EA Sports’ games generally follow a cumulative approach, with each annual iteration retaining the main engine while adding new features, gameplay modes, and roster updates. The exception to this practice happens amidst the transition to next-generation platforms, with the publisher using the opportunity to reboot the franchise. But often, this changeover is accompanied with both hiccups and the loss of content, as the component-building cycle begins anew.
As such, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour’s rookie season can feel like a mixed bag. Immediately noticeable is the reduction in courses, with the title paring down Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14’s collection of twenty real-life courses to an odd assortment of thirteen real and fantastical locales. The Augusta National course license has lapsed, leaving the Masters Tournament out, at least until the deal is forged and potential DLC is released. Likewise, PGA Tour 14’s LPGA athletes have been eliminated, the number of playable PGA golfers condensed, and EA’s robust player creation suite has been scaled back significantly- offering only eleven heads and three body types. Career Mode has been boiled down to a series of tournaments without a schedule of events or the bonus rounds which extended the offer of additional XP. Even worse, the reward for winning a tournament is little more than a text-based congratulatory statement.
The purported advantage of the reboot is that Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is able to harness the power of Dice’s Frostbite 3 engine, the framework behind titles as diverse as Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare and Battlefield Hardline. In execution, the change is largely advantageous, with the game showcasing the vistas and panoramic skies which can make the sport so majestic. Notably, draw distances are quite stunning, allowing the flora and topography to be both assessed and admired. Most importantly, the Frostbite 3 engine allows the game to move from hole to hole with no apparent load times, accelerating the pace of a match. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t without a hew hitches. Textures can steam in sluggishly and the sporadic drop in framerate can also be noticed. Worse, the visuals suffer from redundancy, with patches of thickets made up of homogenous reeds and ground textures looking a bit too synthetic. Menus and camera controls can feel a bit unpolished, between delayed selections and the game’s inability to remember perspective tweaks. Sonically, the Golf Channel and NBC’s Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo take over commentary duties, offers morsels of encouragement and when you’re doing poorly- a steady string of zingers.
The Tiger Woods series often attempted to bridge the space between informal playability and staunch simulation. Advantageously, Rory McIlroy allows players to select from three gameplay systems, extending Arcade, Classic, and Tour. Arcade recalls the accessibility of Golden Tee and early Woods titles, with a lenient system where gamers swing with the left analog stick, synching their motion to an on-screen prompt. Input inaccuracies can be compensated for when the ball is in flight, with players able to put spin on the ball with a stick pull and button press. Classic uses the three-click system popularized by games like Hot Shots Golf and Mario Golf, extending an input method that emphasizes timing over stick precision. Lastly, Tour mode strips away aids such as the ability to zoom in on the flag and augmented reality of a putting trajectory. Here, spin can be placed on the ball, but only before the club makes contact.
With all modes, players will be coating fairways and greens like unshakeable pros, as each method bestows accuracy. Shank the analog stick in Arcade mode or botch a button press in Classic and the ball won’t be heading toward O.B. territories, typically just venturing into recoverable areas. As such, the long game is where Rory McIlroy shines, mirroring the natural athleticism of the four-time major champion.
Woefully, Rory McIlroy’s short game often feels like an exercise in frustration. In theory, the game exhibits a topographical grid as well as a line showing an ideal putting path. However, adhere to the game’s guidance and you’ll miss a worrisome number of six-footers, as the tool seems to understate breaks. Ideally, the game would follow golf game tradition and show how a straight shot would be affected by the layout of the green. As it stands, all the exhilaration of a flawless approach is undone by a near-impenetrable putting system. To make matters worse, there are only a few pre-set perspectives for the green, making reading that much more of a guessing game.
Look past the reduction of content and problems with putting and PGA Tour shines in other avenues. A prologue set amidst the U.S. Open juxtaposes gameplay tutorials with tight close-up interviews with McIlroy- who discusses elements ranging from the natural beauty of courses to the acknowledgement of defeat. As sports interviews go, these bits are startlingly candid and delightfully articulate. Even better, they sound extemporaneous, lacking the canned speaking type when athletes speak from teleprompters. The sole disappoint lay in the quality of the encoding; artifacting is noticeable across these short segments, with our next-generation machines outputting sub-DVD quality.
Rory McIlroy’s other advantage is the unwillingness to make itself too seriously. Paracel Storm, the course set against a Battlefield 4 backdrop is the oddest thing PGA Tour has done since loading the carts with explosives on Tiger Woods 99’s driving range. From hazards that include the top deck of an obliterated aircraft carrier to barracks surrounded by tenacious bunkers, the setting is an amusing change of pace from the new renditions of TPC Sawgrass or St. Andrews. This sense of merriment carries over to McIlroy’s Night Club Challenge, which offers a selection of 170 trials stretched out across a trio of neon-lit courses. Reminiscent of the mini-games found in the Virtua Tennis games, players can take aim at elevated hoops or greens filled with revolving targets, making learning the fundamentals of golf a bit more fun. What’s especially enjoyable is the steady succession of unlocks, from additional abilities to new golfers, so you aren’t forced to play as Night Club’s default octogenarian.
Whereas Tiger Woods PGA Tour extended a robust Country Club component, where online participants could create communities, compete, compare stats, as well as create custom contests, Rory McIlroy delivers little more than daily and weekly tournaments for global participants. What’s more, alternate scoring systems like skins, best ball, four ball, and alternate shot are missing, allowing only for the most basic matches. Even worse, online success is completely divorced from the game’s campaign, making achievement feel unnecessarily hollow.
Between the arrival of next-generation consoles and Tiger Woods catastrophic drop in Official World Golf Rankings, the time was right for Electronic Arts to reboot the PGA Tour series. But the two year span used to rebuild the flagship franchise just wasn’t enough, leaving Rory McIlroy PGA Tour feeling like a work in progress. Sure- most of the fundamentals are there, delivering a stimulating long game with multiple control schemes, but the loss of content make for a disappointing inaugural outing. Our advice for players is to wait a year or two- and allow the franchise to evolve and grow into something special.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour was played on the Xbox One with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: EA Tiberon
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release date: July 14th, 2015
Price: $59.99 via retail, PSN and XGS