My first visit to Augusta National broke the club's dress code with almost criminal negligence: I was wearing basketball shorts, a T-shirt, and was unshaven to boot. Sure, I was on my couch, but I told myself I was stepping to the tee box on the first hole of the world's most prestigious golf course. Does a trip to The Masters in a video game even qualify as a first time, and if so, can it be just as unforgettable?
Moved up three months to arrive in time for The Masters Tournament, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters redeems a video game fan request going on for more than 20 years - a trip to Augusta National Golf Course. With the title's namesake facing personal and professional adversity and, honestly, the genre of video game golf desperate for a breakthrough, EA Sports now plays this ultimate trump card.
Why You Should Care
Augusta National's few appearances in decade-old titles are nothing but answers to trivia questions. They and $6 win you a bar argument and a beer. This is the course's true video game debut. Only present-day, precision imaging technology, adapted for this title, could deliver not only Augusta's iconic beauty and sense of place, infused with history, but also one of the most longed-for and emotional experiences in all of sports gaming.
What We Liked
First, I'd Like to Thank My Caddy: A new feature, having a caddy to set up your shots, is an enormous breakthrough for this series, making it profoundly more accessible at a time when more newcomers than ever will want to pick it up. While the full shot-shaping tools remain available for intermediate players to experts, a caddy, when enabled, will recommend two approaches for most drives and second shots, one safe, one aggressive. Shot and club type, draw or fade, choke or full grip, all the variables account for your player's ratings, the wind, and the read of the green. It's not as simple as pounding whatever he calls out at 100 percent, either. Shots require real finesse on the analog stick to find the correct strength percentage. There, the game's practice swing feature is utterly essential to finding your form, as you get no assistance, rumble feedback or otherwise, once you address the ball. Experienced players will likely disable the caddy and continue to devise their own shots. You can deviate from the Caddy's recommendations on a stroke-by-stroke basis, but if you do, you are starting from scratch - there is no fine-tuning of his setup, a wise design choice for purposes of balance. For a duffer like me, the Caddy - like Madden's GameFlow - keeps the round playing smoothly, focused on action, execution and enjoyment.
A Standout Career: My greatest moment in this game was not at Augusta National. It came the week before it. EA Sports revamped its career mode, "Road to the Masters," into one of the best role-playing experiences in sports gaming. You'll create a golfer with a focus on earning your PGA Tour card (Qualifying School makes its first appearance) and a bid to The Masters, a constantly renewing objective. A new Tour sponsorship system and pre-event challenges deepen your professional experience. For me, I won my first two events, but got very sloppy in the second and third rounds of my third stop. I gutted out the fourth round, finished tied for third, and slipped into the Top 100, good for a bid to The Masters. The joy and pride in earning my way to play Augusta National is unlike any I've ever felt playing a video game.
A Virtual Membership at the World's Most Exclusive Course: That's not to say career mode is the only way to play Augusta National, with or without tournament presentation or conditions. I simply chose to save my first 18-hole round for the first one of my pro career. The entirety of the course - including Augusta's delightful and similarly historic Par 3 course - is available to you whenever you like, however you like, any choice of holes. Stroke, match, or nine other modes of play, nothing is restricted. A set of 10 "Masters Moments," recreating famous shots, joins the series' familiar Tiger Moments (now Tiger at The Masters); these, plus the hole introductions and flybys and an "Inside Augusta" feature are strongly educational. It's a credit to EA Sports that its product will serve this beloved course to millions for the first and only times in their lives, and to Augusta National Golf Club for entrusting a video game to offer that experience.
"Bogeys Easy, if Frankly Sought:" Augusta National plays completely differently compared to the other courses on your virtual tour and you will see it the first time your approach to the first green rolls left a mile to the rope. It is palpably more challenging as the pin positions move over a full four rounds, really impressing on you this course's famous demands of your second shot. After four rounds, I may not have completely understood No. 9 but I had formed a relationship with it. All my approaches went long, as I went birdie (long putt, seen here) bogey, par, and a par that felt 100 percent like birdie.
