Given the troubles faced by Tiger Woods over the past year, there was some question as to what role he would play in EA's annual tribute to the world of professional golf. While the franchise still bears his name, the focus in this year's game is all about Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, and rightly so. This is the first time in over a decade the Masters has appeared in a video game, and it's an absolutely sublime experience. Couple it with the franchise's new caddy mechanic, and you have one of the best golf games ever made.
Augusta National is the centerpiece of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters, and it has been treated with every ounce of love and reverence you would expect. The course is beautifully represented in the game, and this is one of the first times where I feel the difficulty of a course actually comes through in a video game. I found myself obsessing over every single shot at Augusta, and when the situations arose where I'd normally fire at the green with reckless abandon, I would often dial it back out of respect for the course. Greens are guarded fiercely by deep bunkers and dangerous water, and the putting surfaces are slick as glass. If you've been looking for a course with a genuine challenge, then it awaits you in this game.
It also can't be understated just how cool it is to experience Augusta firsthand, even if it is just digitally. Most golf fans know that they'd be lucky to ever get inside the gates to watch a round at one of golf's most hallowed courses, let alone play it themselves, so this may be the closest we ever get. It's still incredible, though, as the level of detail makes it feel almost like the real thing. I felt my body quake when I stepped up to the 11th tee to kick off Amen Corner for the first time, and I was subconsciously aiming all my shots to account for the mysterious pull of Rae's Creek. If for no other reason, this is a game all golf fans should pick up just to see the course.
The broadcast-style presentation of the game also adds to the allure, as EA has recruited Jim Nantz, the voice of the Masters, to provide the hole descriptions across all courses and the golf equivalent of play-by-play. This year's edition also marks the return of David Feherty, the fan-favorite commentator who has been missing from the franchise for the past several years. The duo combines to create possibly the best broadcast team the series has ever had, and they're immensely better than the horrid announcers of the past few years. Hopefully this pairing will stick around for a while.
The game also gives you plenty of ways to play the course, either selecting it from the Quickplay menu or going through one of the Masters-specific modes. Masters Moments puts you in the shoes of some of the great winners throughout history as you try to replicate the shots and runs they made to win the tournament. Tiger at the Masters plays like the cover athlete's personal Masters highlight reel, taking you through all of his biggest triumphs. Perhaps the best way to earn a spot in the tournament is through the new career mode, aptly named Road to the Masters.
This remade version of the classic career structure sees you starting out as an amateur and then working your way up through the Nationwide Tour, Q School and several PGA events before you get your exemption to play at Augusta. Veteran players should have no problem zooming up the ranks and earning a spot in the field, but newer players will appreciate the opportunity to tackle easier courses and build up their skills before going after the game's namesake challenge. Along the way, new equipment is unlocked by passing challenges set before you by sponsors, so earning new equipment is much more fun and engaging than the old method of reaching a certain player level and then spending a ton of cash to buy a driver. On the whole, the entire experience is genuinely more fun than it used to be.
Further improving the game is the fact that you're not alone out on the course anymore, as Tiger Woods 12 also features a new caddy that provides on-course advice before every shot. Similar to Madden's GameFlow system, the caddy will read the yardage, lie, wind and course conditions before every shot and then make suggestions about where to put the ball. He'll present at least one (and often two) potential shots with the club, grip, loft and power all preset; all you have to do is execute. Of course, that's easier said than done, as you still must dial in just the right amount of power and precision accuracy, and even then a wind gust might be enough to ruin an otherwise perfect shot. Still, it's great to have such genuinely useful AI helping you at every turn, and you can opt to ignore the caddy at any time or turn him off entirely so the mechanic never interferes with or restricts your options.
Also enhancing this new feature is the fact that caddies develop alongside you and actually get better at reading courses over time. There are four different stages of "course mastery" that you can improve through good play, like going on birdie streaks or sinking long putts. As your course mastery improves, your caddy will make better and better shot recommendations and, most importantly, his skill at reading greens improves drastically. It's a great wrinkle that adds a nice amount of depth to the experience and gives you something more to focus on than simply posting low scores on each round. The only downside to course mastery is that the objectives are the same for every single location, so after a while, it can feel a bit stale. Hopefully next year, the challenges will be a bit more course-specific so as to really spice up gameplay.
Much like Tiger Woods himself, EA's golf franchise has been in a bit of a decline over the past few years. While we wait to find out if this will be a season of redemption for Tiger, it's clear that this is the year EA comes roaring back with its best golf title in a generation. Aside from a few minor nitpicky graphical issues, the presentation is top-notch, and all the new content, modes and mechanics are absolutely spectacular. If anything, EA has set the bar too high for next year's game, but that's a good problem to have. Simply put, this is one of the best golf games ever made, and there's absolutely no reason to pass it up.
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