Developer: EA Sports / Publisher: EA Sports / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone (no content descriptors)
I love golf. I am stupidly fortunate enough to have played Pebble Beach and I remember nearly every shot and hole of that course more than any of the hundreds of others I’ve played. It’s a memory reinforced every year with Tiger Woods PGA Tour as I revisit the Carmel Peninsula and virtually relive one of the greatest afternoons ever (though I still don’t birdie the first hole like I did in my real round…had to drop that in!)
I can’t imagine how vivid the memories would be if I ever got to play Augusta National, home of The Masters. Managed so adeptly by its trustees it managed to fight off pressure from tabloid-mongering groups demanding women be admitted as members (they decided to refuse all advertising preemptively before any potential sponsors could pull out in support of the protesters), retain status as a Major without ever moving location, and never, ever, EVER “selling out” to marketing by allowing the course to be included in <humph> a videogame (whatever one of those is).
For EA Sports when the icon of the game you backed in the face of the worst adversity just isn’t his old self, when sales of the last game tanked in response, what do you do? “Get The Masters!” “Ha, we’ll never, ever get it.” “Don’t come back without the license.” Someone made that happen, and this year one of the most iconic venues in all sports is ready to be hacked, thwapped, and chunked as you, virtual golfer, take your shot on the Road to the Masters.
Technically this isn’t the first time that Augusta National has been playable for virtual duffers. Back in the grand old PC days, in the time of Jack Nicklaus Golf and Links, in the days before image and naming rights, and copyrights were so carefully guarded you could ship a complex course builder tool and let the kids with too much time on their hands craft the courses your development dollars couldn’t attain. So for a certain, likely aged segment, this might not feel so special… but as any Tiger game aficionado will tell you, it’s a big deal.
How big is that deal? Well, look at the box. No Tiger, but the emblematic yellow flag of Augusta National. How big a deal? Your career is the Road to the Masters. How big a deal? Your challenges are recreations of famous Masters moments (often looking awkward for those knowledgeable about the real events they portray). Your time with Tiger is recreating the circumstances of his four victories in order to unlock what looks like some live event within the 2011 tournament (where it’s safe to assume that matching Tiger’s performance will be significantly easier than in ’97, for example). Sixteen rounds of some of the most incredible golf you’ll see, and you have to match it to move on. It’s not easy.
Of course, the core mechanics of the game remain unchanged. Left-analog to swing, and hope you maintain a clean, middle plane on backswing and follow-through to hit the shot you want. Now even in the Road to the Masters (aka Career mode for this year) as you start out on the Amateur tour before hopefully progressing to the Nationwide, then PGA, and earning a spot at the <deep breath> Masters, hitting fairways, even greens in regulation isn’t that tricky. An odd prologue attempting to establish a narrative of following Tiger’s path to Masters glory requires three swings that you can’t fail to hit perfectly. But once you get to the greens it’s a whole different ball game.
Really, it’s like you went from fun golf, maybe yanking a few into trouble, maybe missing the green for a dalliance on the sand, but generally staying within the bumpers of the course, and into fine-touch, fine-tune, fine ass-you-make-of-yourself horror show. If anything the game takes the golfer’s mantra of “driving for show and putting for dough” to an almost criminal level. Maybe it’s the well-worn left-analog stick of my controller that’s wiggled so loose to be painfully imprecise, but putting can be brutal. Let me be clear, on the famous sloped 16th at Augusta, I rolled in a 30-footer that was a joy to behold (and uploaded it to the EA servers). But for mere micrometers of jitter on the stick I also rolled straight uphill six footers past the hole by eight feet. I three-putted like any less would make the course explode. Carelessly yanking a drive into trees could be a problem but never as fatal to a round as a seemingly minor jitter or missed pacing of a putt. (In one instance the game constantly replaced the ball in the original spot in the trees, despite me clearly hitting it forwards or sideways, until I hit out backwards and scored a 10).
Playing along the Road to the Masters and leveling up my golfer was familiar in the career way of applying experience points to skills like power and putting. Partaking in sponsor challenges unlocks better gear without having to pay for it from miniscule tournament winnings. It generally makes the challenge of earning your way to the Masters a little more satisfying than hitting the Quick Play and diving in. At least that’s an option for those that just want to see the course.
It’s all about Augusta National, and the course does look good…but somehow not as pristine, crisp, shiny, or whatever the word is to describe that TV-enhanced but beautifully manicured Spring sight in Georgia. While the CBS commentary team of Jim Nantz (for the first time) and an oddly subdued David Feherty add credibly to the broadcast intentions, the experience never really catches on as though you’re watching on that vaunted April Sunday. Sure, the visuals provide an intriguing insight for fans of the crazy contours of the course, and particularly the vagaries of the greens, but the few spectators, and sound dominated by your caddy drown fail to capture what appears to be a vibrant, crazy supported event.
In my playtime I couldn’t really figure out if the caddy was useful or frustrating. He stands over putts offering pretty worthless commentary, which means any second he’s on screen is a waste of your time, but also directs creative hooks and fades when you need to play a more complex shot than may be in your virtual controls bag at the time. It’s definitely a love-hate relationship, when in the early days of your career you need to make your own decisions, but in the latter stages where inches matter, his insight should help.
Playing rounds with friends is more a Tiger experience than pitting skills against random online partners. Playing at Augusta could virtually fulfill lifelong dreams. This has always been a game where throwing in with buddies (hopefully holding brews) is more important than the outcome, but really the course does impact your appreciation. The Live options for when the tournament starts (for real) on April 7 may enliven a community, and the game still supports its EA Sports Gamernet locations for uploading your best shots.
Your interest in Tiger 12 is pretty much dependant on your enthusiasm for the Masters, and your appreciation of its mystique. The Tiger motif remains through his personal successes and your recreation of them, and your appreciation of other legendary Masters moments (including challenges like making Larry Mize’s wonder-shot on the 2nd play-off hole against Greg Norman). It’s that much of a one-trick pony. If you cannot wait for April 7 (or better yet, practice rounds from the 3rd) then you’ll ignore odd commentary moments and graphics glitches on the greens, and just revel in the scenery of the course. Veterans of the series may figure that even the “other” courses part of the package are getting short shrift for a total homage to 18 holes of golf in Georgia… an only slightly odd misdirection from so many holes dedicated to the greatest golfer who ever lived who most fans need back. Now.
So endeth the opinion.