Around this time one year ago, I wrote a review of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, using a copy of the game I bought myself. I've been a loyal consumer of the Tiger Woods series of video games since about 2002, when the games were much, much simpler.
After a few off years, Tiger 13 was a step in the right direction, and Tiger 14 continues that. There are some bad things, and a few things that had me ready to snap my controller in half, but I can say with certitude that Tiger Woods 14 is the best game to date.
It keeps Augusta National, which was introduced in the 2012 version, and has expanded to include all four major championships (the real names, not just "Summer Major Championship"). The LPGA joins the PGA Tour, and more courses are included standard that in recent year.
More importantly, for the first time since the mid-2000s, former PGA Tour pros are in the game. Tiger 14 includes an assortment of major champions, including Arnold Palmer, who joins Tiger on the cover. The game retails for $60 on Xbox 360 and PS3, or $70 for the Collector's Edition (if you buy the regular edition, you can always upgrade to the collector's via DLC, for about $20). Kinect and Move support remain, though I have neither, so I won't be reviewing them.
Let's dive in.
Presentation: Graphics and Performance
As I mentioned last year, I've been disappointed with the way that EA Sports has seemed to value the way their games look over the way their games perform. It's easy to wax poetic about the old editions, but I still have most of the previous Tiger Woods PGA Tour games, and I've gone back to make sure my assumptions were correct. The last generation of games, specifically the 2004-2006 editions, were much smoother. The menus in particular, but the gameplay was much more reactive. Go back and compare NBA Live 2005 to the 2010 edition, and see what I mean (or just take my word for it). It's like watching a television show where the audio and video are every so slightly eschew; it's noticeable, and enough to be annoying. You press a button or move a thumbstick, and the reaction is just a split second later than it should be. Load screens suffer frame rate drops, though the stuttering that used to accompany spinning the ball mid-flight has been mitigated.
But, and even I have to admit it, the game looks remarkable. Despite the performance annoyances, or maybe because of them, the graphics are astounding. Water appears more realistic than ever, grass is the best-looking it's ever going to be with the current systems, nighttime golf and the glow-balls are cool, and new sky effects look spectacular. Seriously, next time you feel like taking in a romantic sunset, just fire up a dusk round of 18 at Augusta.
The players look more life-like than ever, as do the courses. I mentioned last year that the gallery was often placed strangely close to the field of play, which is still true, but they do look great.
Jim Nantz and David Feherty remain in the game, although they are seldom heard from. I've gone entire rounds in certain game modes without hearing for them, and I've heard them remark after every shot in others. They're very subdued, very Augusta National-ly (no comments regarding the "bikini-waxed" greens here). I remarked last year that "If they were going for a TV-style approach, they've obviously never watched a golf broadcast," which holds true for 2014. I get that they're moving the game towards a "simulation" style rather than "arcade" (think Forza Motorsport versus Need For Speed Underground), but this doesn't really fit either. I strongly prefer the goofy quips of McCord and Feherty from the early days over Nantz's somber commentary.
The menus have been improved from last year. Now you can see all of the menu options on one screen, and aimless scrolling has been minimized. They've gone away from "we are going to load all of this crap you don't want to see on your way to the correct tab, taking time and needless processing power" to "here's a menu, find what you want and press ‘A,' then we will display what you're looking for." You can now disable the startup notification saying that if you rip your hard drive out, bad things will happen, which is nice, though I'm not sure why the notification that tells you the game autosaves can't meet the same fate.
Just like last year, there's no dead-tree manual included, and good luck finding much of what you're looking for with the included in-game software version.
The full swing graphics and gameplay are almost entirely unchanged from last year. Total Swing Control gives you the ability to alter the shot during the set up as well as during the swing.
Beforehand, you have the option to add spin (fade/draw, as well as top/back) in two different manners. While zoomed in on the landing location, you can use the right thumbstick to alter the ball's path by altering your stance. Once you've approached the ball, the same thumbstick can be used to change the location of the strike point on the ball (more on that later).
