When it was announced that the new version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour would feature the Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club, no one was more excited than I. As a golfer, a watcher of golf, and a gamer, I had hoped for years that somehow EA would manage to convince the powers that be at Augusta that it would be beneficial for everyone involved to have one of the premiere golf courses in the world included on the premiere golf simulation franchise.
EA Sports' tagline has been "if it's in the game, it's in the game," and as one of the four Majors of the PGA Tour, not having the Masters in the game was a problem. After playing the new version of Tiger Woods, which is burdened with the somewhat unwieldy name of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: the Masters, I am now a little worried that having the Masters in the game is something of a problem.
For this latest version of the franchise, the career mode—the meat and potatoes of the game—has been revamped and retitled, it is now "The Road to the Masters" and everything that you do as a golfer in the game is about getting to the Masters. As a huge fan of the simulation aspects of Tiger Woods, I have loved the versions which featured a nice calendar and where, once you made your way up from the Nationwide Tour to the PGA Tour you would play in events that mimicked those the pros were playing in on any given week of the calendar year. For several iterations, EA Sports seemed to make sure as best they could that whatever courses the US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship were at that year were included in the title and so when you went to play those Majors you were playing at the correct course. Add to that the fact that you could go online during those weekends and simulate the real world weather conditions at the event and have your score compared to those of the pros, and it was simulation golf heaven (even if I could belt a 320 yard shot down the middle of the fairway, which is nothing I could ever hope to accomplish in real life).
While you can still go online this year, the calendar is a thing of the past. In career mode you do still work your way up from an EA Sports Amateur Tour to the Nationwide Tour, through Q School, and then onto the PGA Tour. You get to progress by completing certain objectives (finishing in a certain position or better for a number of matches), and once you're on the PGA Tour and have your rank crack the Top 100 you're allowed to play in a major (including the Masters). Each tournament is presented to you as the next that you're allowed to play and within that course you then can play a round against a computer player in one of a variety of golf games (skins, match, battle, etc.) and in sponsor events before finally entering the tournament proper. You can also earn an exemption to get to play in the Masters by completing a nine challenges which simulate historical moments at the tournament.
It is all very well presented, and Augusta National looks absolutely beautiful as a course, but the Masters is but one of four Majors in the world of golf, and to have the entire game focus itself on getting to this single tournament—which isn't even the tournament that decides who wins the FedEx Cup—inaccurately skews the whole simulation. The Masters and Augusta should be represented in Tiger Woods PGA Tour, and it should be represented because it is one of the four Majors, not because it is the be all end all of the PGA Tour. However, this version of the game gives the impression that it just might be.
Moving away from the career mode, also new to Tiger Woods this year is the addition of a caddie to help you choose your shot before each and every swing (except if it's a really long putt in which case the caddie mysteriously walks off to get a hotdog or a soda without informing you that he's chickening out of helping). Prior to each shot, the caddie will step into view next to your golfer and offer up some shot choices and the landing area for those shots along with giving you an idea of just how difficult the shots are to hit.
In my playing of the game though, I found his choices to rarely mimic what my own would be, and while the AI used to create the caddie may be good, the fact that the caddie can't add into his computations the personal preferences of the golfer he is going out with, no matter how many rounds you play with him, makes him that much more frustrating. He is easy enough to turn off, but you still see him when setting up your shot, and he's just taking up space there on the screen. He may help folks unfamiliar with the game or the course make better choices, but the fact that there is no dialogue, no back and forth, really hampers his ability to help more experienced players. Beyond that, EA states that "as the user's course mastery improves, so does the quality of the caddie's shot recommendations." I can't say that I saw such a change in my experimenting with him, but if I'm reading the statement correctly, that seems to mean that the recommendations you get early on from your caddie may not be so good, and that wholly undercuts the idea that beginners should use him to gain a feel for how to approach a course and a hole.
As for the graphics, they are, unfortunately a mixed bag. The vast majority of the time courses look utterly fantastic and the way nearly everything is represented is beautiful. However, there are certainly moments when elements of a course—I most often noticed the problem with the edges of bunkers—shift repeatedly between the correct image and a static-y, indistinct one. When this occurs, it isn't only while the ball is in flight or on a flyover of the hole, but rather the entire time you're at that part of the course – before, during, and after the shot.
Additionally, none of the edges around your golfer are well represented. There is a distinctly murky area around your golfer nearly the entire time they are on the course. This area is noted by large, blocky pixels and sometimes a thick outline and gives the impression that where they real they would be standing in front of a green screen with the course CGI-ed in behind them. Simply put, they don't always feel as though they are present on the course.
Included again this year is the EA Sports GameFace which allows you to upload pictures of yourself to the EA website and then import them to the game so as to better simulate your own likeness. As the game itself acknowledges with the numerous humorous statements that run across your screen as the system processes your face, it takes an incredibly long time. That would be perfectly satisfactory if it then presented you with a version of yourself which was again fully customizable should it make an error in animating you. That isn't the case though and the first time I uploaded my pictures, the entire right side of my face was covered with what appeared to be severe scarring that I do not actually have (at least as far as I can tell). As that sort of problem can't be corrected once it's there, I uploaded new pictures, waited again, and was eventually rewarded with a far better result. GameFace is, without a doubt, a completely fascinating potential addition to EA Sports' titles as a whole, but it still doesn't feel quite ready for primetime.
As for the audio, Jim Nantz and David Feherty provide the play-by-play and color commentary. They both do so with the insights that are at times interesting, at times informative, and at times just plain wrong. One year maybe we'll see a version of this game where the broadcasters are able to always correctly state where the ball will end up or be smart enough if they are unsure to say nothing at all. This is not that year.
One other thing which has always puzzled me about the Tiger Woods franchise must also be mentioned – the way the game handles balls that end up in hazards. New this year is the fact that drop zones on par threes for every course (16 on the disc, 18 downloadable with PS3 and 360) are accurately presented in accordance with what they are in reality (unless the course is a fantasy course). What the game still doesn't do however is offer on any hole is the choice of dropping on the correct line by no nearer the pin or rehitting your shot (a choice you are offered on a real course). As other golf titles offered this choice more than a decade ago it seems inconceivable that EA Sports can't somehow include it in Tiger Woods.
Perhaps I am being nitpicky. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters does a whole lot that is right and a whole lot that is wonderful. Perhaps it is because it handles so much so well that when it makes a mistake its errors are that much more apparent, that much more glaring. While that certainly may be partially true, it is hard to contemplate a world in which the revamping of the career mode to one which focuses so heavily on a single golf tournament could have been a good idea. That is, it's hard to contemplate such a world unless this was what EA had to sacrifice for a single year to get Augusta National included in its course lineup, in which case I suggest you wait until next year to buy the title. It is my hope that come Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, we are back to a more realistic footing for the career mode and that Augusta is still present. The course should be a part of the game, but in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 the cost of its presence is simply too high.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.
Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters on Blogcritics.