision accuracy, meaning many a dream will still die on the green, but now it’s exactly as difficult and rewarding as it should be.
In recent outings, the FedEx Cup formed a rather tepid climax to Tiger’s single player career, so it’s no surprise that this year, the experience-point-driven climb up the golfing ladder has been refocused and rebranded Road to the Masters. It’s a distinct improvement, but surprisingly not so much due to the change in final destination as the difficulty and pace of progression now being pitch perfect.
The continual stream of different objectives and awards derived from the standard stroke play tournaments, and the alternative events (Skins, Stableford etc.) and sponsors’ challenges that surround them, means you’re constantly improving your abilities and equipment. As a consequence, much of the frustrating struggle and grind has been avoided and I always felt as if I was advancing towards my ultimate goal at a speed appropriate to my current capabilities.
Of course, this being EA in 2011, Tiger 12 does offer you the chance to purchase plenty of downloadable content. Most of this is perfectly reasonable additional fare, but while I have no problem with using Microsoft Points to fast track your way to better equipment if that’s how you want to play, finding that I was barred from certain PGA Tour events unless I stumped up extra for the courses they were held on is completely unforgivable. Especially as neither the home of this year’s U.S. or British Open Championships are included on the disk.
For a spot of more light-hearted fun, Tiger 12 also includes Augusta’s Par 3 course and it’s now standard range of multiplayer and mini-game options such as Battle Golf and Bingo, Bango, Bongo. Once again, all these are complimented by a fulsome range of online features including daily, weekly and Play-the-Pros tournaments as well as ranked and unranked matches for all basic match types and skill levels. Golf is very much a social sport, and there really isn’t anything better than connecting with others for a serious round or just to see who can hit the most audacious shots.
Despite the serious infringement of fair play EA have committed with the downloadable courses, with its inspired career, caddie and putting changes, and the most iconic and illustrious competition in golf at last gracing the game with its presence, Tiger 12 is the best release in the series since Tiger 09. Even if, for the real Tiger Woods, the era of the aura is finally over, thanks to Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, springtime in Georgia and the Tiger videogame franchise are both currently in full bloom.
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