Two Steps Forward. One Step Back.
There probably isn’t much debate about which audience of gamers has been most neglected by developers over the past few years. Though, no one has actually studied the phenomenon, so we’ll just have to assume that the distinction belongs to sports game devotees. In the 90s, games like Tecmo Super Bowl, NHL 94, and Madden would instantly increase the social status of any standoffish sports nerd. And the industrial revolution of sports gaming really peaked in the early 2000s when franchises like Tiger Woods, NHL, and MVP Baseball finally got their mechanics squared away. But recently it seems like developers are going through some kind of self-induced sports game recession.
Even when a title actually finds its way onto the market, it almost always misses the point. It’s like publishers have completely forgotten what type of person wants to play a baseball, football, or basketball game. The titles certainly aren’t designed for people who love sports; most games have become far too technical and esoteric for that crowd. But they’re also not designed for people who love video games; if they were, they wouldn’t be about sports. Publishers seem content to keep blindly churning out more repetitive garbage than Coldplay, and this year’s collection isn’t any different (especially if your name is 2K Sports).
So, in a universe where sports titles represent the very worst form of developer apathy, it’s nice to see that EA isn’t completely disregarding the Tiger Woods franchise this year. But that wasn’t always the case.
For a several years following Tiger’s infidelity scandal, it started to look like EA was trying to phase Tiger out of his own franchise. In 2011, the publisher started distancing the series from its figurehead by adding a second golfer, Rory Mcllory, to the cover, and Tiger was entirely absent the following year. Though, to be fair, these years also correspond with a heavy slump in Tiger’s tournament performance, so it wasn’t entirely surprising when he made his way back onto the cover, accompanied by Rickie Fowler, for the 13th edition.
But Tiger’s scandal faded from the front page a long time ago, and he’s back at the top of the PGA standings, which means that EA has once again plastered his moneymaking mug on the front of this year’s edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. And, just like Tiger, the game itself is in rare form.
Now, I’m sure that there are a handful of Tiger obsessives out there who would probably say that the 2012 edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour was among the best in the franchise. And even though it certainly had its share of fans, it never really felt like it was meant for golf lovers. In fact, it felt like it was actually produced for a weird collection of dexterous video game loving accountants. Until last year, the controls in Tiger titles played like some kind of rote memorization game for your fingers. Often referred to as the three-click method, the franchise’s swing mechanic was based on a strength meter that was clicked when a quickly moving bar would cross the desired meter point. Obviously, this has nothing to do with golf, but for some reason this WarioWare-style mini-game was the standard for swing mechanics until 2012.
It’s probably not surprising, then, that many golfers were so disconnected from the franchise. After all this power-meter mechanic is more adapted to those mathematical whiz kids that are constantly beating Super Mario Bros. 3 in ten minutes or less. It never quite captured the minutia of an actual golf swing. It was about technical wizardry.
But last year, EA devised a thumbstick-based mechanic that measured the subtleties of one’s swing. The update drew a much-needed physical connection between the sport and the video game, and they’ve heavily refined the system for this year’s release.
However, even though the swing mechanic itself is a huge improvement for the series, it’s not without its drawbacks. I can’t help but feel like there’s a collection of randomized problems that are rotating like a slot machine whenever I pull the thumbstick down. Often, even if my swing is perfect, and the weathervane is quiet, the ball will overshoot or undershoot the target for no apparent reason. The clubs themselves obviously play a role in the ball’s placement, and as you level up you can unlock more accurate clubs, but it’s not unusual for this slot machine of bogeys to add several strokes to the end of your game. And it can be frustrating to play a perfect round of golf and lose due to random chance. If I wanted to do that, I’d play Mario party.
This year’s interface is undeniably influenced by last year’s edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour. In fact, the entire game is more of a refinement than a redesign. The stance meter allows you to fade or draw the ball depending on your placement preferences, but the shot’s accuracy isn’t so heavily tied to the action of your thumb. EA has also added more depth to the swing mechanic by including a collection of customization options to the character setup system. Now, for example, if you’re the type of player who prefers to draw the ball, your character can specialize in the appropriate stance. This will allow you to draw the ball with more accuracy, but will make fading more difficult. Plus, players who have a penchant for power have the ability to sacrifice their character’s control and vice versa.
However, the controls aren’t the only thing being refined. This year, the franchise has moved away from the Tiger-centric hero worship that’s been going on in the franchise since it was introduced in 1998 (aside from those two scandalous years, obviously). Tiger himself has been downplayed in favor of a small collection of historic players and courses.
When you fire up the game’s Legends of the Majors mode, you’ll take control of players like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus or check out some of history’s more infamous courses. EA’s advertising insists that this is an homage to “golf’s rich history,” but it feels more like a video diary of history’s poorest fashion choices. Either way, it’s fun.
For all of its clever perks, though, Tiger 14 certainly isn’t the polished product that EA would like us to believe it is. The audio on my copy, for instance, never worked correctly. Color commentators and the background music continuously stuttered throughout my experience. And even though I’m willing to wager that this isn’t some kind of systemic problem, I’d imagine that I’m not the only person with an issue.
Plus, the graphics are a little embarrassing from time to time. They often have the type of polygonal tearing issues that were commonplace on the PlayStation 2, but have no excuse on this generation of consoles. It often feels like EA took one step backward in the visuals before taking two steps forward with the gameplay.
Now, I’m a huge proponent of gameplay over graphics, so this kind of problem is normally pretty easy for me to ignore. But considering how close we are to the end of this console generation it’s difficult to avoid critiquing the title based on its placement in video game history. This will undoubtedly be the last PGA title whose primary platform is the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. And since it’s acting as the punctuation mark for such a popular series, it feels a little unfinished—more like a semicolon than an exclamation point.
But, if I were to critique Tiger 14 in a vacuum, which would be idiotic, I probably wouldn’t find many drawbacks.
Golf lovers will undoubtedly enjoy the fact that, for the first time in video game history, all four Majors are finally playable. The Masters Tournament, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship are all represented, so you won’t have to play any more of those generic tournaments whose titles were just different enough to dissuade a lawsuit.
Also, female players will finally be able to customize an appropriately gendered character and fly through the ranks of an LPGA tour. Though, I should warn you, the LPGA is essentially a light version of the standard campaign. It almost feels sexist, actually. All of the mechanics are the exactly same, but everything is significantly easier.
The multiplayer modes have been beefed up as well. EA has increased the country club sizes, implemented a club-based chat function, and flushed out the game’s online tournaments. As you progress through the single-player or multiplayer modes, you’ll gain access to experience points and boost pins. Experience points translate into levels, which will allow you to unlock better equipment. Boost pins, on the other hand, work like skill points. They’ll allow you to increase your skill level in any given area. So, as you progress, you’ll become a more gifted golfer with better equipment, which will mitigate the bogey slot machine effect that I was complaining about earlier.
As a rule, we’re typically supposed to applaud the collapse of big name publishers like EA, but Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 proves that they’re still capable of producing games that are worth playing. It also proves that sports games don’t have to feel like a Coldplay record, which is commendable by anyone’s metric.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
Sometimes it looks like EA may have time traveled into the past to hire graphic artists. 4.0 Control
Simple enough for any novice to pick up quickly, but there’s enough depth here to challenge the most obsessive of players. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
If you like things that are repetitive and broken, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has the sound track for you. 4.0 Play Value
There’s so much gameplay packed onto this disk, I feel like EA could skip next year’s Tiger Woods release and very few fans would notice. 3.9 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best