Not so much streamlined as stripped bare, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is a half-decent game - in the sense that it is a decent game cut in half.
With Tiger Woods experiencing the kind of career downturn that would have Messrs Torres and Falcao nodding sympathetically, it's no wonder EA has opted to drop the fairway-dodging flop for its flagship golf series, replacing him with the more successful (and marketable) Rory McIlroy. Surely, then, this is the ideal opportunity for a fresh start, and a series seemingly content to coast along on past successes would be revitalised by its prodigiously talented star?
You could forgive yourself for getting a little excited after the hyperbolic introduction. "Limitless!" chirrups Rich Lerner, like a man triumphantly declaring his favourite Bradley Cooper film. "The ability to break free, to experience golf in ways you never thought possible." What could this mean? My mind raced. An infinite number of procedurally-generated courses? The ability to play anti-gravity space golf against a sentient blancmange using giraffes as clubs? Apparently not. It turns out that "taking your game to levels once only dreamed of" involves little more than pitch-and-putt on a course surrounded by reused Battlefield assets and a mode that might as well be called Rory McIlroy's Mario Golf.
And, it transpires, "limitless" isn't so much an exaggeration as a bald-faced lie. Because EA Sports Rory McIlroy PGA Tour Turbo HD Remix has fewer courses, golfers, modes and features than its predecessor. Tiger's last outing had five women from the LPGA Tour; they've been unceremoniously dropped here, as has roughly half the roster of male golfers. There are 12 courses, when two years ago we had 20 (heck, it's two fewer than Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 managed). Gone are the detailed character customisation options for your career golfer, replaced instead by a handful of preset avatars, most of which look like they've been designed by someone who's never seen a human face, but once had one described to them over a Skype call from a noisy venue with particularly flaky wi-fi.
In fact, the career mode as a whole is significantly undernourished. I qualified for the PGA Tour after placing second in my first round as an amateur, and then joylessly worked my way through a series of disconnected tournaments. There's no sense of pageantry surrounding the big competitions, and very little fanfare when you win a tournament: you get a dry text report with a trite quote or two from your golfer. Your stats will steadily rise, and occasionally you'll unlock some more branded gear, but otherwise there's little sense of progress - not least because there's no tangible record of your recent achievements, just a series of rudimentary stat tables. The Highlights tab, meanwhile, simply collects reports of completed rounds and sponsorship deals. In an age of "Xbox, record that" and Share buttons, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that you can't watch or save replays of your best shots within the game, but it's disappointing not to have the option.
It's far from the only thing that's missing. There are no practice rounds in Career mode, no optional objectives to complete for XP boosts. In multiplayer - online or off - you can only select between Stroke Play and Match Play. There's no Best Ball, no Alternate Shot, no Four Ball, no Skins. No Skins! EA Tiburon has promised several free updates to the game that will add new courses and features, though I'm not sure that compensates for the absence of options that have been an integral part of the series for years. Even the Country Clubs from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 have been removed.
This might be less of a problem if what remained was a noticeable improvement on previous entries. It isn't. The courses, rendered in the Frostbite engine, look good for the most part, but there are obvious performance issues throughout. It's never a good sign when a game has pop-in on the title screen and so it proves: foliage will often appear from nowhere, and there's a sporadic shimmering effect in certain areas. Presentational sloppiness is pervasive. Menus suffer from noticeable delays, sluggish transitions and weird little inconsistencies. Even the claim of no loading times isn't strictly true - though they're appreciably brief, interstitial shots of leaderboards, your golfer and close-ups of the next hole number stall you from teeing off.
At least the commentary from Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo offers some enlightening facts. I now know, for example, that Tom Watson once won the Open at Royal Troon, that Royal Troon was the site at which Tom Watson won the Open, and that one of the great Open champions at Royal Troon is Tom Watson - all from one 18-hole round. It's a pity they don't have more lines, as their commentary is fine and surprisingly naturalistic - there are even a couple of minor stumbles and grammatical flubs which sound like normal conversation rather than obviously scripted soundbites (though you'll still hear a few of those).
All of these problems are undoubtedly damaging, and all the more irritating for the fact that underneath it all it still plays a solid game of golf. The tutorial, or Prologue, is a nice bit of business which takes you through the three different swing types while allowing you to play key moments from the closing stages of a tightly-fought Open as McIlroy faces off against Martin Kaymer. Key shots and holes are interspersed with observations from the man himself delivered to camera. It's a neat idea that gives you a sense of occasion that's missing elsewhere. How odd that EA Tiburon should reserve it for the tutorial.
Also worth noting is the degree with which you can customise your swing. I'm a fan of the classic three-click system employed in many other golf games, though the gauge moves a little too slowly for my tastes here, and so I quickly reverted to the traditional analogue swing. As someone who played Tiger for many years on PlayStation 2 and 3, I was initially surprised at how sensitive it was - the comparative lack of deadzone on the DualShock 4 means any slight deviation from a perfectly straight down-and-up motion can see you slice drives into the heavy rough - though once you've acclimatised, you'll likely want to switch to Tour mode, which is more responsive and complex still, while offering fewer aim assists. The grid overlay on greens still doesn't give you the most useful read of the topography of the putting surface, and so I retained the aiming guideline for putting - even though it's actively unhelpful for any shot that breaks both ways on its way to the hole. Still, EA Sports isn't the only developer that needs to work on its short game, and I appreciated the ability to remove the training wheels at my own pace.
Strangely, one of the most successful additions is the one that feels most out of place. The Night Club Challenge provides a number of bite-sized objectives with a variety of outlandish power-ups and features like turbo boosts, portals and sticky balls. Some stages are more like croquet than golf, while one objective, where you manually guide your ball through rings to top-up boost power en route to distant score markers, fleetingly reminded me of the brilliant Monkey Target. With three stars to collect on each challenge, it feels as if it was designed as a mobile spin-off - and might actually be a better fit on smartphones.
Its inclusion can be read one of two ways. Perhaps it was added to bulk up an otherwise insubstantial package, or perhaps EA Sports is targeting an audience which doesn't actually like the real sport that much. There's further evidence of this elsewhere: the default option for Career mode is Quick Rounds, which only lets you play "the most important holes" while determining your progress elsewhere based on your existing stats and form.
The assumption seems to be that most players won't have the desire or the stamina to play a full round - though in light of the limited number of courses, it may simply be a way to minimise repetition. Either way, EA Tiburon has produced a game hardly befitting a player of McIlroy's talents. The so-called "next generation of golf" looks uncomfortably similar to the last, and there's substantially less of it. Only the quality of the underlying game saves this from the ignominy of an Avoid sticker.
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