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EA Sports' long-standing Tiger Woods series finally lands the big one...
It’s the jewel in the crown of professional golf; the biggest spectacle of the sport’s four major championships by quite some margin; an equivalent to Wimbledon in tennis, The Ashes in cricket, or The Super Bowl in American football – it's the US Masters at Augusta National. What else can you say about a golf course that has its own airport? An airport for crying out loud! That’s like having a bus stop in your front room. And then there’s the natural beauty of the course itself: luminous green fairways, white bunker traps, and shrubbery that would make God blush. Seriously, if a little piece of heaven was lopped off and made into a golf course, then this is what it would look like. Of course, because we dwell across the sinful lands of planet earth (thanks, Adam/Eve), none of these pleasures come for free. Augusta is the most exclusive golf course on the planet – to play there, you have to be the sort of person who’s so wealthy that they own the colour yellow or something. Alternatively, you could just become one of the best golfers in the world and play in the annual Masters tournament.
Or just play virtually in this year’s Tiger Woods. For the first time in video game history, the Masters has been officially licensed out to feature in a golf title and you can be sure that EA has rolled out the red carpet for it. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 is quite literally dedicated to the tournament; EA Sports and Tiburon have practically written a love letter here. This latest licensing deal is actually one of a string of high-profile acquisitions for the Tiger Woods series, with the US Open coming two years ago and the Ryder Cup last year. However, although key features have been added alongside these previous licenses (e.g. real-time weather and Live Tournament updates when the US Open was added), they all pale in comparison to the wealth of new features and modes that have been dealt out alongside this Masters license.
Firstly, the all-new career mode has been built specifically around the Masters. Rather than entering the PGA Tour from the outset, players now need to rank-up through the tiers of Amateur and Nationwide Tours, as well as a final qualifying tournament to gain entry to the PGA Tour. It’s little more than padding that prolongs the experience, but it’s welcome padding nonetheless. Once you’ve entered the PGA Tour, the main goal of the mode is to reach and win the Masters. Qualification is achieved by either holding a top 100 position in the career rankings, or by completing the supplementary Masters Moments mode. Put simply, this is a mode of historical scenarios that challenge you to recreate famous shots and performances in Masters history, be it Tiger Woods’ famous chip-in at the 16th hole from 2005, or Gene Sarazen’s ‘shot heard ‘round the world’ Albatross from 1935 (in other words, they’re very hard to replicate).
As if this isn’t enough to steep you in Masters history and nostalgia, a Tiger Woods At The Masters scenario mode has also been included in a similar vein to the Masters Moments. This time focused on Tiger’s career exclusively, the mode allows you to play through his four Masters wins, matching his performance in each round while playing against the same field of competitors and scores of each given year. Both scenario modes add a considerable amount of depth and replayability to the whole Masters experience and are precisely the right way to make good use of the license. In addition to all of this, EA has repeated the US Open Live Tournament feature from Tiger Woods 10 for this weekend’s Masters tournament, which means you can compete against real-world scores from the pros as they're posted over the coming days. There even seems to be a Live Tournaments feature dedicated to Masters tournaments of years gone bye, although EA was yet to upload these scores to the servers when we went live with this review.
The Augusta course itself has clearly had a lot of time dedicated to it, making for unquestionably the best looking course in a Tiger Woods game to date. In fact, we can’t help but feel that the whole game has had a lick of paint applied to it – textures appear crisper and character models sharper through courses that are just that bit more vivid. In Augusta’s case though, EA Tiburon has nailed the pristine sand traps, luscious greens, and bright floral displays synonymous with the course. Not only that, but the gameplay is spot-on too – in particular, the speed and gradients of the greens are exceptionally difficult to judge, exhibiting the same kind of notorious difficultly that the world’s best golfers fall foul to on our TV screens each spring. Truly, this game does the heritage of the tournament proud; it’s more than worthy of all the added Masters branding on the front of the box.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of refinement and even a couple of big new gameplay features. Caddies mark the biggest overall design change from Tiger Woods 11: each shot is now prefaced with a first-person view down the fairway and your caddie in the immediate foreground. From here, he’ll offer a couple of pre-arranged shots (usually one conservative option as well as an alternative aggressive one) and all you need do is match the suggested power to execute the swing. This feature really is just for newcomers to the series though, as any veterans will quickly realise that their own judgement is going to be superior to their caddie’s for the vast majority of shots, even if these caddies do make better suggestions as they gain experience. Gamers who don’t know their fades from their draws or flops from their chips may well warm to the feature however, as it does make for a particularly accessible route into the gameplay and sport as a whole.
In terms of refinement, a couple of neat little additions both enhance and bolster the game's already impressive feature set. Gamers who played the career mode last year are awarded with bonus XP when when they create a new player in Tiger Woods 12, which will no doubt be a happily received loyalty reward by all. Tiburon has also refined the higher difficulty levels to balance some of its key features from last year's game so that True-Aim is now a mandatory setting for the hardest difficulty and Focus is removed in the difficulty level below that. It's a clear indication that True-Aim went down well with fans of the series last year, allowing EA to fold it into the gameplay to a greater extent. We were big fans of the feature in Tiger Woods 11 simply because it added a freshness to the experience and a new challenge, so it's encouraging to see that there's a reason to use it this time around.
Although there's no Ryder Cup in this year's game (simply because the biannual tournament isn't being played this year), a new Presidents Cup license has been brought in to fill the void. It's basically the same team-based format as its more famous older brother, featuring a series of rounds across different match types such as foursomes, fourballs, and good old-fashioned stroke play. However, instead of a US team facing a European team as in the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup pits an International side against the Americans. This tops off a really rather impressive range of modes for Tiger Woods 12, which adds considerably to an already rich list of returning features such as online multiplayer tournaments updated on a daily basis and the permissive ranking of Gamernet.
However, one major criticism of this year's iteration is that some of the courses that were supplied on the disc of last year's game have now been released as paid DLC. While it's perfectly fine to offer all-new courses as DLC for gamers who want to purchase them, it does seem a bit cheap to retract the ones that were previously part of an established roster, such as Wolf Creek and Torrey Pines. You definitely get the feeling that EA is cheating you out of content as a result, even if this is because some of the courses have been dished out as pre-order incentives instead this year (Bethpage Black and Turnberry) or as part of an exclusive PS3 Collector's Edition (TPC Boston).