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Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 Is A Golf Nerd's Dream

Console golf may finally be better than actual golf.

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The knock against yearly sports video game series is that, all too often, the difference between a yearly edition is a token roster update and some new bells and whistles. Madden is Madden, for example, and if you own Madden 12, there's probably little reason to purchase Madden 13. The Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has fallen prey to this problem in the past, but this year, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 is a whole new ball game. For the first time in series history, EA Sports has successfully captured the experience of watching golf on television, and the result is an addictive and compelling experience from virtual tee to green.

I sat down with Sean Wilson, a producer of the Tiger franchise, for an extended look at the game just a month from release, and the leap EA Sports has made from last year's Tiger game is enormous. The most striking difference, and one that you'll immediately notice upon launching into your first round, is the complete overhaul of the television-style presentation. Jim Nantz and David Feherty return to provide commentary, but the framing of each hole you play in Tiger 14 has been remade to replicate what golf fans see on TV — something the series has taken stabs at before and missed. New camera angles, unique to each individual hole in some situations, can replace the standard hit-the-ball-and-watch-the-camera-follow-behind-it approach you've seen for two decades. Each shot is tracked and logged by the game and fed into a database, and live in-round stats tell you how you're faring compared to the field in terms of fairways hit, drive distance, GIRs, and so forth. Time passes and the environment changes as each round progresses — a morning tee time means you'll finish up with the sun high in the sky, or a late tee time will see players driving and putting as the sun sets (there's even the option to play night golf with glowing balls). Finally, the jarringly static scorecard loading screens that used to appear between holes have been scrapped and replaced with a multitude of stat overlays — Wilson said there's more than 100 in total, providing you with up-to-date information about the round. It's a small touch, but it goes a long way toward creating an immersive golf experience.

For the first time, each major is officially in the game, meaning you can actually win the Claret Jug and Wannamaker Trophy. In all, Tiger 14 features 20 real events, from the Players Championship to the Honda Classic, which brings some added realism to career mode. The FIFA and NHL series have long been leading the way for sports games in terms of authenticity in presentation, but Tiger Woods may have now taken the crown.

Arnie slides one by the hole.

Arnie slides one by the hole.

The signature new mode in Tiger 14 is "Legends of the Majors," an interactive history lesson in which players play through iconic eras of golf with authentic equipment, from the 1800s to today. You start as Tom Morris at the Old Course in St. Andrews and play in black-and-white, with a grainy, old-time film reel vibe; along the way, you'll control Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, and other legends in scenarios tailor-made to their era. It's a much, much deeper mode than last year's gimmicky Tiger Legacy Challenge, and the painstaking detail given to each specific challenge is impressive — playing in 1970s, for example, looks just as it did on television, with era-specific chyrons inspired by ABC's Wide World Of Sports.

EA Sports is taking major strides to ensure Tiger 14 is more than just a single-player experience, though, and the introduction of a robust online suite should make playing with friends and strangers actually fun, rather than being a logistical chore. The Country Club system returns, but players can now enter (and create their own) live tournaments and play simultaneously with up to 24 other players. Though I couldn't see an online tournament in action at the demo, Wilson told me you'll see other players' balls streaking through the air as you play through the round and be able to chat with competitors, which should give life to a mode that was previously very stale (play a round, post a score on a leaderboard, repeat).

Series veterans will be happy to know that refinements to the swing mechanics and the introduction of a new "simulation" difficulty level will make Tiger 14 less forgiving than ever, if you choose to bump up the challenge. The game introduces different swing styles — you can be a power golfer at the cost of accuracy, or a shorter-but-safer control golfer, and even pick your favored shot trajectory. Playing a round in high winds may favor a low, stinger shot type, whereas calm conditions will better suit high, towering drives and approaches. Simulation difficulty will force players to become comfortable mixing trajectories and swing planes to hit draws and fades, which is much trickier than just flicking the analog stick back and forth. You won't be shooting 63s every round playing with the new simulation mode, but you won't end up throwing your controller across the screen either — Tiger 14 rewards thoughtful, skilled shotmaking.

As has become customary, Tiger 14 will be released in two editions, the standard game with 20 courses, and a "Masters Historic Edition" for $10 extra, which boasts a stunningly recreated 1934 version of Augusta pieced together from old photographs and sketches, along with four other courses.

I had fully planned on skipping Tiger 14 and waiting for next-generation console golf before I spent an hour with the game, but I left the demonstration almost spellbound with the comprehensive golf experience EA Sports has created. If you're the type of person who takes off work to watch the early rounds of The Masters (like me), get ready to lose months of your life to Tiger 14, starting March 26.

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