Tiger Woods games have been part of my reviews schedule for ten years, and if there’s one thing I've learned about the series in that time, it's this: Tiger has some big years, and Tiger has some small years. Sometimes the designers make dramatic changes or additions to gameplay, and sometimes the refinements and improvements happen more behind the scenes. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters, alas, is something of a small year.
Of course, any fan of the franchise will tell you that's not necessarily a bad thing. While the basic controls don't seem fundamentally different from last year's game, a handful of substantial additions have really rounded out the experience as a whole.
The most obvious of these is your caddie, who will recommend ideal shots at every swing opportunity. And unlike the traditional aiming guides, his recommendations show where the ball will actually end up. The caddie is less reliable when putting, but even his rough guidance, via a new "putt circle" to direct your aim, can be a lifesaver. You can also force him to become more precise by drawing from your reserve of Shot Focus – a Tiger 11 addition given a welcome touch of extra balance.
But my favourite aspect of the caddie is the way you can essentially level up his/her abilities: reach Bronze, Silver or Gold mastery on any given course, and your caddie will offer better, more precise recommendations. This grafts an additional layer onto the whole "golf RPG" element of the series that I've come to really love.
Only one other new feature directly affects the gameplay: now you can choke up on your club to shorten your shot, which is useful in situations where you’re at a distance that falls between the shot-length of two clubs. However, that's hardly an earthshaking idea, and beyond that there's little that changes the game much out on the fairway.
Back in the clubhouse, though, it's a different matter. The inclusion of the Masters tournament, for example, is more than just a new hook. Playing at Augusta, you'll see an entirely different, retro-themed interface, in keeping with the hilariously dated visual style of the official tournament. And the course itself is rendered in impressively rich detail, adding to the sense of occasion.
The Masters license also comes with "Masters Moments", which put you in the shoes of golfing legends dating back to the Thirties. You can also play online against the scores of past Masters tournaments, and there’s a special online competition scheduled to coincide when the real Masters begins later this month. Indeed, Tiger’s online support is as robust as ever, with daily, weekly, and special tournaments to go along with the traditional player-versus-player games.
Other features may be more subtle, but still significant. Take sponsorships, which are no longer just a gear-for-cash exchange. Each sponsor has three levels of sponsorship, and moving up requires completing specific challenges. Along with the course mastery challenges, these help provide a constant feeling of advancement, not to mention useful new gear.
Of course, you can always just pay real-world money for your new gear, which brings me to one of my biggest irritations with Tiger Woods 12: I constantly felt like the game was trying to sell me DLC. Even in the career mode – hell, frequently in the career mode – I’d advance to an event that I couldn't play in because I hadn't purchased the course it was on. Pretty much everything is for sale, and you're slapped in the face with it throughout the game. While that may be an unfortunate reality of the state of the gaming industry, I don't have to like it.
It wouldn’t seem so galling if the game felt rock-solid, but it's populated with enough glitches to make dropping more cash on the game feel wrong. The game abounds with graphical hiccups, missing sound, useless camera angles, and other errors in presentation that a game of this calibre just shouldn't have.
Still, when it comes down to it these are superficial problems. At its core, Tiger Woods 12 is as solid and satisfying as I've come to expect from the series. Granted, it's not a must-buy if you own last year's edition, but it's another step in the right direction and an easy recommendation if you've missed a year or two.
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