Review: EA Sports PGA Tour
Like many ordinary people, my relationship with the sport of golf is a bit complicated. I have played it in real life and like it. However, I don’t really spectate it because it just isn’t that exciting as an observer. Golf has a relaxed pace and has a lot of subtle nuances that make recognizing great skill require careful observation. So I don’t have a strong attachment to it.
However, golf video games have existed nearly as long as video games themselves have, going all the way back to the Atari 2600, and I have played the simply titled Golf on the NES. These games can be fun, and they have had a bit more innovation in gameplay than some sports (like baseball in particular). There are simulations, which try to be as realistic as possible, and then there are those that take advantage of being video games, simplifying mechanics while adding other elements to liven up gameplay.
So today, we are going to talk about the latest entry in the sim category: EA Sports PGA Tour: Road to the Masters, released on April 7, 2023 for Xbox Series X/S, Playstation 5, and PC via Steam, the EA App, and Epic Games Store. The PC version was played for this review. Let’s get our caddies, get out on the course and start smacking those balls. Will PGA Tour hit a hole-in-one, or slice into the ocean?
Road to the Masters
When you fire the game up, before literally anything else, one of the game’s commentators welcomes you and walks you through creating the golfer that you will take through the long and hard road from amateur golf to the professional level all the way to the Masters, golf’s most prestigious tournament. This commentator (I’m not sure who it is, but it certainly sounds like someone who covers the sport for the TV networks) also walks you through the initial setup including choosing how realistic and challenging you want the game to be and, when you finally get to the main menu, goes over how you will build your career as a golfer.
In this sense there is a bit of a story here. Though somewhat oddly, whenever you head out to the course the commentators often speak of “storylines” among the golfers but say nothing further on the subject, so I honestly don’t know what they mean. However, the entire game experience is set up almost as if you are watching golf on TV, but controlling the golfer on the screen.
You’ll see flybys of the course and leaderboard updates all while the commentators talk about the course and conditions and the tournament or match type in play, and the UI uses on screen elements scene transitions like in golf on TV as well. I haven’t played that many golf games, but this presentation is excellent. There is actually a TON of voice commentary dialogue, specific to every phase of the PGA Tour, every tournament, all aspects of the golf game, and comments on player performance and it doesn’t get too repetitive. The developers behind this game definitely put a lot into the overall experience and presentation.
Putting for Albatross
I mentioned creating a golfer earlier. The character creation and customization in PGA Tour is quite impressive, rivaling many of the RPGs known for having these kinds of features. You get a lot of options for configuring body type, hair style, and more, and there are tons of clothing items to earn and buy during gameplay to customize your appearance. You even get to choose your caddy and customize your golf bag and club covers (Full disclosure: I was given some in-game currency for this review, but this was not used and has no impact on the review). You can also create and customize multiple configurations. It’s worth noting that your golfer is much like a character in an RPG and earns stat points through play that can be used to enhance your performance in various categories and also unlock special shot types.
Out on the course, you’ll find all the typical elements of any golf game. Choose your club, aim your shot, and fiddle with a power meter and account for the wind to hopefully get your shot where you want it. On the tee and through the fairway, the control setup is fairly intuitive, both with a controller and a keyboard (The game pressures you to use a controller but the keyboard is fully supported and works well, and maybe even makes the game sliiiightly easier) The actual swing process, though, is a little bit different from most golf games I’ve tried- you pull down on the stick (or press and hold a certain key) for the backswing and then pull it up for the downswing. This is designed to give you a sense of actually controlling the club but without using motion controls (thank heavens there’s no motion controls) and it works quite well, though there seems to be a bit of delay between when you press the other button/direction and when it actually takes the input- unclear if it’s intended or not. For PC, if you aren’t fond of the control style, an upcoming update will add a three-click swing control system which is more similar to other golf simulations. More options is always a good thing!
The game offers many optional helps and assistive features to make the game more accessible despite being designed as a medium-serious simulation (I say this because of the inclusion of the RPG elements, but these are present to reflect your development as a golfer as your career progresses). These include things like being able to take a mulligan, aka a do-over, automatic tap-ins on the green, and being able to apply spin after the swing instead of only before, among several other options. These do a lot to make the game easier to play for a newcomer, though I still do have a few gripes that I need to address.
First: While the simulation overall seems very good, there are times when it seems like the ball or course is covered in grease, because I feel like the balls roll a LOT more, especially on slopes, than they do in real life (just by my limited personal experience and very limited TV spectator experience). Maybe I’m wrong here, but it just feels a bit off compared to both real life and other games. This isn’t really a big deal but it might need some tweaking.
