EA Sports Tiger Woods '12 review: Thumbs up

An image, courtesy of EA Sports, that shows No. 12 at Augusta National in the new Tiger Woods '12: The Masters edition, slated for release on March 29, 2011.

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Editors note: Reviewer played on XBOX 360

In EA Sports’ “Tiger Woods 12: The Masters,” the legendary sports video game company provides players with this deal: We’ll give you a tee time on Augusta National, the most exclusive golf course in the world. . . but you’re going to have to work for it.

Not only does this mean you have to work your way through a much-improved and fantastic career mode before earning a spot in the Masters, but you have to put in the time learning the game controls, as well. This isn’t a golf game for virtual 26-handicappers expecting to blister The Greenbrier and shoot 53. Rather, it’s a golf game built for “gamers” – one that takes plenty of practice to master – as evidenced by the intricacies of the putting stroke and the importance of a near-perfect swing path. But no matter how frustrating the first few holes may be for new players, those who stick with it will be rewarded with what is the most realistic, enjoyable golf video game available.

• • •

National treasure

Without a doubt, the first thing anyone should do upon purchasing or renting this game is to go straight to Quick Play mode and tee it up at famed Augusta National (there is no purchasing or unlocking necessary). It’s a no-brainer for anyone who has bought the Tiger Woods games for the past decade, playing seemingly every course from Pebble Beach to Bethpage Black, but has never been able to play the most legendary track of them all. To help you navigate Augusta, EA has also provided a Caddie Mode, which gives advice and shot options on how to play each hole.

While I’ve never been to Augusta, colleagues who have swear by the impressive authenticity of each hole. That’s what you get when you put in the incredible man-hours that EA committed to capturing Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the game, click here.

As for the graphics and details of the game, all of the course screenshots speak for themselves. It’s simply incredible. The only things not perfectly replicated in the game seem to be the unique swings of players like Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. While it’s not a big deal for most players of the game, it may be a snap back to reality for the serious golf fans.

•••

The long and winding road

After tapping-in on 18 and scratching the Augusta itch, be sure to try your hand on the new career mode, “The Road to the Masters.” Players start out in the amateur ranks, playing no-name tournaments for a chance to earn a spot on the Nationwide Tour. Should you be sucessful in both of those endeavors, you get a chance at Q-School, where you have the opportunity to earn a PGA Tour card and improve your “EA Sports Golf Ranking” and eventually earn a tournament invite from the Green Jackets. After earning a Tour card, the way to qualify for the Masters is to move inside the top 100 of the rankings or complete all of the challenges in “Masters Moments,” which requires to you hit shots like Tiger’s 2005 chip-in on 16 or Phil Mickelson’s unlikely escape from the trees on 13 in 2010.

While it seems like a lot of hoops to jump through, the career mode is manageble and incredibly fun. After winning on the amateur circuit and earning a spot in the “Nationwide Tour Opener,” I was surprised to compete against real Nationwide players like Alistair Presnell, Mark Anderson and Gavin Coles – a detail that may be lost on the 12-year-olds, but one that golf nuts will get a kick out of.

The promotion to Q-School is simple: Win two Nationwide events or earn two top 5s or three top 10s. You have to play well, but it’s very possible and before I knew it, I was at Atlanta Athletic Club for my first run at Q-School (the pressure must have gotten the best of me; after breezing through the Nationwide Tour, I shot 76 and missed out on a spot in the top 25). After missing out on a Tour card, I loved the fact that I was banished back to the Nationwide Tour, where I needed to earn another win before a promotion to the PGA Tour. That win came early and the next stop was the Hawaiian (Sony) Open at Wailae, where I started my quest for the FedEx Cup and a Masters invite.

•••

Game on

Players who grew tired of the simplicity of the old birdie-fest Tiger Woods games will be happily frustrated with this latest version, particularly on the greens. Rather than the simple back-and-through putting method, the 2012 game takes into account the entire path of your stroke, making it very easy to “get the yips” and push five footers wide of the hole. While it may seem to make for some unnecessary three- and four-putts, it’s actually much preferrable to making everything inside 30 feet.

Another fun feature is the pressure shot, which will pop up on eagle putts or putts to win events. When this happens, the famous “Tiger Woods heartbeat” sounds and the putting gauge disappears, forcing the player to go completely on feel and guess how hard to hit their putt. I needed to make a 10-foot birdie at the par-5 finishing hole to win the event at Wailae and with the putting gauge gone there was as much drama in that putt as is possible in a video game.

The only place EA seems to have missed the mark gameplay-wise is on long-range chip shots (60-80 yards). Since you are often between clubs on these shots, you have to hit, say, 56 percent of a sand wedge. The problem is that there is no gauge to tell you how hard 56 percent is, meaning it’s a blind guess. This leads to plenty of routine chip shots sailing the green and hitting spectators in the background, which now react and writh in pain after being plunked by errant shots.

•••

Worth the wait

While I’ve spent years bemoaning the fact that I haven’t been able to play Augusta National in the Tiger Woods video games, it was worth the wait to have EA Sports capture everything as perfectly as they did in this year’s title.

The attention to detail and the new features make it tough to imagine it can get much better from here.

Overall ranking: A solid 9 out of 10.

– Sean Martin and Matt Reinstetle contributed

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