It’s that time of year again. The smell of freshly-cut grass is in the air, the birds are singing, the sun is in the…well, it’s mostly rainy and windy here in the UK, but there you go. Whatever the weather, its Tiger Woods PGA Tour time.
This year, EA have provided a mostly iterative update to the series, with a couple of big promotable additions to attempt to woo the punters. “Legends of the Majors” is a new mode that takes you back in time – all the way back to 1873, in fact – to play through some of the more historical moments from the first century-and-a-bit of professional golf. There are more than 60 scenarios to play through here, ranging from Tom Morris using his baffing spoon and mashie niblick (a 5 Wood and 7 Iron in today’s terms) to try to win the first Open at St. Andrews, through to Tiger Woods taking his umpteenth victory. Older scenarios are played through a camera filter that washes out the colours a little, or puts them in full black-and-white. This all works nicely and will provide fans with a lot of playing time for their money.
The other major new addition are what EA is calling “Connected Tournaments.” Here, you play rounds of golf in tournament fashion against online players who may or may not be playing at the same time as you. If they’re online and cracking the ball around the course, you’ll see the arcs of their shots shoot out from the tee as you’re addressing the ball, or zip across the green as you’re lining up your shot – all in real-time. Again – with the exception of the odd bug here and there – this works well. We don’t really understand the funfair over it though, given that a very similar inclusion could be found in the now decade-old Links 2004 for the original Xbox.
On the course, PGA Tour 14 is as sharp as ever. The new day-and-night cycles (in conjunction with the always-stellar weather system) means that two rounds on the same course very rarely feel identical. The swing system has been tweaked to ensure that better players are rewarded for the accuracy of their play, too. All swings are controlled with the left thumbstick, and have you pulling down to start your backswing, then pushing forward at the top of the swing in order to hit the ball. Deviations to the left and right of your inputs, and swinging too slowly or quickly all have their effect on the outcome of the shot – especially when you’re putting. This method of doing things feels natural and challenging from the outset, and when you pull in the ability to alter the trajectory of your shot, and the exact spot in which your player will hit the ball, you really do feel as if you have total control. Dropping a ball over a low-hanging tree and having it stop within a few feet of the cup feels absolutely outstanding, as does making the right call with regards to attacking the pin or playing it safe and entrusting the score to your putting.
But there are problems to be found. The sheer wealth of playing options, currencies, and meta-games on offer just feel like overkill. For example, you can play a “Connected Tournament” – if there’s one available that’s playable on a course that you own - but you can also play a straight Xbox Live tournament which by definition, is connected. You can play a Connected Tournament against members of your Country Club, but you can also play a Country Club tournament against members of your Country Club, or you might just want to play a standard Live tournament and limit it to members of your Country Club. Some of these events will give you Status Points (for the Country Club leaderboards), but some of them will just give you XP and Coins, and the XP can level up your golfer so you can improve his or her skills, but you can also buy your way to the next level using the coins that you earned. Frequently, you’ll play a round, earn enough XP to level up, and also have enough coins to be able to level up again. Failing that, you can use the coins (or Microsoft Points) to buy packs of “Pins” which can be applied to your golfer at the start of each round (but only a limited number of times) which can also improve their skills. Oh, and by levelling up, you’ll probably unlock a new item of clothing or- if you’re lucky - a new brand of club, shaft, or ball which will enhance your skills, too. Although if you’ve got the EA Season Pass, then you instantly get access to clubs that allow you to blow away the early opposition – removing quite a lot of challenge from the game.
It’s all too much. Sure, it really is nice to have options to play exactly as we would like, but the way that things are handled in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 is just overkill, especially when you consider that the menus are poorly laid out. How do you switch out the 3 Hybrid club from your set for a traditional 3 Wood? Is that in the “Equipment” menu, or the “Edit Golfer” menu? I don’t want my golfer to be wearing a hat. Is that under “Clothing” or “Edit Golfer” and then “Appearance”?
You can quickly get tied up in knots, almost as much as the game’s commentary team can at times.
Plus all of these skill upgrades, permanent boosts, temporary boosts, equipment purchases - or whichever way you like to make your player better – really do detract from the game, simply because your golfer starts off with too far much talent. In your first round of the career mode, you’ll be lucky to come in at less than 5 over par. The round will be tough, but no doubt enjoyable. After all the upgrades that you’re awarded, your second event will see you bolt in at around even par. By the time you’re on your fourth or fifth tournament – even with the difficulty set high – you’ll be blitzing the opposition. The worst thing about this is that the game isn’t half as enjoyable when you don’t have to pay attention to what you’re doing. Sinking a 6ft putt to avoid being cut on the 18th in the second round of an event when the CPU isn’t correcting your mistakes is supremely rewarding. Doing it three tournaments later when the CPU is countering your errors so much that you’re finding it hard to make a mistake in your putting swing really is not. By the time your created golfer reaches the PGA Tour (or the LPGA Tour, for the first time in the series), they’ll probably have enough in the way of skills to break every record out there and win every event in a canter. That just isn’t fun.
Unfortunately, the upgrades are all required if you even want to be competitive online. Five hole shootouts are rarely won by 30 players all coming in on -7 and you can’t do that without a big drive, perfect putting, and error-free approach play – all of which can be accomplished by upgrading your golfer.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 is a polished but unfocused package. In single player, there are times when the excitement goes through the roof, but these quickly become rarer and rarer as your player quickly becomes too good for the opposition and all the challenge is removed. Online, unrealistic matchups are the order of the day. The mechanics of the game are absolutely spot on and the improvements there really do the job, but pretty much everything outside of actually swinging at the ball is surprisingly messy. Perfectly playable, but you'll have to be quite forgiving to play for too long.