As I do nearly every year, I was quick to pony up a good deal of cash for the new Tiger Woods PGA Tour video game. Like with most good video games I've been engrossed with it since the day I bought it, but that doesn't mean I love the game.
There are good things. For instance, the online country club feature is awesome, and we here at The Sand Trap have set up country clubs for Xbox 360 and PS3 to take advantage of that. But there is a plethora of shortcomings, not only in this game but in the series overall, and there simply has not been enough of an effort to overcome those. Numerous decisions clearly illustrate that EA Sports values the form over function when it comes to this game, and that comes at a detriment to the gameplay.
This year's edition is available for $60 for PS3 and Xbox 360, and there is a Collector's Edition for $70 also sold for both systems. We've already arrived to the first downside of Tiger 13, which is that last year's game was also available for Wii, Windows, Mac OS X, and iOS. Kinect and Move are supported, but I have neither so I won't be commenting on them. Read on to see if the price was worth it.
I've been playing the Tiger Woods games for a long time, and I still own most of them. At the end of the Xbox/PS2 lifecycle EA Sports was on fire, putting out one great game after another. Madden, MVP Baseball, NBA Live, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour; they all peaked around 2005.
EA developers struggled adapting to the new systems though, and for several years the games were simply not worth the $60 price they were commanding. The games valued looks over playability, but they've come a long way. While EA still shortsides gameplay in key areas, the advancements they've made in the arena of graphics should not be overlooked. Simply put, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 is one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen.
The golfers look spectacular, and the courses are stunning. Trees are extremely lifelike, and the effects of rain are well-done, especially in high-definition. Water is spectacular. Though some of the fans in the gallery are often comically close to the field of play, the detailing on them is amazing. It cannot be overstated how great this game looks.
Jim Nantz and David Feherty are back with the commentary, though their appearances are sparse. This is a long cry from the days of Feherty and McCord, or even Scott Van Pelt and Kelly Thilman, as Nantz and Feherty are very subdued. The game is very quiet, for better or for worse. If they were going for a TV-style approach, they've obviously never watched a golf broadcast.
With the full swing, gone are the days of button-mashing to get an extra 20 percent of distance, while focus, confidence, and Club Tuner have met the same fate. Button-mashing is still around to impart spin, but distance is controlled entirely by the new Total Swing Control system.
On the whole, Total Swing Control is a positive. You the gamer controls where the ball lands and how it flies, and that's a great thing. Balancing overswinging and tempo takes a bit of getting used to, but it's still the best full swing mechanics EA has designed yet. While the full swing has felt disjointed and awkward in the past few years, it's as smooth as ever this year. Unfortunately, the game (as it long has) often suffers terrible frame rate drops when you try to add spin mid-flight.
There are some annoyances with the full swing, of course. Strike point is actually a cool feature, but it would be much better as an optional thing rather than having to use it to dig the ball out of the rough. I find myself often forgetting it's even there, a fact I'm reminded about when my hybrid from the rough flies only 50 yards in the air and dive-bombs the fairway.
In Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 there are many small things that, when added together, bog down the interface. The swing arc that you use to control your swing is nice, but it takes a few seconds to appear before you swing the ball. Also, if you have addressed the ball but decide that you need to open or close your stance, the swing arc is retraced every time you move. Another few seconds needlessly lost. The main HUD is sparse, and you often have to hit Start or change views to get information you need.
The biggest camera annoyance is that every time it reaches the target the camera needlessly pans slowly to the right. This makes it tough to line up where you want to aim, and while you can manually fixate the camera, it's another few seconds down the drain.
Around the Green
The short game is similarly riddled with nuisances. I've had nearly a dozen occurrences of a particular glitch, where, when I'm pitching the ball, the entire screen is obstructed by a nearby grandstand. Getting to the gameplay, probably the biggest pitching annoyance is that the recommended distance is rarely correct. I don't think I've ever had a case where hitting the given shot distance doesn't travel at least 15 feet past the hole.
