For 24 years, the PGA Tour series has dominated the world of golfing simulations, its hegemony threatened only by the mostly PC-based Links series – and the more approachable Everybody’s Golf.
Tiger Woods has been the cover star since 1998, but considering his wane in fortunes, it is understandable that he has been bundled into a golf cart and sent on his way. Now Rory McIlroy, who looks just as fiercely motivated and skilled as the young Tiger once did, will front a fresh chapter for the series.
At first, long-time fans will most likely find the absence of Woods jarring, at first. It feels strange to begin the “Prologue” section of the game and find McIlroy staring back at you recanting his own experiences, rather than reliving some of Tiger’s many achievements. But the nostalgia fades as McIlroy, directly addressing the player, talks about how it feels to stand on the opening tee in the final round of a major championship. It is unusually candid, offering a lot more insight than most golfers ever would in a TV interview.
The true purpose of the opening, though, is to introduce both newcomers and PGA veterans to the game’s revamped swing mechanics. There are three interfaces to choose, catering to different skill levels. The arcade swing is the easiest to control and lets you start hitting shots with laser beam-like accuracy. You just flick the left analogue stick back and forward in a fluid motion and McIlroy does the rest. You can add shape to the ball or adjust the trajectory, but as long as you apply an easy swing, the ball will end up exactly where you want it. It’s a great option for beginners, but it will quickly leave you wanting more.
One stage up is the classic style, a traditional three-click swing that will be familar to anyone who has played a golf sim in the last 20 years. Click to begin your swing, click to select the amount of power you need and, on the down swing, click again inside the markers to determine how accurately you hit the ball. It’s fine, but it feels dated, offering a simple binary control input designed for old school joypads with buttons and D-pads rather than today’s sensitive analogue sticks.
The Tour swing is intended for the “hardcore” golf gamer. As in the arcade motion, players draw the left analogue stick back to begin their shot, but now they must wait until the club is fully drawn to begin the down swing. Break too early and you will come up short, too late and overshooting your target is a danger. It’s challenging but with some adjustments to timing and rhythm, a consistent result can be produced.
Adding to the mechanic, however, the player must swing diagonally from left to right to shape the ball in flight – and it is tough. Any slight deviation from the line shown through the swing visualiser and you are going to be hitting a lot of shots from the thick stuff or worse. There will be a lot of frustration at first, but as you improve, hitting better shots becomes hugely rewarding and you begin to feel like you really deserve your place at the top of that leaderboard.
Where the game truly comes into its own is the level of choice on offer. Each swing type is fully customisable so if you are finding certain elements of the game too tough (the dreaded diagonal swing, for example) then you can chop and change as you please to bring the game exactly to the level you wish to play it.
There are also a decent variety of challenges to experience. You can create your own PGA pro and find out exactly what it’s like to grind out 72 holes of golf on a week-by-week basis, or just play the key holes in a round. Gradually, you watch your golfer’s stats grow as you shoot lower scores and finally get to go driver to driver with McIlroy himself. There are also daily and weekly online tournaments for each swing type so you can pit yourself against the world’s best virtual players – though the Country Club feature, which let groups of players form a social hub together, is missing.
Another new addition is the Nightclub, which boasts 170 challenges and introduces special bonus effects to shots. It’s fun, but unlikely to hold your attention for long.
Much more substantial is the way EA has opened up the environment compared to previous titles. The course itself now loads as a whole for your round so if you hit a wayward drive you don’t just end up out of bounds – you could find yourself on a completely different hole. It’s a touch that both decreases loading time and adds another level of depth to the experience.
It’s disappointing that, for licensing reasons, the Augusta National course is missing so you don’t get a chance to play at the Masters. Indeed, there are far fewer courses than the 2013 version of the game (with 12 real-life options against the 20 in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2014), and the roster of players has been culled too, with no LPGA stars at all. Perhaps these were necessary compromises with the beginning of a new series on new hardware platform, and EA has promised that it is going to provide free content updates.
After a two-year wait then, PGA Tour is back with richly detailed visuals, a restructured swing interface with a more expansive range and depth of shots, and some interesting peripheral features. However, long-term fans will miss the wider array of career and online tournament options, and may have to wait for downloadable content packages to get all the courses they used to enjoy. Rory McIlroy has made a strong start in the world of golf simulation but, in the parlance of sports commentators everywhere, he is not quite the complete package.
Electronic Arts; Xbox One/PS4 (version tested); £45; Pegi rating: 3+
This article was written by Graham Searles, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 14th July 2015 16.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010