I have a great admiration for the game of golf, a compensatory statement, perhaps, since I have failed to excel at the sport in any capacity. Golf is mostly a game of worrying with the occasional elation, of perpetual “situations” and crisp sunny marches toward aftermaths of self-induced yet frequently subconscious errors that occurred minutes prior and within durations of milliseconds. Video-game golf may seem equally baffling and frustrating (since the satisfaction of exercise and grandeur of the outdoors are taken away), but I enjoy it and engage with it on a level of play not possible in the physical world without shedding certain compunctions of time and budget that I don’t think I’ll be able to do in my lifetime. Skill is involved, but assistance more easily attained and practice more internalized, and the added factor of roleplay lets one embody the professional and play with an acute sense of ease and precision, or at least elevate to that level, in a fraction of the time.
EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series of golf games have always tried to straddle the line between overwhelming simulation and processable “game,” and the mixture has gone through another round of tweaks and pokes with this year’s 2012 iteration, some of them successful and welcome, while others only marginally so. Unfortunately, there are also some nagging issues that will alienate those simply looking for a polished video game and are probably unaware of the historical weight and technological prowess on display in Tiger Woods 12. The line that developer EA Tiburon is attempting to walk is becoming more and more crooked.
“Historical weight” isn’t that much of an exaggeration: Tiger Woods 12 has the unprecedented honor of hosting the digital likeness of the revered Augusta National Golf Club for the first time, an accomplishment that can actually be considered a feat, considering the guardedness Augusta frequently displays. Both championship and par-three courses are accurately mapped and depicted down to the placement of shrubbery and scorecard scans. This alone will be enough to have golf-game purists salivating with anticipation, and credit must be given to EA Tiburon for their follow-through in what surely must have been an arduous task. The other 14 included courses impress as well, thanks to improved textures and “3D Grass,” which make the rough beyond fairways and greens quiver with realism and bend accordingly with the wind and other forces.
With so much detail being applied to certain visual elements that series fans will appreciate, I find it a little inexplicable that other, more recognizable levels of presentation are left out to hang and sully such a realized experience. Crowds are mass copy/pasted and behave lethargically, and player reactions rely on the same stable of motion capture clips that are hastily applied to different terrain, resulting in laughable post-swing sequences where my character stomped off into a lake or casually strode over his own ball, like a vaudeville routine about legally blind golfers. These are the types of mistakes that hardcore Tiger Woods PGA Tour followers will find harder and harder to forgive.
The centerpiece career mode, dubbed “Road to the Masters,” progresses as one would expect: After creating and editing an avatar of your choice (mapping an image of your face onto your golfer remains an amusing curiosity and not much else), your player begins to hack it through challenges and tournaments, beginning with amateur and eventually working up to the “Pro Tour,” accumulating experience points along the way that can be spent improving certain swing and putting attributes. This “XP” currency is earned not only by placing high in rounds, but also by executing difficult shots and posting low scores on individual holes. It’s a tasty breadcrumb trail that rewards those—and only those—willing to invest the time, but progress can be saved during full four-round events, making them less exhausting (and there are “Quick Play” and standalone “Masters Moments” holes for those interested in more spontaneous challenges). The end goal of the campaign is to be invited to compete at the Masters and eventually claim the illustrious green jacket, creating a clear endpoint and incentive to practice and improve, something not very well defined in golf games and sorely needed.
A new, dynamic caddie system is the contextual lens through which the player receives pertinent information on yardage and wind, and how advice and handicapping are parsed throughout the game. The nameless caddie’s advice, which can be ignored altogether, fluctuates between comatose and brilliant, but ultimately there’s still some work involved in figuring out where shots carry—shown via a “miss” circle during shot setups—and picking the exact line for putts. This makes putting in particular a maddening experience (isn’t it though), but a limited number of “boosts” per round reduce the circles of confusion and make course management a fun and interesting balance of when to rely on your caddie completely, when to spend a boost and aid your execution—swings are made with the ubiquitous “down-up” analog flick or, for those wanting more realism, the Move motion controller, which mirrored my physical inadequacy with sobering exactness—or when to rely completely on yourself.
But therein lies a latent problem with Tiger Woods 12, and perhaps most simulation inclined golf video games in general: The efforts of the player don’t always sync up with the rewards that the game itself produces. Less “serious” golf games, like Mario Golf and Hot Shots, give palpable, over-the-top praise that’s immediately digestible. When my realistically modelled Tiger Woods avatar stripes a 300-yard tee shot, then dashes toward the creek while ignoring muted applause emanating from crowds that appear hypnotized, how much satisfaction can I really get from the game, especially after dedicating hours of my time to slowly improving my swing? I can certainly appreciate it, and I appreciate Tiger Woods 12 very much; it’s packed with game modes (including online tournaments) and options, features some painstakingly accurate environments and pays respectful homage to one of the greatest golf courses in the world. Moments of it are enjoyable indeed. But where is that elation that so many golfers are constantly searching for, and when will it translate to its virtual space, where it has the potential to be more accessible? For now, appreciation will have to do.