Review: ‘Rory McIlroy PGA Tour’ misses the cut

(Credit: EA Sports)
(Credit: EA Sports)

Move over, Madden Curse. Tiger Woods wields some dark magic, too.

What else can explain the drama surrounding Rory McIlroy PGA Tour? After spending well over a decade slapping Tiger’s mug on the cover of PGA Tour games, EA Sports decided to switch it up and distance themselves from the ailing pro. I suppose you can’t really blame them. EA’s in the business of selling golf games, so swapping the troubled Tiger for the top-ranked player in the world was a no-brainer. There is no fairer weather fan than a video game sports publisher.

But a mere ten days before EA Sports released their new golf game, McIlroy severely injured his ankle while playing soccer with his pals. It’s bad enough to keep him out of the British Open and possibly impact his ability to contend at the PGA Championship in August, a terrible break for both the young pro and the company hoping his popularity will help sell some golf video games.

Or perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise, because the fewer people who play this thoroughly mediocre links effort, the better. While EA upgraded their cover star, they failed to do the same with the game itself. Stripped of content and lacking the polish of other EA Sports games, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour just can’t find the green.

But it starts off fine. Turn the game on and you’re tossed into a ‘Prologue’ mode, which introduces you to three different control schemes: the classic three-click swing, the contemporary arcade-style analog stick swing, and a much more realistic version of the analog swing that doesn’t let you break the laws of physics. No messing with the ball’s spin when it’s in flight, for instance.

(Credit: EA Sports)
(Credit: EA Sports)

The swing controls are a bright spot. You can customize them, too; if you find the arcadey analog swing too forgiving — and you probably will — you can switch to the realistic mode but keep the helpful putting lines. The core mechanics of driving, chipping and putting, accounting for the wind and the lie, are solid, if not exactly a quantum leap forward.

The game’s new engine is a step up as well, allowing for large, open courses with very little load time between shots. There are no arbitrary out-of-bounds lines here; shank your drive into a sand trap on an adjoining hole and you’ll have to play it as it lies. It gives the game a realistic flair, though the engine also buckles a bit, with occasionally choppy textures and janky animations.

The Prologue segues into a short, punchy jaunt through the U.S. Open, where, as McIlroy, you must find a way to take home the trophy. The pro himself pops up in a few videos to offer some clichés (“making putts early in a round is important”), but it’s smartly presented and hints at a game with plenty of character.

Then the real game starts, and all that character is tossed into the ball washer.

Gamers expect a few basics from the modern sports video game: a deep career mode, a full complement of real-world athletes, and a decent character creator. Rory McIlroy PGA Tour comes up short in all three, and manages to come up short in other ways, too.

Despite the PGA license, the game includes a meager 12 playable pros. That’s down from the 40 or so from the last game in the series, 2013’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, and it doesn’t include old-school greats like Arnold Palmer, who shared the cover of that game with Tiger. More embarrassingly, LPGA players, despite appearing in PGA Tour 14, are nowhere to be found. If you’re looking for female representation in a sports game, go pre-order FIFA 16.

It gets worse. Only eight real-world courses make the cut — down a dozen from the last game — and while EA tries to make up for it with a few fantasy courses, they’re just not that fantastic. A military-themed course based on EA’s own Battlefield shooter series, for example, seems a recipe for hijinks, but any sense of lighthearted creativity that one might hope for isn’t there. How about shooting a golf ball out of an anti-aircraft gun? Or a parachute power-up to let me float my ball onto the green? I’m trying a flop shot over a beached aircraft carrier. Can I get a little magic? Nope. It’s regular golf on irregular courses, a real missed opportunity.

So is the game’s snoozer of a Career mode, which starts with the most anemic character creator this side of 2005. While most new-ish sports games let you import pictures of your face or play plastic surgeon by crafting every contour, PGA Tour forces you to choose from eleven ugly templates. Even changing the hair or eye color won't make these weirdos look cool.

Head 8, not a looker. (Credit: Ben Silverman)
Head 8, not a looker. (Credit: Ben Silverman)

It’s stifling, as is the rest of the mode. You’ll hack through a variety of tournaments, either by playing through each from start to finish, or just taking on a few holes per day and letting the simulation handle the rest. There’s just no depth to it. Though your golfer has a bunch of ratings in various skills, you’re locked out of choosing which to increase. The game doles out random numbers after each performance — two points in ‘short game’ here, one point in ‘long putt’ there — instead of letting you actually shape your player’s progression. PGA Tour fosters zero connection between the player and his character. That’s a dagger in a career mode.

You can search for more charisma in the game’s new ‘Nightclub’ mode, but you won’t find much. Here you take on 180 arcade challenges — chip the ball closest to the pin, land your ball in the middle of the fairway, etc. — and can equip a few power-ups (why these aren’t available on the fantasy courses is a mystery). But even this fails to click. You earn stars for completing challenges, but don’t use them to unlock anything. It’s also linear; you can’t choose which challenge to play because they open up in a strict order.

This weirdly conservative approach flies in the face of the game’s ‘Play with Personality’ motto, but don’t let the marketing hooey fool you. Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is tightly wound, a game itching to be playful but constrained by its poor design decisions. It’s reminiscent of the disappointing Madden 06 for the Xbox 360, the football franchise’s first for that generation of systems. Both games lack features and seem happy simply showing up.

But Madden turned it around pretty quickly, and perhaps Rory McIlroy PGA Tour can do the same. Its core mechanics are decent and, with some work, its engine could be great. But until Rory finds some game to go with his swing, I’d stay off the course.

What’s Hot: Customizable swing system; engine loads entire course at once

What’s Not: Huge step back in terms of players and courses; bland career mode; lousy character creator; engine needs tightening

[Correction: I confused the U.S. Open, which Jordan Spieth won back in June, with the PGA Championship, which takes place in August. The review has been updated. D'oh!]

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