The reasons for this are strike point and stance. The game expects you to adjust the strike point and stance to how you would want to hit the ball in real life. When in the sand, for example, you are expected to hit the sand first, like you would out on the course, with a very open stance. The process EA wants you to go through is actually longer than it would take to make those decisions on an actual golf course. This is a very unintuitive system, but can be almost entirely bypassed by simply limiting your backswing and using spin to get it close.
Unfortunately, EA decided to add a little animation that shows the first half of the ball flight from behind the player, which is nice to look at but takes away form the time you have to judge the amount of spin to add.
Punch shots are better and more useful than ever, while flop shots are less the comically high, hit-it-and-forget-it, Phil Mickelson-style shot that they used to be. They're much closer to pitch shots now, and while that's more realistic, it is so similar to pitching that it is redundant.
Unfortunately, putting is infinitely more irritable. The putting green interface has changed substantially over the years. Back in 2005, the game told you how much break the putt had in inches, and you had to estimate how far from the hole to aim the putt. It also included "Tiger Vision," which gave you the perfect location to aim you putt, up to three times a round. Starting in 2006 it was changed to a system more similar to the current one, except that there were set putter distances that you had to cycle thorough. The current putt preview system was later added, and it has been much the same since Tiger Woods 10.
This year's execution of putting is by far and away the worst. I don't know how sensitive the left thumbstick on your controller is, but the six-month-old one on my Xbox 360 controller is not sensitive enough for this game (I've tried other brands as well, to no avail). If you are willing to slog through the excruciatingly annoying process of drawing the putter back the absolute perfect distance, the game is easy. There is not a range of distances that you can draw the putter back (as past games had), you either get it right or you don't, and unless you really care about doing it correctly, you won't. EA Sports has a tutorial on their website which you can watch if you want, but don't expect it to help much. Amazingly, this could have been the best putting implementation if EA just swapped out last year's power meter for this year's, and kept the rest of Tiger 13's setup.
On the plus side, that animation I mentioned earlier about pitching, where part of the pitch is displayed from behind and to the side, is extended to putting. It's a fantastic view, and watching the ball roll towards the cup is simply stunning.
Menus and Manual
Before I get to the individual game modes, I first want to mention the game's menus, which are utterly terrible. After starting the game up, you need to hit four buttons before you get the main menu. Quite frankly, I don't need to be told that if I pull out my hard drive during gameplay, something bad is going to happen.
When you are on a menu, displayed with options across the top, the interface gives you no indication that there is another tab to advance to, and the only way to see the full slate of options in a menu is to scroll through them all. If I go to, for example, the "Jamieson Weiss Career" menu, I am by default shown the "Notifications" tab, which is often blank and always trivial. Why they don't just send me to the "Road to the PGA Tour" tab, the one I go to probably 90 percent of the time, I don't know.
Another problem is with the manual, or lack thereof. I paid $70 for the Collector's Edition of this game, and EA decided not to include a paper manual. There is a software-based one that can be accessed at any time (it's also available on EA's website), but it's skimpy and terrible to navigate. When it comes to Tiger Woods 13, you are essentially on your own.
Road to the PGA Tour
My favorite mode in any sports game has always been the franchise mode, which translates to Road to the PGA Tour in Tiger 13. EA Sports has been either unable or unwilling to settle on a specific version of this mode over time, but it has always been enjoyable. World Tour mode was on the 2004 edition, and Legacy Challenge, my personal favorite, was in the 2005 version of the game. 07 gave us the Tiger Challenge, which was "enhanced" by Hank Haney for the 09 version.
Recently we were introduced to a hybrid career mode of sorts. While older games generally had separate modes for battling characters and PGA Tour play, starting last year those were combined. You start on the Amateur Tour, and work your way up, passing through the Nationwide Tour along the way.
