Last year's sports video game of the year, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series this year faces what NBA 2K12 did in October—a nearly impossible encore. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 at last delivered The Masters, reviving a series that had plateaued and giving longtime golf fans moments and memories that were legitimately emotional.
How can you top that? EA Sports' bag of tricks this year includes a re-creation of Tiger Woods' life (and the imagining of an idealized future), social networking and Kinect support. Most importantly, however, it went to a swing doctor, and unlike Hank Haney, you won't want to fire this one.
Again, to reintroduce my method of reviewing video games: I go through 10 features of the game in ascending order of the enjoyment they delivered. The stuff you read first is the negative, the stuff you read last is the positive-but this format allows for the fact that some things I disliked may be qualities that others value.
Ten Things You Should Know About Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13
10. You Can't Hold Back at Augusta: EA Sports reserved two new inclusions—Augusta National's practice facility and a Green Jacket championship ceremony—for the collector's edition which, oh by the way, you can buy that extra stuff online even if you got the regular old edition. It is blatantly anti-consumer and defines the practice of holding out core game content to sell it for extra. The fact they held Augusta National's Par 3 course out for the Collector's Edition this year, when it was on the main disc last year, is even worse. It's actually an event in your career mode, as a unique sponsor's event to warm up for The Masters (taking place in real life today). I held my nose and bought the upgrade (about $15 I think), which is hidden in the main Xbox Live and PSN stores for some reason, because the game is much richer with that content. It absolutely should have been part of the main edition.
9. Round Two of the TPC at DLC: This is the second year that more than half of the full course offerings are premium content (in some form). It's handled a little differently, which you can look on one of two ways: Either you get to try some of these places before you buy them, or you're renting game content. New to this year's game is a coin economy which rewards you for play, achievements, completed rounds and such. A round of golf at a premium course is 3,000 coins, roughly equal to 10 rounds of completed play. You may buy coin packs, too (in lots of 6,000, 9,000 or 12,000), and the conversion means 3,000 coins is about a buck. The game then downloads the course and you get to play it for however many rounds you've bought. It remains on the disc after you use up your privileges. It's important to note that if you quit out of that round, your round is over, and it's a round, not holes, so if you just want to play the front nine of Atlanta Athletic Club, that's still 3,000 coins. There's no stop-and-resume, either. Also, be very careful: Your course options are whatever you set in your most recent Play Now game. If you just played No. 16 at Augusta National, and nothing else, that's the default when you load Banff Springs. So always, always check your course options for anything you are renting. I'm on the fence about this practice because there is some benefit to playing a single round if you aren't interested in paying real money for something you won't use much. But as software-as-a-service is increasingly a priority for EA Sports, I'm wary of this thing succeeding, for what it'll mean next year and in other titles. Thinking up a way in which the user puts locked premium DLC on his own drive is rather devious, give them that.
8. Complex Economics: About that coin economy—it's rather opaque to me and seems arbitrary in what it awards. It also feels underpowered, forcing you to go create a Country Club and get a lot of people to join it, because that creates a progressive multiplier that awards you coins for loyalty. It's good that there can be a strength-in-numbers way to exploit the economy (dear God, this sounds like organizing workers! That's socialism!) but it forces you to either join a very large country club, or do a lot of work building one. Oh by the way, I've created Stick Jockey Country Club, the membership password is jockey95stick. Join up, I need some coins.
7. My Caddie, My Caddie, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? This is a small category, but the Caddie, who debuted in last year's game, was one of the greatest NPCs in sports video gaming. He appeared on your screen, he was voiced, you could even pick up additional greens-reading information from his audio (a two- or three-cups-to-the-right recommendation was absolutely accurate.) He is gone this year, not on your screen (it was great seeing him in the white Augusta jumpsuit) and no audio either, which is a pity. In exchange you get to line-item veto his suggestions, a feature that was deliberately withheld last year as it could have unbalanced the game, the way shots were executed. So now, you can set up the direction, fade, distance, but maybe club up if you think he's giving you too much credit on an iron shot. You aren't guaranteed to get two recommendations anymore, but when you do, one of them will probably be completely insubstantial for the distance, especially if it's a short approach. The caddie is terrible at telling you how to chip onto the green, and most everything he suggests goes long, so pull back. He also is terrible about advising completely gratuitous draws or fades, some which require the most minute deviations from a standard, straight-ahead swing.
6. Diss Kinect: The inclusion of Kinect support is a curiosity but not a reason to buy this game. Its biggest problem is that you must stand parallel to the screen, rather than driving into it, which means you're looking at a wall or making an unnatural swing motion as you play. (This is how PlayStation Move handles it, too.) At lower difficulties, so much of the effort is made in setting up the shot, and then once you swing (and it's very forgiving of your swing), it's up to the dice roll of your golfer's attributes. See that video. At higher difficulties, the backswing registers inconsistently, which exposes you to frustrating slices and hooks. I've never been interested in playing sports video games with motion control, and this provides no real incentive to try.
