In golf, change is a process so gentle it’s almost undetectable to the naked eye. The courses – developed by men from original ideas by Mother Nature – quietly assimilate themselves into the natural landscape in stark contrast to the soft power sporting palaces constructed elsewhere by billionaire U.S. businessmen and Russian oligarchs. The players are the Galápagos Tortoises of the sports world. The slow erosion of one generation’s dominance by the next allowing the likes of Tom Watson to come within a chip and a putt of winning The Open Championship at the age of 59.
With such a sedate mentality, and without a spoon-fed diet of squad updates and scandal (aside from the philandering fairwaysman’s own activities) it’s impressive that Electronic Arts have managed to sustain an animal like Tiger for so long.
Last year, EA managed to cover up the fact that they were seriously short of ideas and struggling to squeeze Tiger into their one-size-fits-all sports franchise model, by finally laying their hands on golf’s Holy Grail: The Masters. But Tiger 13’s arrival so soon after its much heralded predecessor only serves to accentuate just how dry the well has run.
That isn’t to advocate for a second that Tiger 13 doesn’t play a decent round of golf. In fact, strip away all the unnecessary additive ingredients included to sweeten things for the mass market and EA’s accountants, and Tiger 13 is probably the best golfing simulator ever to grace a home console.
EA’s search for a spark of inspiration has led them to do exactly the same thing as all golfers who’ve been doing the rounds for a while: tinker with their swing. Tiger 13 sees a major overhaul of shot mechanics, dispensing entirely with the traditional 3-click swing option and focusing solely on refining the shot stick controls to make them as realistic and responsive as possible.
Known as Total Swing Control (because it’s illegal to publish a sports game these days without introducing at least one self-importantly named new feature that sounds like it’s been developed by the boffins at NASA), the new system still sees you hitting shots by approximating a golf swing with a rhythmic down-then-up movement on the left analog stick. The difference this time around, is the game’s enhanced sensitivity, not only to how straight you keep the stick and how far and fast you move it, but also to adjustable factors such as your stance and contact point with the ball in determining its final destination.
It’s a laudably exacting and frequently maddening creation. The first truly three dimensional golf swing mechanic I’ve ever seen in a golf game, with a white line arcing around your player to guide your back swing and instant performance feedback after every swipe of the club head enabling it to assist and instruct with the requisite precision. It perfectly conveys why real golfers spend so much money employing swing Svengalis to help them find inner peace balancing the yin and yang of such an apparently simple motion.
By making simply swinging the club that much more complex, however, EA are at risk of alienating all but the most hardcore of players. So to widen Tiger 13’s appeal beyond the plus fours fraternity, the game goes to great lengths to include a suite of assists that water down Total Swing Control enough to make it borderline irrelevant.
The caddie returns to once again advise on setting up your shots. Although it’s extremely disappointing to see him reduced from the fully voiced physical companion he was last year to a checklist of, often unnecessarily complicated, recommendations. Surely EA aren’t having to lay off virtual members of staff.
Beyond him, however, the rest of the aids are so artificial, they basically transform you into a club-swinging super hero. The putt preview is back, less restricted than before for even more precognitive help in holing out, and then there’s the borderline telekinetic ability to add spin to shots whilst the ball is in the air, which for some inexplicable reason you can do everywhere except The Masters. Perhaps azaleas are Golf Man’s kryptonite.
Trumping all these though, is Tiger 13’s disposal with the Focus system it had been developing over its last few iterations in favour of Pins – first-person-shooter-esque perks that provide temporary stats boosts or allow you to perform minor miracles like calming the wind. The real world equivalent would be Rory McIlroy birdying a par four after fondling a four leaf clover.
At first the switch seems purely arbitrary. A sad case of change for change’s sake. The reality, disappointingly, is much more unpleasant.
While pins can be brought with in-game coins earned alongside experience points during play, packs of improved and replacement ones can also be purchased with real money. In only a microscopic improvement over Tiger 12, a similar system also now applies to many of the courses, a significant number of which are initially locked. And, predictably, the balancing of this secondary economy means that a little money saves a hell of a lot of effort.
Paid additional content is nothing new in sports games. The big difference is that nowhere else is what’s withheld so fundamental to the core experience. It’s an insidious means of sustaining Tiger as a yearly franchise when there’s little compelling evidence to suggest it should continue as one. I’m sure EA would never dream of discriminating again black or female players (whether or not they’re called Virginia Rometty) but they seem to have no problem putting as many obstacles as they can in the way of poor ones. So perhaps the game’s depiction of golf really isn’t that unrealistic after all.
The exclusive courses leave a stain on what is, once again, a long and otherwise well-crafted career mode that charts your trek from the anonymity of the amateur ranks to world number one and Masters champion. Alongside it, the Legacy mode allows you to replay all the defining moments in Tiger’s growth into golf’s apex predator. Part tutorial, part challenge mode, part interactive golfing biography, it’s the anti-Hank Heney version of Tiger’s tale. Colourer by its use of rose-tinted glasses and sepia tones, Legacy mode paints Tiger’s life as an eerily lonely one. A kind of PGA Films alternative production of I Am Legend.
Online, the new Country Clubs are an intelligent addition to the already popular daily and weekly tournaments. By allowing you to associate yourself with other likeminded players for competitive and social events, as well as mutual financial benefit – everyone in a Country Club receives extra coins for its activities – they operate scarily like real golf clubs.
Tiger 13 also incorporates Kinect support for the first time and the results are as expected. The system’s motion recognition controls, which have you swinging an invisible club in front of your TV rather than using a controller, work best when presented with broad movements, but aren’t so clever when it comes to more intricate ones.
For the most part, what this means is that, unless you’re slurring your swing mechanics like you’ve just staggered onto the tee after an all-night drinking session with John Daly, Kinect does a decent line in forgiveness. That is until you hit the putting surface when you seem to quantum leap into the body of Sergio Garcia, struggling to find the hole even from spitting distance.
Some decidedly underwhelming commentary, dated visuals and occasional alarming frame rate stutters do nothing to dispel the notion that Tiger isn’t currently getting the continuous R&D an annual franchise needs. While Total Swing Control is an impressive development, there’s so little else new around it and so much of that seems to be there on Electronic Arts’ account rather than the player’s. Someone on Team Tiger needs to recognise that the most important change to be made here isn’t that rattling around in EA’s wallet.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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