Game Face remains largely unchanged from past years and you also have the option of using Photo Game Face, which gives you several options to use a real photograph of yourself. I have a relatively nondescript face so I've never had a problem with creating myself manually, but our forum already has several PGF horror stories.
When you're ready to play some actual golf, before each tournament there are two mini-games to go through first. You then play four rounds in a tournament, the first three of which you can choose to simulate. Though I prefer some of the career modes of old, this current version is at the very least passable.
As appears par for the course in this game, there are some oddities in Road to the PGA Tour. Majors don't always unlock when you think they should (I won The Masters in my character's first PGA Tour stop, but even after winning several more PGA Tour events I couldn't accumulate a high enough world ranking to get into the U.S. Golf Championship), and the FedEx Cup points are weighted much differently than in real life. For example, at one point I was second in FedEx Cup points behind Tiger Woods, despite having five wins to Tiger's zero. I understand that EA was looking to create realism, showing that young players don't get to play all of the events they want, but they've gone a little too far.
Road to the PGA Tour is extremely deep, and you unlock clothes and clubs slow enough that you are always playing for something. While Titleist is still absent (no surprise), the options from Nike, TaylorMade, Mizuno, Cobra, and others is more than enough to make up for that. EA has finally perfected their implementation of hybrids, as they are no longer under the fairway woods category.
The new mode that EA has been heavily promoting is Tiger Legacy, which lets you play as Tiger Woods throughout the years as he makes his way up the ranks. The idea is a good one, and many of the modes are fun, but it can be equally frustrating. Several of the levels (one, in particular, is hooking a ball over or through the trees in the 15th fairway at Augusta) can be excruciatingly difficult. On the other side of the same token, some of the levels are just hitting three balls into a net. The problem with the hard levels is that the game gives you no feedback at all, and you are left to guess how much a five-MPH wind will affect a 10-yard pitch into a swimming pool. The easy levels are problematic because they're utterly pointless, and just waste time.
One beef I have with Tiger Legacy is that while some of the promotional material seemed to indicated that the younger versions of Tiger would include Tiger's old swings, indicated by that fact that the pictures often show younger Tigers with the club wrapped around their heads in the follow through, all versions of Tiger Woods have his current Foley swing. Tiger had that long follow through under Haney and Harmon, but he has since gone away from it with Foley, and in the game all Tigers have the Foley swing. The Foley swing is very realistic, though the backswing with long irons is comically short and highly unsatisfying.
That said, I've enjoyed Tiger Legacy mode, and would be glad if EA could find a way to keep it around next year. EA has been terribly inconsistent with modes like this in the Tiger Woods games though. While the Madden series added Superstar Mode back in 2006, and it's still around, the Tiger Woods games haven't enjoyed anywhere near that same amount of consistency. There's not a whole lot in common between Tiger Woods 13 and Tiger 2006 at all. Remember the highly-touted Ryder Cup from two years ago, Tiger Proofing in 2005, or the aforementioned Hank Haney feature in 2009? They're all long gone.
EA tends to come up with a few ideas every year, then sack the old ones, and I suspect Tiger Legacy is no different.
Online Play and Multiplayer
Gameplay over the internet is where Tiger Woods 13, thankfully, gets it right. Not only can you find a completely customized match against anyone, but new this year you can create and join online country clubs. We and our members have created country clubs on both the Xbox 360 and PS3, called "The Sand Trap CC," that anyone can join. Tournaments are customizable and the ability to move up in rankings is well executed. It's a nice addition, and EA Sports did it well.
Playing against friends in the same room is equally as well executed, and anyone who has played the game in the last decade can attest to the fact that the plethora of game modes is very welcome.
Players, Courses, Pins, and Coins
The amount of players and courses in the game remains high, but if you've played the game over the last few years you know that this remains a frustrating spot for gamers. While they continue to add players, they remove them nearly as quickly. Francesco Molinari was a big draw when they added him last year, but he's not in the game this year. Are Ben Crane and Ross Fisher really that much more valuable? And how the hell is Rhys Davies still in the game?