Most of the tried-and-trusted aspects of the full swing are still here. Pull the left thumbstick back, then push it forward. Button-mashing power-ups are still absent after having been removed last year, an ousting that I'm still upset with. You can, however, still add spin mid-flight by smacking the "A" button as fast as possible (or "X" for you PS3 users).
How far you bring the club back as well as how fast you push the thumbstick forward are the main facets of Total Swing Control, and are how you control power. The swing is altogether much smoother than it was pre-Total Swing Control. Tiger Woods' swing appears to be exactly the same as last year, which is strangely short on the backswing.
Some of the same irritations from last year do appear to still be in the game. Altering your stance at setup still forces a retracing of the swing arc, which is an annoying time-waster. When you zoom in on the target, the camera still does an annoying counterclockwise pan around the pin. While it does look cool, this makes it tougher to line up your shot, and serves no real purpose I can think of. The HUD remains too empty, and I've had a few occasions where the camera is obstructed by tall grass or a grandstand, so much so that I couldn't see my character at all.
Short Game and Putting
Shots around the green generally come down to two things: swing type and strike point. Swing types include the normal pitch, chip, flop, and ¾ swing. They're all generally the same as previous iterations, though if you didn't play last year's game you'll probably be a little upset with what they've done to flop shots. In older iterations, the flop shot swing would have let you hit the ball over Dikembe Mutombo from a foot away, while in Tiger 14 Dikembe would get knocked in the face before he could slap that golf ball down like children's cereal at a grocery store. The distinction between chips shots and pitches seems to have been tightened a bit, and I've found myself relying on spin, shot height, and strike point more than ever to get the ball close.
One big problem I've found this year (as well as last year) is with the integration of Total Swing Control into the short game. The swing path arc that is drawn around your golfer isn't used much in the long game; it's just easier to control distance with spin and shot height rather than trying to stop your swing at just the right spot. But in the short game you have to make half swings, and it can often be very tricky to see where the swing arc ends against lighter-colored backgrounds (read, the sky).
I bemoaned the introduced (or, more accurately, expansion) of strike point last year, since the game mandates that you use it out of tricky lies. That's still true, but strike point now is used, by default, to adjust to side-hill lies. For example, if you step up to the ball and it's well above your feet, the strike point will be pre-adjusted to account for that (at least in easier difficulties). This actually makes strike point more convoluted, but I've come around. I appreciate that strike point is now more of a helpful tool for hitting good shots than a nuisance.
Unfortunately, it also seems more exacting this year. Because the golf ball in he graphic is often covered up (and I mean completely covered up) by sand or tall grass, it can be a complete guess as to where to strike the ball. I understand it - in previous iterations, Tiger 08 in particular, I rarely failed to chip-in - but I don't think that's the best way to make the game more difficult.
Putting remains largely unchanged from last year. I've postulated that it might be slightly more "sticky" on the correct backswing length, but none of EA's marketing material indicated that. The putting system of Tiger 13 and 14 is the worst they've ever used, and trust me, I've gone back and played them all.
It's just awful. Sure, the way it detects lateral misses is fine, and I like the putt preview system well enough, but distance control is downright horrific. You have to pull the blade back to a spot about the size of a putter, and then push the thumbstick forward. It's a good thing that the backswing speed does not make any difference in tempo, because it often takes me half a lunar cycle to pull the thumbstick back the correct distance, guiding it towards the exact spot. It's madness, and I'm completely flabbergasted as to why they kept it in the game. As I stated last year, the distance meter in Tiger 12 was the best they've done so far, and adding that to the rest of the putting in Tiger 14 would be downright perfect.
There is one annoyance in lining up putts. When using putt preview for long, uphill putts, the hole often lies outside of the field of vision, making it tough to actually find the correct distance.
