Gifts for golf nuts came early this year from our friends at EA. After striking a major deal for the Tiger Woods franchise, EA made the business decision to release their newest title a bit earlier this year. Barely into the year 2011, we're to say hello to the first 2012 EA Sports title before the first quarter is over. You see, this is the year Electronic Arts finally scores a huge boom for golf gaming, and they didn't let you, or Tiger Woods himself forget it. This is the year that the Augusta National Golf Course is included, as is the Masters, and there was no way EA would release this while the tournament itself wasn't fresh in everybody's minds. The game released March 29th, a full 9 days before the annual tee-off in Georgia. It's hard to say, however, whether EA wanted to downplay their association with Tiger this year a bit, or upsell their new addition, but the packaging of this game very clearly painted a picture that this game was "THE MASTERS: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12" and not just the latter, though once you pop the game in, you see that it is still very Tiger heavy. Joining the announcing fray this year is the legendary Jim Nantz, perfect considering Nantz has been the voice of the Masters for well over 20 years. Nowadays, a Masters without the voice of Nantz would be like the Superbowl without at least one scandalous lawsuit-inducing commercial. Thankfully, EA recognized the two go hand in hand and brought him onboard.
When you jump into the game, you're placed right on the last hole of the 2011 Masters where Tiger Woods is tied for the lead with Anthony Kim. You've then got to birdie the par 4 18th to win. The 18th isn't very difficult, and you should be able to stick your 2nd shot close enough to the hole to take home your 5th green jacket. You're then swooped into congratulations, 5 achievement points and into the create a golfer screen. Here, you can import your golfer from TW11, or create a new one with the assistance of EA's standard creator you now see in all their games. This time around, however, the Vision cam works faster than just about all the games, and no longer do you have to wait half your weekend for your character's face to be generated. Following this, you're taken to the main menu to begin your career, or play around with the different game modes.
Graphics have always been solid in the Tiger Woods series, and this is no exception. The players look even better than they did last year, the sun glistens brightly off even the smallest of ponds, and even the grass textures look better than last year. EA decided to institute what appears to be a more 3-dimensional grass texture than past years, which makes fairways look tidier, and rough look rougher than ever. I still wonder, however, why they continue to make much of the background characteristics very hollow and one-dimensional. I understand that the game is completely about golf, and never graphics first and golf second, but the uninspiring backdrops coupled with bright golf courses make me wonder if I've suddenly regressed into a golfing version of Streets of SimCity. There's just so much more to be done with the graphics that EA is more than capable of doing. Hopefully as years go by, you will start to see much more detailed golf greenery. Layered bunkers and meticulously groomed fairway patterns are definitely the way of the golf gaming future.
With regard to gaming modes, one of the cooler additions is the "Masters Moments" game within a game. Here, you're faced with the task of taking your created golfer through a series of scenarios from actual Masters tournaments of the past, from Arnold Palmer's surge through the 1958 leaderboards, to Tiger Woods' masterful chip-in in 2005. You get different medals based on how well you follow the objective. You "master" the challenge if you do exactly what the golfer himself did. If you're a Tiger Woods veteran, I'd recommend jumping into this mode right away since with very few mechanical gameplay changes, you'll be playing much of the same game. Of course, if you don't feel your golfer's stuff is up to par yet, you can go back to the main menu and select "Tiger at the Masters" which is a mode where you play as Tiger and guide him through his Masters victories. Each year requires you as Tiger to play all 4 rounds and win (and master the scenario by beating his score.) The game even tries to mimic the real thing as much as possible. For example, you start the '05 Masters in the rain and are expected to play Augusta under less than ideal conditions.
If you have not played a golf game in quite a while, be prepared for an initially puzzling control system. In a day and age where player equipment is controlled with the right stick, you swing with the left one, while lining your shots up with the D-Pad. The buttons themselves perform basic commands like speaking to your caddy (which we will touch upon,) adding power to your drives or previewing your putts or shots themselves. Outside of that, I'd say hit the pause button and jump into the controls for a little while. You can play pretty easily without looking at the controls on the easier stages, but you're going to need all the help you can get lining up putts and angling chip shots in the harder pin sets.
Perhaps the best new feature is the Caddy assistance you can receive, which will really help new players along the pathway to greatness. Your caddy will start off as raw as you with your course, using his little knowledge of the course to guide you along, however, the more he sees the way the course shapes up through your play, the better and more effective he will be. Of course, you may be about 90 strokes behind the leader and so far beyond missing the cut that you can't even see Craig Stadler's mustache (a feat in itself,) but Rome wasn't built in a day, and not even Tiger Woods took home the Masters in his first attempt. Still, as your career progresses, your caddy will stick with you and you should find him to be one of your most valuable resources in determining how to play the ball to stick it closest to the hole.
One of the most baffling things about this game is that while the gameplay itself continues to become more robust and boisterous on a yearly basis, the number of courses shrinks. While the Nintendo Wii version had 25 courses, the XBox got a grand total of 16, with the rest needing to be purchased. Those who pre-ordered from Gamestop in the US got a slight reprieve in receiving a download code for Scottish golf course Turnberry. Canadians got Bethpage Black, but both will have to shell out XBox points for the rest. It's unknown how many courses there will be in the end. By Masters weekend, there were 19 total available for 360 gamers.
