While they might not be as flashy and exciting as most other genres on the market, I’ve always had a soft spot for golfing games. They are my go to “rainy Sunday games”, which essentially boils down to games I play to completely unwind and relax, not to mention how I pass the time when it is actually raining outside. There’s a certain easygoing nature to golfing games; a good chunk of your time is spent playing on your own, and there’s a pretty simple learning curve, as most games tend to follow the same basic principles of golf. Line up your shot, hit the ball, rinse and repeat.
Still, I’ve often found that my favorite golf (and by extension, sports) games are the ones that have nailed-down and fine-tuned the controls, and the general feel of how you go about playing. You see, most sports games focus on repeating a core set of mechanics, over and over for what is essentially the entirety of the game. For basketball, that may be passing and shooting. For hockey, it might be skating and how you and the puck maneuver around on the ice. Golfing games are all about lining up a shot, and then attempting to take that shot as accurately and on point as possible.
Oddly enough, if you were to ask me what my favorite golf game is, I would probably have to say Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, a criminally underrated game for the Nintendo GameCube. You might be scratching your head, but if we set aside all the progress that’s been made when it comes to graphics and advanced physics, Toadstool Tour is the one game that (at least to me) stands out as having nailed its basic controls. Regardless of what you might think about the series’ less realistic elements, the core mechanics of lining up shots, choosing the right approach and shot type, and actually swinging stand out in my mind, even with all of the golf games that have come out in the last decade.
And then we have Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, Electronic Arts’ latest entry in the long-running PGA Tour series. Having taken a year off, the series has returned in full force, marking the first entry on the latest generation of consoles. There’s also the matter of the change in mascot, as EA has decided to spring for a new player, opting to go with Irish player Rory McIlroy. Name changes aside, I was eager to hit the links on newer hardware, and see how taking a year off had affected the newest entry in the series.
After a quick prologue, during which you choose your play style and play a few holes in McIlroy’s shoes, you have the option to choose from a few different play modes, rather than being whisked down a single path. Similarly, rather than forcing you to play by a strict set of swing modes, the game offers up three different gameplay styles.
The arcade mode uses simple analog controls, allowing you to control your backswing and follow-through by pulling back and pushing forwards on either of the controller’s analog sticks. For the most part, this mode is pretty forgiving when it comes to mistimed actions, and there are plenty of aiming arcs and shot assists to ease you into playing. The TOUR mode is essentially a hardcore version of arcade, stripping away most of the game’s assists (including course zooms, aiming arcs and putt reads), and a premium is put on careful timing and direction of your analog stick. Lastly, there’s a classic three-click control for gamers who grew up on Hot Shots and Mario Golf (such as myself). You can also choose to customize any one of these modes, allowing you to cater the difficulty to your play style.
Aside from your fairly standard ‘quick play’ mode, the other noticeable addition to the series is the Night Club Challenge, a set of small, bite-sized challenges that take place (you guessed it) at night, with a distinct neon lighting scheme and electronic soundtrack to boot. Window dressing aside, it’s pretty similar to modes you’ve probably played in other golfing games, with challenges including ring shot and accuracy practice. Things get a little more surreal with bounce, sticky and boost pads, not to mention the numerous power ups at your disposal. If I’m being frank about it, I was initially dismissive of the mode in general, but Night Club Challenge ended up being one of my favorite parts of the game, especially since it’s become infinitely easier to play console games in small bursts, thanks to the suspend/resume feature of the Xbox One (and the PlayStation 4).
Still, despite all the additions to the series, I can’t help but feel that the user experience has taken a backseat this time around. Much like Mario Golf: World Tour, the game’s Career mode is a barebones RPG experience that has you creating a golfer and playing through tournaments to grow your career. Unfortunately, this really boils down to unlocking different clubs at set points and raising stats when you rank up, with the game choosing what stats grow, presumably based off of your performance.
It’s a far cry from the sports RPG experiences I grew to enjoy on the Game Boy Advance, with the entire RPG system feeling more like window dressing than anything. Granted, the game does tout an online tournament mode (with weekly rotating tournaments across all three gameplay styles) and the ability to play rounds of golf with other players in real time, as opposed to playing a round by yourself and posting scores asynchronously.
Unfortunately, the game’s biggest fault is not in its content, but how it handles. Even with all of the customization options to choose from, the actual minute-to-minute gameplay never feels snappy. Odd hitches and drops in framerate are noticeable, and there’s always a slight delay when you pick an option in a menu, or when you try to change a camera angle.
When it comes to in-game preferences, such as camera height and which aiming arc you are focusing on, the game frequently forgets what you had previously set it to, requiring you to constantly re-select options if your preferred selections aren’t in line with the game’s default. Camera movement often feels sluggish and non-responsive, and in general the game is pretty restrictive on where you can move the camera.
Worse still is how the putting assists work. Rather than showing a straight line to indicate the direction you are aiming, the game only features a lone marker. Even more confusing is the putt simulation, which is intended to show you the ideal path to the ball. While it might sound good on paper, it rarely works well in practice, as it becomes very difficult to recreate this ideal shot on your own. Why the game simply doesn’t offer the option to show how a straight shot to the tee would be affected by the slopes is beyond me, but I can say that the putting is by far the most frustrating part of the experience.
More ardent golfing fans might be sad to see that series’ standbys Jim Nantz and David Feherty have been replaced by Rich Lerner and Frank Nobilo for the in-game commentary. Overall, Lerner and Nobilo do a solid job, though it took less than 15 or so minutes before I began to hear repeat lines. It’s a shame that that August National and the Masters Tournament didn’t make the cut this year (due to expiring licenses), but big names such as St Andrews and TPC at Sawgrass have made the cut.
The game’s visuals have seen an improvement thanks to the move to newer consoles, though some technical issues still remain, such as hitching, framerate drops, object pop-in, and some odd shadow flickering. The in-game golfers look decent overall, but some odd-looking faces coupled with a few quirky animations do detract from the overall look.
At this point, you may have completely written off Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, but despite all of its flaws, it’s still a fundamentally sound game with a few shortcomings, rather than one that completely misses the mark. While I can’t recommend it wholly recommend it in its current state (except to the most hardcore of golf fans), I will continue to hold out in hopes that EA can refine and optimize the game to bring it up to par (no pun intended).
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with for review.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is the perfect example of a solid game that's brought down by how it looks and handles. If you can get over the paltry career mode, there is some fun to be had here, though a few patches and refinements would do a lot of good.