That said, 90 percent of the time I play with my own character, and that other 10 percent is filled largely with Tiger Woods, so the cast of players has never been all that important to me. I'm not a Phil Mickelson fan, but he's really the only character they could add that would really matter much to me, and I suspect it's the same for most gamers.
The same frustration continues for for courses. Gone are the likes of Harbour Town, TPC Boston, and Riviera, replaced by courses like Royal County Down and Valhalla. Many of the courses don't come in the box, which leaves 16 available via DLC (the Collector's Edition gives you four of those at what basically amounts to half price, plus the exclusive Augusta National Par Three course), and three available only if you pre-ordered the game (though it's possible EA releases Emerald Dragon, Doral, and Wolf Creek some time for DLC in the future). Some of my favorites include the stunningly gorgeous Kiawah Island, The Els Club in Dubai, and Predator, a fantasy course first introduced nearly a decade ago, now only available through DLC.
If you pay $60 for the regular version of the game, and want to buy all 16 of the DLC courses available, all told you're going to be shelling out up to $140 (though things like buying the Collector's Edition or buying the DLC course packs can lower that some). Each DLC course is 400 Microsoft Points (except for PGA National at 560), which equates to $4.99 a pop. While the huge selection of courses is nice, the price is simply outrageous, especially for a game that is released every year.
EA also allows access to courses through a system of Coins and Pins, a poorly-conceived structure that lets you pay for a set amount of rounds at a course. Coins are earned, slowly, by playing rounds in the game, and can also be purchased. In addition to buying rounds, Coins can also be used to buy additional Pins, which temporarily increase your skill level during a single round.
I think one of my biggest problems with the series is that what I really want is a "greatest hits" sort of game. Some of my best memories of the Tiger Woods games are playing the fantasy courses in World Tour from Tiger 2004 (when I didn't have to pay $5 a pop extra), battling against Seve's amazing short game in Legacy Challenge in Tiger 2005, or even playing against buffed-out made-up characters in the various iterations of Tiger Challenge
I saw an ad for the game recently and it brought back all of those memories. As fun as the stern test of Augusta National is, Tiger Woods PGA Tour used to be whimsical. Watching Pops Masterson hit the ball 270 while never bringing his hands more than halfway back was a lot of fun, and that's what the series has lost; fun.
I want to play as a crazy-haired Hawaiian in sandals, or as an eastern-European weightlifter in a t-shirt. I want to hit a short-iron into the floating green at Coeur d'Alene, and watch as Seve chips in, yet again, from the Road Hole bunker as I stand over a 10-footer for birdie, my virtual player's heart beating frantically. I miss create-a-swing, and Tiger Proofing, which was a sort of de facto create-a-course. I miss the rapid-paced camera cuts that would show my player posing in his follow-through after I crank out a button-mashing drive and I'd like to have back the insanely realistic Club Tuner feature.
Though features like Total Swing Control and Tiger Legacy are nice, the game has gone in the direction of simulation rather than arcade, when I think the happy medium would be ideal. While the realism of coming around Amen Corner battling for the lead is stunning, that's only "golf" for a very small portion of the gaming population.
Golf is feeling your stomach drop and your heart stop as your ball flies toward the water, not taking 20 minutes to set up a chip shot, or 30 seconds to draw back your putter exactly the right length.
This game is often fun to play but it's even more frequently annoying, and if EA has gone for realism, they've come up shorter than Tiger Woods did at this year's Masters.
Though our reviews aren't usually accompanied by a rating, video games are ranked on a numeric scale almost exclusively, so I am going to include one. Grading on the scale that most reviewers use (1-10, though anything less than a 6 and more than 9.5 is highly unlikely), I give it a 7.2. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 good enough in key areas that it's worth the $60 that EA is asking (if you aren't looking to play all of the courses, that is), but it could and should be much better, and I think it's going to hold a low replay value as the game ages.