5. Hello, Friends: Jim Nantz and David Feherty were rushed into duty last year and—though this isn't entirely their fault—provided some bland and repetitive commentary on the action. Presentation gets some notable upgrades but it still doesn't go far enough. Midround action often restates something you either know or just saw, and if the caddie's audio was cut to make room for something, it wasn't Nantz and Feherty's banter. Nantz does a better job with his lines this year, but there's no flyover commentary for each hole at Augusta, just when you enter Amen Corner. It would be nice if Nantz acknowledged the fact you're an amateur at Augusta, it seems like that would be one career detail that could be easily included in a couple of lines. The gallery is much better this year; last year's crowd was lifeless and boring to look at, now they look like actual fans, and will respond when you're really on a charge.
4. Pinteresting Choices: The bag tag and pin collection from last year ditches the old achievement structure in favor of actual functionality this year. But it somewhat leaves me cold. Pins now are in-game boosts, covering things like driver distance or golfer attributes. They are limited to five uses though and, again, it's based on rounds, not total holes. You can apply up to three. You get pins buy buying up "Pin Packs," ranging from 4,000 to 15,000 coins (so $1.50 to $5). Refill pin packs cost the most, they allow you to renew a pin's uses (You will keep pins even if you deplete them of uses). This is a decent way to commoditize things like the driver boost or putt preview, which can be game-breaking at lower difficulties. It also is a way to give your created golfer a real leg up at a Major. But it doesn't really appeal to me, and I really enjoyed last year's pin collection, whose bag tag was displayed at the loading screen and advertised your honest proficiency at this game to others in multiplayer.
3. The Tale of a Tiger: This opinion is outside the mainstream but I enjoy the Legacy Challenge and find it to be a very purpose-driven way to have some pick-up-and-play fun without doing a nine- or 18-hole experience that takes up to an hour. Recreating Tiger Woods' youth, his ascent as a golfer, and some of his most dazzling performances has some very tough difficulty spikes, and the portions of the mode that feel like a tutorial don't provide you with much information on how to execute. Still, playing a stretch of holes from his first event at Stanford, for example, is a way to connect you to the story of a guy who still is the greatest golfer of his time. The unlockable Tigers and extra characters—the sports celebrities of the widely disparaged pre-order bonus DLC are unlocked in pro-am challenges set in the future—provide a decent reward. Hey, I like it.
2. A Solid Career: This was mentioned earlier in my story of Jane Callaway, amateur golfer at this year's Masters, but the real strength of this game is its career mode, which gets some modest tinkering but not huge new features. That doesn't diminish its appeal. The Amateur career , which includes the potential of playing at The Masters before turning professional, helps you create more of a backstory for your golfer. It's neat to see that (a) by your name on the leaderboard. I worry that, again, after that first professional season the mode will trail off in incentive and appeal. But I sunk dozens of hours into what was basically a golf RPG last year, and intend to do so this year.
1. It's Got That Swing: The saving grace for this game is its new Total Swing Control. Without it, there would be very little reason to get this year's version over last year's game, especially if you sunk a lot of effort into Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 and bought up a good chunk of its DLC. But the new swing provides a more authentic way to shape shots, and more ownership of their outcomes, than last year's game, which was simply setting up the shot and then hitting the correct percentage on your swing strength. Total Swing Control does not do a good job of telling you how to execute a proper swing—that is up to you, through a pretty steep trial-and-error period early in your time with the game. Once you start to feel where on the sticks your draw and fade start positions are, the game really opens up to you. Shot setup, which was inscrutably tough on newcomers the last two years, feels streamlined this year and more intuitive, if you're going to go it alone. For a sports title that doesn't have the kind of roster and season of a Madden or NBA 2K to give it meaning, gameplay is critical, and this upgrade by itself makes Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, ultimately, recommendable.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13's best distinction is also the one that most weakens its appeal to those who bought last year's groundbreaking title. I feel like it is the game that developers at EA Sports Tiburon really wanted to make a year ago, but didn't have either the time or resources to because of the debut of Augusta National, the need to establish the new career mode, and a shortened production schedule to time the game's arrival with The Masters Tournament. Total Swing Control has the feel of something they wanted to address for a long time; give them credit, they did it very well.
Still, I can't bring myself to get rid of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters and not just because I bought eight courses for it. Though its swing controls are not half as satisfying to execute, it was still a very solid game, with some content that didn't reappear this year but should have, cleared out for features that make extra money for Electronic Arts. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13is a very good game, but longtime players who got last year's version, and are very comfortable in its advanced shot setup and execution, have little reason to replace it.