PGA Tour Season
The same old PGA Tour season mode is back this in Tiger 14, and it's very similar to the last few years. You start out by creating your golfer using Game Face, the best player-creation interface I've seen in a sports game, to build him or her. You can, of course, still use Photo Game Face, which has become very simple to use since high-quality cameras became the norm on smartphones. When you create your golfer, you also get to choose things like power vs. control, draw vs. fade, low/medium/high trajectory and righty vs lefty. The trajectory option is the most important, as it seems that almost all golfers launch the ball lower this year than in prior iterations.
After choosing to tackle the PGA or LPGA Tour, you play a few events as an amateur, including either the U.S. or British Amateur Championships. It's strange that shooting -15 in the last round of the U.S. Open only gets you a "Low Amateur" nod and not a PGA Tour card, but them's the breaks. You move up the ranks, playing first on the Web.com (formerly Nationwide) Tour, and then making it up to the majors. Tiger 14 features more officially-licensed events then ever, including 16 regular PGA Tour events, all four men's majors, and the first LPGA major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Not all events are available straight out of the box though. For instance, the Deutsche Bank Championship shows up, but you can't play it without paying extra to download TPC Boston.
Before each event, you get to play a "training" match, generally a mini-game against a Tour pro for a few holes. Then you advance to the actual event, the first three rounds of which are simulate-able.
Including "Tiger Slam" Tiger Woods, there are nine legends: Arnold Palmer (two versions), Jack Nicklaus (three versions), Gary Players (two versions), Seve Ballesteros, Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, and Young Tom Morris.
The 2005 Legends Mode was setup in the same vein as many of the older single-player systems. You played a few mini-games against lesser PGA Tour players, unlocked a match with the legend, and beat the legend in match play. The legends were hyper-inflated versions of themselves; Seve was wild off the tee but stuck his irons stiff from the long grass and regularly chipped in, while Hogan's miraculous iron play kept him in every match.
The players are far less differentiated this year. They're all good, sure, but they don't have that one comically amazing feature that makes you feel just a tiny bit like you know what a match against Seve Ballesteros was really like. In a normal match against, say, Hunter Mahan, he does pretty much everything very well. He hits it 310 in the fairway (usually), most approach shots finish between five and 15 feet from the hole, and he either makes or lips-out every putt. It can be a tough match, but it's monotonous. Sure, on easier difficulties he put one in the sand here or there, but that's still a relative rarity. For Jack and the other legends, those tolerances have just been tightened a bit. Point is, it's still the same match, it's still a bit monotonous. When Seve chips in in Tiger Woods 14, you get pissed because it's a once-a-year type of deal; when he chipped in in Tiger 2005, you just about expected it.
Don't get me wrong, I still like playing as or against the legends more than any of EA's other attempts at a single player mode outside of the PGA Tour. But it's not as good as it should be, and that's disappointing.
There are a few odd glitches in some of the challenges. Several of the challenges that involve long driving (Jack on 18 at St. Andrews, Rory at the long par three at Oakmont) are physically impossible with certain wind conditions, and a few putting challenges (including one that forces you to go through the Valley of Sin) force you to push the distance meter to the absolute brink of how far it will let you putt.
One of the best features of the Legends Mode is the fact that you play against those pros in that era. The presentation is different, as are the clubs and clothes. This has actual consequences; the persimmon woods and old-school golf balls sap your power dearly. The plus-fours, well, they just look goofy. The presentation is actually pretty cool, with little touches that make each of the six eras look better than you would expect. Simply put, they haven't half-assed this.
With the next few pictures, enjoy the recreation of Augusta National. The first is the current-day 12th, then the 13th, and last the 16th.
The best part of the Legends Mode, by far, is playing the original setup of Augusta National. You get the full course if you buy the collector's edition, but if you buy the regular version, this is your only chance to check it out. One of my favorite things about Masters season the last few years has been this awesome piece that Golf Digest did a few years ago, including graphics of how Augusta has changed through the years. EA really nailed this one.