Something that the seasoned pros will be wondering when it comes down to it all is how different is this game to Tiger Woods 11? Truth be told, there is very little to do in the way of gameplay improvements if you spent endless night after endless night playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11. It's hard to argue this when really, there isn't any water to squeeze out of the proverbial stone, but the game is heavily relying on the fact that the loyalist Augusta-seeking gamers will come looking for the new challenge. For the rest of us that purchase Tiger Woods on perhaps a bi- annually or tri-annually, you'll see huge improvements that are leaps and bounds above the last game you purchased. Considering the last Tiger Woods title I personally owned before this one was Woods 09, I see huge improvements in the overall gameplay and feel of this game. All those fun multi-player modes like Skins game are still there, so tee up those quarters and throw down with your friends for some hard earned bucks. The overall PGA Roster isn't large to begin with (and I admit, it wasn't clear to me whether I could unlock more,) but with the utter ease of create a golfer, you can have yourself facing off on the links with your friend in no time.
Graphics: 7.5/10. It takes a lot for me to give a perfect or near-perfect graphic score to a game. You have to be right up in the upper echelon of your genre's game. Tiger Woods doesn't dazzle graphically when compared to some of the more popular titles for all of XBox, however, when you compare it to all other sports titles, and its predecessors, at this point, the graphics are the best of any golf game out there I suppose. Each hill rolls with the lushest of greens. Every body of water glistens in the sunlight. Still, the biggest problem with the graphics is that it lacks that certain pizzazz with detail. When I play St. Andrews, everything seems so wooden. The building look like basic characterless structures, and I don't feel the creep of the fog, or that same feeling that the ball is going to disappear into the abyss like I do when I watch thos poor golfers tee up at the British Open. With the addition of the 3D grass, it's getting there, but it really isn't anywhere close to where it could be, especially given the powerful processing powers of the 360.
Sound: 8.5/10. There's much to do with the sound in the Tiger Woods franchise. EA is big on little details, so at any given time, you may hear birds chirping in the background, the crowd stirring in anticipation of an exciting shot, or the underbrush underneath a player's feet as he stirs amongst the bark mulch where his ball is now laying. All that's missing really is continuous crowd noise in the background as people move from hole to hole, or random crowd effects therein. I still don't feel like I've got that same level of crowd tension coming from the gallery when I'm about to take my putt. Perhaps this is all offset by Jim Nantz. Nantz's inclusion is possibly the best commentary inclusion into an EA Sports game since Pat Summerall had a few lines back in Madden Football 97 for the N64, though the first time EA included Clyde Tillsley into its soccer games would be a very close 2nd. With Augusta becoming a yearly staple of this franchise, I hope Nantz is as well.
Control: 8.5/10. The controls themselves are well done, and nearly as good as you can get. The new caddy feature is easy to use and The only complaint I have for someone new coming in (keeping in mind that EA's new games come paperless and the manuals are kept in the game themselves) is that it's too hard to figure out which button does what, and what is necessarily the controls. No longer do you get to play with the simplicity of NES Golf controls, where you jam the up and down buttons to switch clubs. The control scheme falls somewhere in between NHL 94 simplicity and WWF Attitude difficulty. Swinging your club is as simple as flicking the left thumb stick, but it's a bit tougher to switch clubs and such. Overall, however, there's nothing wrong with the controls, and nothing you can't figure out after a minute or two of fooling around with the buttons.
Gameplay: 9/10. Let's face it. Golf is not the most exciting sport to play a video game of. You can't spray ice shards in your opponent's face. You can't slam dunk over a gawking 7 foot centerman. You can't push through a wall of defenders enroute to the end zone. EA does what it can to ensure the experience you get on the virtual links is as exciting and fun as possible. While it will never deliver the hard hitting action of the Fight Night franchise, or the open world of Need for Speed, The Masters: TW12 knows how to cater to its niche market, and without a doubt, I would say there is nobody that can come into the market to encroach on its territory, or even come close. I've never found arcade style competition like Outlaw or Hot Shots to even be close to the calibre of gaming or experience as Tiger Woods. They're two completely different types of gaming, and for a sports enthusiast such as myself, golfing is best suited to the world of realistic sim, this game is for you golf fans. If you purchased Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, you may not want to rush out as quickly, because mechanically, you're playing a very similar game. However, this is a must purchase for all new golf enthusiasts looking to buy a title, because that caddy mode is crucial and speedpasses you on the road to catching up to any more experienced friends you have that you want to eventually take down. Online tournaments are still tons of fun as you compete against the best golfers worldwise, and you will have lots of fun outfitting your golfer in the best, or ugliest of golf clothing and equipment. Overall, if you have never played a Tiger Woods game before, and are wavering between an older, cheaper title to ease yourself in, don't. Spend the extra money and buy this title, which doesn't leave you to sink and swim into playing like older titles do. In a strong year of EA Sports Titles (the ones that made it to market anyway,) this rides that wave of momentum and continues to prove why EA is the best in the business when it comes to sports.