EA Sports has been pumping out titles for what feels like a lifetime (and what is literally a lifetime for some younger gamers) and have stuck pretty close to the forumula from their beginnings up to now; combining fully licensed players and competitions with slick gameplay controls and an emphasis on multiplayer appeal that shifts units by the truckoad year on year. It hasn’t always turned out the way you would hope (FIFA 11’s mannequin-like players and blindfolded slide tackling comes to mind) but for this latest instalment of the Tiger Woods franchise, EA have come close to achieving videogame alchemy.
As is usual for annual sports releases, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 plays host to new tweaks and features to make it sufficiently different from the previous games and an opening attract screen runs them down over the ornate soundtrack that features throughout. Players can still do standard Quick Play and Career modes, but they now have the option to participate in all four major championships (inlcuding the LPGA Tour) for the first time, take advantage of more online Country Club funcitonality, and the improvements to the Create A Golfer Mode. Best of the new features on offer is undoubtedly the game’s centrepiece, the Legends Of The Majors mode, a series of challenges that puts you on famous courses throughout history
attempting to recreate the greatest moments of golf icons like Seve Ballasteros and Gary Player, unlocking more challenges and making the legends themselves a playable part of the absolutely massive roster of famous stick-swingers on offer.
While it’s basically a standard “complete objectives for points” setup, the prestige that’s built around it thanks to potted history lesson voiceovers and era-specific presentation adds to the atmosphere, as do a smattering of neat touches – playing challenges from the early 1900s, the graphics are given a sepia toned old film look, and the EA Sports Replay graphic is replaced by a silent movie-style title card when a winning shot is played – make it a fun feature well worth its inclusion.
Most important of the new tweaks, however, is the addition of shot shaping, which opens up the gameplay no-end. Golfers are divided into Power, Control, Draw and Fade styles, and each combination has an effect on where a ball goes when it’s struck, how the wind affects ball flight, how well a golfer recovers from bad ball lies, and so on. The type of equipment your golfer uses has a big effect on the end product, too, and how the two are combined determines ultimately whether a ball nestles on the green or gets hidden in the second cut. Another nice element has you searching for the ball in the long grass with the Strike Meter, leaving you chopping at the greenery like a buffoon if you don’t find the right position. This cause-and-effect influence blends nicely with the smooth controls and swing animations, so the shot on screen feels like the result of the player’s movement of the analogue stick, giving the shooting a flowing, intuitive feel.
This kind of simplicity is largely typical of the game. Things like the option to view items unlocked during Career mode in one place instead of scrolling through endless menus to discover new pieces of kit (watch out for Shagadelic trousers) should be made mandatory for all modern games, and the XP and attribute upgrades actually do make a difference to your swing rather than just being a pretty but useless add-on. Sound effects augment the atmos of each swing. The cheers of the spectators turning to groans as a shot finds the fairway only to roll into the rough is pitch perfect.
But as is also typical of EA Sports games of recent years, all the innovations are contrasted by a few glaring negative elements that leave it short of the perfection it clearly strives for. Some things are minor; the Create A Golfer is fun and responsive, but there’s a lot of guesswork involved in the use of the slider interface, and it just feels a little redundant having to add wrinkles to a character’s face when you’re staring at the back of their heads 99% of the time. And including an in-game scorecard or leaderboard button rather than having to pause and scroll through menus to check how a round is going would quicken the already slow-paced proceedings exponentially.
In terms of graphics, it’s a study in opposites. The courses are lovingly recreated, with subtle variations and detail for each one, but the character models for every golfer look like dead-eyed robot versions of their real-life counterparts. Even Tiger, the game’s posterboy, seems like a ham-fisted waxwork of himself. Everyone on the roster goes through the same four or five rote animations after each swing and putt as well, with no variation or personality to their movements to separate one from the other when not swinging a club. We’re not expecting finger guns or backflips, but a few more variations would have made the copious cutscenes a little more engaging.
Worse again is the glitchy camera cuts during putting (this may be different on the PS3 version). Before the green, it generally cuts between the swing and the flight of the ball, with good reason, but during putting Tiger Woods PGA 14 goes for a TV coverage feel, with wide shots and ball-following shots showing up randomly with each stroke, which is all well and good until the fourth or fifth time the camera disappears behind a tree, or a set of bleachers, or just a random collection of grey and green pixels, blocking the putt from view so the player has to rely on the sound effects alone (which it has to be said are sterling aside from the repetitive commentary one comes to expect from sports games)to figure out whether they made the winning stroke or not. A certain amount of this is expected in modern games, but the level on show here is, frankly, a bit overboard.
Mind you, none of this would be a problem if the loading screens weren’t so frustratingly frequent. Often at the end of a competition, once Golfer Data and Game Data are saved, you’ll get
a loading screen for another loading screen before returning to the main menu. Given the fact that the game only renders one hole at a time and that the character models are so rudimentary, it begs the question as to why the load times are necessary. Perhaps it takes a lot of processing power to produce the effect of the characters’ trouser legs flapping in the wind.
Ultimately, how much enjoyment you’re likely to get out of Tiger Woods 14 is a matter of taste. The gameplay captures perfectly the drama of high-stakes golf; Sinking a 20-foot putt on a Par 5 for Birdie shouldn’t be as exciting and thrilling an experience as it is, particularly for gamers weaned on boss battles or RPG puzzles, but EA have pulled it off excellently here.
However, there’s a lot of waiting to get to those moments, and the shine gets knocked off them on occasion by that glitchy putting camera, but if these failings can be tolerated, then the pay-off is as enjoyable, accessible and fun a sports game as has hit the shelves this decade.
Dodgy camera work