Online Play and Multiplayer
Online play and multiplayer, which I thought were perfected last year, have only been made better. Live Tournaments have been expanded to hundreds of opponents, and you can play a live round against 23 other opponents at once. The restrictions on country club members has been similarly relaxed, making a system that was good last year even better.
Playing face-to-face remains the same, but I've never had any problems with the way that is set up. It's a technically great setup, though I do have some qualms with gameplay that I'll get to later.
Players and Courses
Like I said last year, I don't really care about the players in the game. I play with my own character about 90 percent of the time, and the rest of my rounds are split between Tiger or one of the legends. The only player they could add to really pique my interest would be Phil Mickelson, though there's a fat chance of that happening. But hey, at least they've gotten rid of Rhys Davies, whoever that guy is.
20 courses are included on disc, which is more than in recent years, with about as many available to download. Most of the default courses make sense, though I wish there was a better system, a way to pick which courses you get. I like TPC Boston, because I've played there in real life, and I'd gladly trade Crooked Stick, or Atlanta Athletic Club. But that's not going to happen, so I will get off it.
Everyone who buys this game is going to be a bit disappointed by which courses are included and which are downloadable, that's just the truth. It's disappointing that they can't just include 12 on disc and give you download codes for a half-dozen more of your choice, but apparently they can't.
Some of my favorite included courses include the remodeled version of Pinehurst No. 2, Murfield Village, and Mission Hills.
To make one last point on the topic: aside from a few more expensive outliers, each of the 22 downloadable course costs 400 Microsoft Points (using the Xbox 360 as an example), which equates to about $5. Buying each course individually, that comes out to about an extra $110 if you want to purchase every course.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 might be the "best," game yet. It's surely the most complete. The graphics are the most advanced, the gameplay is the most realistic, and they've continued to add and remove features until they found the blend that people liked the most. Online play is great, and I like both of the single player modes. The full swing is the best yet, and even though the short game can get a bit annoying, it feels the most real, even without being on a high difficulty. Putting, well, putting is awful. Let's not talk about putting.
I remarked in the conclusion on my review last year about an advertisement for the game that I saw. It showed a bunch of people, huddled around a couch, taking huge, goofy swings at the ball. Of course, they're back at is this year. After the "rumble" with Tiger, Palmer, and Trevino, there's another sequence of people huddled around a television, playing the game.
I got none of that. Sure, I had fun with the game, and probably will for several months, but in terms of real long-term re-playability, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour games have fallen short for a long time. While doing some research for this review, I played many of the old games, especially Tiger 2004 and 2005. Those games were fun.
I miss the "arcade" style game that was more reminiscent of Golden Tee 2K than an actual round of golf; the crazy fantasy players like Pops Masterson, Big Mo Ta'a Vatu, or Tsunami Moto; not paying an extra $5 for fantasy courses like The Predator that I'd get way more enjoyment out of than another Crooked Stick or Valhalla; the heart-pounding camera work and quick angle-changes after I drain a long putt or power-up a driver; and, maybe most sharply, the awesome fist pumps and and reactions that made the old games enjoyable.
I get that the image that they're looking for from this game is one of prestige, which is why the soft sounds of Augusta National comprises the soundtrack, rather than Tiger 2005, when the premier song was OutKast's "The Way You Move," and why Jim Nantz greets you with a "Hello, friends," but doesn't taunt you for hitting it into the "agua" like Gary McCord and David Feherty used to.
I hate to harp on this for a second year in a row, but Tiger 13 held absolutely on value for me after about two months, and I think any game without at least some of those features will meet the same fate.
What the game has become is the most literal and best-executed version of "golf" ever written on a disc, bar none, but I'm not so sure it's the best golf game.
Though our reviews don't generally come with a numerical rating, video games usually do, so I'm going to provide them here. Grading on the scale is generally used for games (1-10, but anything below a 6.5 or above a 9.5 is very rare), Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 gets an 8.1 from me. It is the best technical game they've put out yet, with fewer annoyances and great game modes. The game has two big problems: the putting and long-term replay value. It will be interesting to see if EA can rectify that.