Second: The putting experience is probably the weakest part of the game. The indicators on screen which are intended to help you set up your putt are very confusing. You’ll see a line traced between you and the hole, and you might think this line is an approximation of the path your ball will take if you hit the ball with the correct power for where your aiming marker is. But that’s not at all how it works, and in fact I’m still not sure what that line is supposed to indicate. it *seems* to be showing the curvature of the terrain between you and the hole but I’m still not sure about that. All I know is that, regardless of this line, whether I aim straight for the hole or try to aim left or right to account for the shape of the green, the ball never seems to go where I want. It’s also confusing that you always need to hit the ball with “full” power or you’ll come up short of the hole. The game automatically places the aiming marker and sizes the power meter so that the “full” power will get you to the hole.
The game and its commentators explain a lot about many aspects of the game itself as well as the sport that will help you improve, but there is no in-game explanation of the indicators during the putting sequence.
Finally, there is the camera. 99% of the time, this is fine, so it’s a pretty minor issue. However, sometimes you might make a not-so-great shot and your ball ends up near a structure, such as a spectator stand or some other on-course structure, and then when you take your shot, your camera is blocked by the structure. Ordinarily you don’t really need to see your golfer themselves to make your shot, but the problem is the swing meter is in 3D space, and is actually obscured by objects in the scene like these structures, preventing you from seeing it and making a proper swing. That being said, before bringing this review to completion, I received notice that certain issues, including camera-related issues, were being addressed in an upcoming update, so maybe that will correct this problem.
All of this might sound pretty harsh. While things like the putting experience are not trivial, there is still really a lot to like about the game. There are many ways to play, from standard stroke play (get the lowest score) to match play (win the most individual holes), to skins (like match play but for “money”) and more, with both online and offline multiplayer available as well. This is also the first game I’ve ever played with announcers or commentators where I didn’t want to turn them off right away. It actually adds to the experience here and makes you feel like you’re really playing in a major golf tournament. On top of this, the game features an incredible number of real-world courses, so wherever you might have dreamed to play a round, you can probably do it in this game. There is absolutely no shortage of content here.
That being said, I feel obligated to mention that online play doesn’t seem to be getting utilized much. I was unable to find a match in a few attempts for either the competitive or casual play modes. I’m unsure if the game is cross-platform or not (I don’t think it is) but it should be if it isn’t. Meanwhile I can play Nintendo Switch Sports‘ knockout golf mode (which is extremely simplified compared to PGA Tour) and find a full eight-player game any time. This is a pretty high profile golf release so I’m not sure why this is, and it’s also a shame because I’ve been having a good time with it. Perhaps players are intimidated by the simulation level of the game and staying away from multiplayer because they think they aren’t skilled enough. I have no idea. Maybe this is only an issue on PC and the game is more attractive to console players.
Fly Like an Eagle
There is absolutely no question from me: The visuals in PGA Tour are stunning, and this can be seen by the game only coming out on the current console generation and PC. Further impressing me is the fact that the courses seem to be complete worlds. That is, the game isn’t just loading in the current hole at any given time; you can see other parts of the course in clear detail wherever you are and in the hole fly-bys. Everything looks great, from the sky to the water to the rocky beaches and trees in all of the real-world locations you visit. My PC is quite new, although my graphics card is not (yet), so I was impressed at how well the game performed with this level of visual quality. But if the game chugs on your system, it has a good range of graphics options on PC to improve the performance or quality.
Even the spectators are impressive. Many games use what are effectively cardboard cut-outs to save polygons and improve performance, but not this game. The crowds are rendered in seemingly full detail, and if you hit your ball near them they react, they move aside for your next shot, and they clap and cheer when you reach the hole and take a good swing.
The sound experience is just as exceptional. Golf is a game with a lot of peace and quiet expected, and one consequence of this is you get to hear all the ambient noise, from birds to muffled spectator musings and even the occasional plane or helicopter overhead. Another one is that you generally only hear music in the menus and in the segments between holes. But even that music is good, with some variety. I never thought I’d hear electric guitar used much in music for a golf game, for instance.
The voice acting, as I’ve already touched on, is also some of the best I’ve heard in any game. The commentators all sound authentic and realistic, just like you’re watching the Masters on TV (while I probably wouldn’t do so deliberately, I have heard and seen golf on TV incidentally many times). There are even specialized commentators that step in to describe certain things, like analyzing your current putting situation. We’ve certainly come a long way from “All your base are belong to us.”
While it’s hard to ignore some of the gameplay issues (some of which EA has promised to address as of this writing), the overall experience of EA Sports PGA Tour is very impressive as far as golf games go. The graphics and audio are top notch, as is the golfer creation and the wide range of options available. This game is a sim and not a super easy game, but the developers clearly wanted a wide range of players to be able to enjoy it with the assistance features, and it does a pretty good job of that. Combine this with the huge amount of content and the many ways you can use it, and you have an experience that, despite some stumbles, is near the top of its class. If you’re looking for an immersive golf experience, look no further.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Electronic Arts. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image provided by Electronic Arts.
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