Little Things That Mean a Lot: You get a replica of The Masters scorecard when you complete a round, a really winning touch. A leather bag tag, shown during loading screens, is adorned with your course mastery medallion and pins for things like birdie streaks and hazard-free rounds. Your sponsor's pin, however, is removed when you visit Augusta National, which frowns on commercialism. The game also built in realistic variable tee times, based on where you finished the preceding round. I saw deep shadows on Friday at Augusta National after leading the first round at -4. I was up at the crack of dawn on Sunday, well out of contention. Progressive lighting and weather will also change during your round, and when you finish, watching the scores come in behind you delivers its own tension.
What We Didn't Like
Commentary is Cheap: Jim Nantz, whose presence is mandatory as the Voice of the Masters, is most prone to criticism when he delivers obviously scripted lines in live events, and video game commentary is nothing but scripted lines. There's little of the conversational warmth for which I enjoy his work the most. Instead, the generic stuff has a noticeably overacted quality, though Nantz deserves credit for dialing it in on The Masters presentation. Even there, and this is the game's fault, not his, the dialogue is rarely served in a context larger than your current hole and sometimes it's completely tone deaf to the story of your round. The commentary, overall, misses too many opportunities to generate or even respond to excitement.
The TPC at DLC: There are six events on my first year with the PGA Tour that I'm not qualified for because I haven't bought the course off the game's very robust DLC menu. EA Sports says it was responding to community requests that DLC courses be playable within one's career. I inquired as to pricing, both a la carte and package deals and couldn't get a figure prior to this review; they weren't set up on the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live pre-release. The game's sales pitch has you in a vulnerable spot here, which is probably intentional. I would have preferred for DLC course inclusion in career mode to be a user-selectable option rather than forcing the proposition of buying something or skipping an event. Regardless, you still get 17 events in your first season, and major tournaments and 16 courses like Pebble Beach and St. Andrews are standard.
Minor Dents and Scratches: The audio tips off that this was an ambitious project completed in three fewer months than usual. Crowd reaction is very generic. Music is very repetitive mid-round, with skips and jags during menu transitions. Some visual hiccups also show a lack of polish, or lack of the time to apply it. Your club clips through the turf on a downhill lie, some transitions cut too quickly from the leaderboard animation, and stock post-shot animations will have your golfer walking in strange directions, even into the water if the camera is facing that way. Finally, I was not a fan of the PlayStation Move support, chiefly because you don't swing into the screen, you are in fact aimed left or right of it depending on your handedness. This makes it difficult to gauge swing strength, and though the shot may be accurate and long, the backswing-to-strike connection is almost always jagged.
The Bottom Line
I can't remember how many times I've won it all in my first trip through a sports game's career mode. World Series, Super Bowl, national championship, you name it. My first trip to The Masters, I led after one round and got the same familiar feeling, that this would also be an event catered to me, played on my terms.
Then I got fed into a paper shredder. I finished tied for 36th, five over for the tournament. You know what, though, I earned that score, and I'm proud of it, and proud of how I held up and pulled through even after a Saturday that saw four devastating three-putts, including a No. 15 choke that vaporized from eagle opportunity to God-let-me-make-this par.
I did, gratefully, birdie my final hole. At that point, this video game became the only thing I want to play. I'm not sure when I'll put it down. I want to come back to The Masters again, and build on what I've learned about the course and myself. I can't wait to watch the event in two weeks, and second-guess or predict the action on a more informed basis, thanks to a video game.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters is one of the richest and most memorable experiences I have ever had, not just as a sports gamer, but as a sports fan. It is highly recommended for all sports fans, and mandatory for anyone who loves golf.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters was developed by EA Sports and published by Electronic Arts for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii, released on March 29, 2011. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Reviewed primarily on the PlayStation 3; played all game modes, offline and online, qualifying for The Masters in career mode played with four-round events, and playing several additional courses in quick play mode. Did not win the Green Jacket. But I will someday.