It’s been fourteen years since Tiger Woods’ name first appeared on the boxes of the PGA Tour games when the endorsement deal began. In that time, we’ve had fifteen main games and a handful of ports and miniature versions launched at us. Without question, the series has come a fair way* since Tiger Woods PGA Tour 99 and indeed Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005, which was the last in the series before the emergence of the current crop of next-generation consoles. After a slightly uncomfortable yet expectant transition period for the series onto the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Electronic Arts handed the reins over to EA Tiburon and since 2007 they’ve been doing their best to innovate and improve each yearly iteration.
Have they been successful? Debatable.
This year’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour game at least shows consistency from the year before, in that the changes made have been both erratic and unnecessary. Now that The Masters is a part of the franchise, EA haven’t felt the need to adorn the box art and game menus with promotions to let you know what an acquisition this has been; instead you now get a Notifications tab in a navigation bar on the menus that is littered with boasting about all the new features introduced. One of the biggest new additions – and something that some could see as an insult to their commitment to purchase – is a Coin system that operates as a freemium model by offering players the chance to buy in-game money to be used to ‘master’ DLC courses and eventually unlock unlimited use on them. While you could argue that this is perhaps a positive in that you can play courses you’d otherwise have to buy, there’s a reason why EA are giving you the option to bypass buying DLC. Aside from the obvious debate surrounding on-disc DLC, this new feature asks you to use virtual money which can be bought with real money to massively fast-track only the potential to unlock unlimited play on individual courses.
It’s not easy to completely avoid the virtual money system and just play with what you’re given: the online matchmaking will occasionally try to throw you in games which require you to own the course and ask you to pay with virtual coins to play while the game continually rewards you for playing rounds with only a handful of coins that add to a pittance of a total perpetually displayed in the top right of the menu screens. The virtual money is ever-present in the game and thus heavily detracts from actually playing the game. Anyone who doesn’t want to play online – understandable, since many of the few thousand prowling the online component are the best you’re likely to find – and just want to play a round of virtual golf will find themselves at an immediate disadvantage, because Tiger Woods 13 has been specially optimised for those willing to pay more and/or fast-track.
Other new features include Boost Pins which let you attach pins to your course badge and receive one-off boosts to your ratings or tweaks to the round such as wind reduction that aid you, and a more streamlined sponsorship option which allows you to play special rounds in the Career mode and receive sponsor deals as a reward. You get a select number of pins to use on your created player or one of the 22 available professional players: once used, you can Refill an allowance… for a small fee. While the ability to intensely customise the difficulty is welcome, if you’d like to try and play fair without pins good luck with that, because chances are an online opponent will be just that extra bit masterful and the pins may make the difference in rounds against a wildly unpredictable AI. As for the sponsorship deals, if you’d like to skip playing the bonus Sponsor rounds that appear during each calendar event but reap the benefits of individual sponsorships feel free to purchase these with real money.
One eye will unavoidably be drawn towards the red exclamation marks that hang above the notifications tabs that inform you of what extra can be bought and right up until you reach the loading screen for each round you’re offered chances to purchase things or use replenishable additions. The huge focus on extra purchase extends to external peripherals too: several games now suggest your gaming experience is ‘optimised for Move’ or ‘better with Kinect’ and certainly with the former claim, this rings true with Tiger Woods 13 more than you’d expect. The control system has been adapted to work more smoothly with a Move controller or standing in front of your TV – you can switch the view mode to first person while playing with the Move controller if you’d like – but as a result of this the swing mechanics from tee to hole have been altered. Again, you’re welcome to play Tiger Woods 13 with a controller but you’re inclined to remember that you may enjoy the game more if you invest in motion controls.
If you’re familiar with the previous games you’ll find the acclimatisation period where you get to grips with the new control mechanics an uncomfortable one; if you’re less familiar you’ll probably spend several hours trying to work out how to play the game the way it wants you to. The motion control optimisation has meant that you have to apply a different analogue stick motion to swings from previous games to achieve the desired effect but regardless of priors, you have to be gentler and slower to compensate for the game trying to more accurately authenticate the power received from different swing movements while factoring in the player not having a golf club in their hands. Many half-swings produce the same end-product as a full one, while a battle that still rages between me and the new putting system shows no end in sight.
It took me over a week to receive scorecards I was happy with and that’s down to how the game now plays and what EA Tiburon have done with it. Having tested the motion controls I can attest to two things that sadden me. One is that motion controls are at best a different way to play Tiger Woods 13; the other is that as a consequence of this the control mechanics I’m using are ones I’ve had to get used to as opposed to master. I’m losing rounds online because of silly mistakes on the putting green or at the tee and I’m having to use my earned experience points to improve areas of my custom character I’d have otherwise de-prioritised. Furthermore, I feel like taking a stand against EA’s insistence on implementing a freemium model in a full retail game is a fruitless endeavour since I’m retroactively punished for refusing to use enhancements that I’d have to pay to refill.
Like the last few iterations, Tiger Woods 13 has its moments – the Country Clubs feature (which lets you make or join a club and play on behalf of them online in matchmaking or tournaments) is one of the rare few additions that I’d count as a success, along with debatably the Legacy Mode which lets you play as toddler Tiger right through his career and to a potential future – but ultimately it’s a hit and miss scenario and, more so than ever, a sordid sign of things to come. EA aren’t entirely to blame for wanting to see paying players fork over three times the cost of the disc to receive all the content – this generation and an initial public acceptance of paid extra content has served to spur publishers on, EA or otherwise – but for an ultimately niche franchise like Tiger Woods PGA Tour that sees consistent sales from a select audience, the directions being taken to enhance both game accessibility and profit margin is one that can easily punish long-time players who willingly pay for familiarity and consistency.
Fans (like myself) of a series like Tiger Woods fall under the same bracket as fans of a series like Street Fighter or World of Warcraft, devoted and largely looking for more of the same. We accept change as an inevitability but hope that those who reside on the development side make changes that serve to enhance the experience or improve what’s already there: Tiger Woods PGA Tour is a series that is having sporadic, erratic alterations made to it that mess with the formula that has worked for so long which risks alienating those who pay the yearly entry fee.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 is a game that compounds a lingering fear: EA want the audience reach of the franchise to be expanded exponentially but are simultaneously fixing what ain’t broke, at the cost of embittering those who pledge their allegiance the most. It’s a risky game for the sake of continual innovation but superficiality is a more apt word to describe the changes being made.
*I do not feel sorry about that play on words.