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A warship crashes into EA Sports' golf game, but it's not a disaster

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

So, yes, EA Sports rammed a warship through a par 3 at E3. Do you think there was any other way golf — let's repeat that, golf — was getting on stage in Los Angeles this week?

I mean, as a fan, it was nice to see golf on stage for the first time ever (I confirmed that) in EA's E3 show. Still, like many I was convinced Electronic Arts put the PGA Tour team up to this. It wasn't going to be enough to see a beauty shot of the iconic Island Green of TPC Sawgrass' No. 17. No, this is EA's stage presentation, which has to have bass, a bomb or a bro about every 30 seconds. I imagined Brent Nielsen, the game's executive producer, being told damn the torpedoes, and shove a destroyer through those greenside bunkers.

Nope, he told me. They weren't forced into it. Actually, that hole is, literally, the Paracel Storm multiplayer map from Battlefield 4 with a golf course laid out on it. And why EA Sports' PGA Tour developers were doing that explains, in a roundabout way, why that beauty shot of No. 17 at Sawgrass looked so damn good.

It's because it was done in Frostbite 3, the engine behind Battlefield 4. PGA Tour won't use "Ignite," which though it's referred to as a game engine is really more a collection of shared resources, assets and practices. If PGA Tour, due for release next year, was truly going to showcase a golf course in detail rich enough to be called next-gen, it needed to use Frostbite 3, Nielsen said.

"Hockey and basketball are fixed arena environments; football and soccer are fixed stadium environments," Nielsen said, referring to the four games that do use Ignite — NHL, NBA Live, Madden and FIFA. "And then you've got golf, where the environment is the experience. As we dug into it more, it made a lot of sense for us to use the Frostbite 3 engine.

From ally to competitor

EA Sports’ golf simulation is taking a year off to get things right on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be sim quality golf in 2014. The Golf Club, by Canada-based HB Studios, is coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One sometime this year. A build already is available on Steam Early Access.

Last year, EA Sports planned to outsource Tiger Woods PGA Tour 15 for Xbox 360 and PS3 while the main team at EA Tiburon worked on the next-gen edition. HB, which had handled ports on other lower-priority platforms for EA Sports before, bid on that project. But EA Sports scrapped its plans in the spring of 2013 amidst large-scale layoffs and John Riccitiello’s resignation as CEO.

So, The Golf Club — though it will not have any real courses or golfers in it — is basically a spiritual descendant of the game HB would have built had that deal gone through as planned.

I asked Brent Nielsen if he’d seen the game yet — it’s available on Steam Early Access. "I have not yet, but I have obviously looked," into reports of what HB’s doing. I asked if he had any thoughts on their game. "I respecfully decline," he said, smiling.

"I welcome it [competition]," said Nielsen, who was a producer on EA Sports’ MVP Baseball series when it lost in the big exclusive licensing rockfight of the last decade. "Having been through this in some of my other previous games, with World Series Baseball and The Show competing with MVP Baseball, it pushes you, and competition helps push a team to deliver a better game."

As they got their feet wet with the engine, someone got the idea to pull in Paracel Storm, the Battlefield 4 map whose "levolution" event includes a destroyer running aground. Nielsen said longtime designer Justin Patel then started building a course, including a hole around that crash site. "In a couple of weeks, we were playing golf on Paracel Storm," Nielsen said. Just goofing around.

The howls of anguish that came from showing this, though, you would have thought EA Sports peed on Amen Corner.

Core golf fans resented the intrusion of this fantasy course — never minding that totally fictitious (and absolutely crushing) links like Greek Isles and The Predator have been the most popular DLC courses in the series for years. They said the forthcoming game is going to be an arcadey betrayal, though I'm not sure what visual information in the trailer supports that blanket claim. Then again, there is so much agenda-driven complaining about anything EA Sports does that it almost isn't even worth arguing.

For those who can stomach the thought of a fantasy course with a destroyer in it, though, the addition of Frostbite 3 should pay dividends greater than just luxurious visuals. Let's start with no loading times between holes.

"We had to load each individual hole in the previous edition of the game," Nielsen explained, "that meant several things. One, it meant you had to wait 30 to 45 seconds for the next hole to load up, so right off the bat, on this generation the game probably shaves about 15 minutes off your round of golf. That's game-changing for us."

More importantly, it will improve the realism of a round played. Anyone who has logged a hundred holes or so has sliced at least one shot that, though it landed in a playable area not out of bounds, the game has called it out of bounds, set you back on the tee and penalized you a stroke. Out-of-bounds rulings in the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series on PS3 and Xbox 360 seem almost random because the way the hole loads into a single perspective, for some lies it's impossible for the game to allow any shot, even a recovery back to the fairway.

Have you noticed also that some shots will have an unfortunate lie changed to a favorable one — with no penalty —when you came to the ball? That too was because of how the game loaded the holes. It was most commonly seen in some bunkers, but I've also seen this happen when a ball lands in the rough and a tree is in the way of your backswing. In next-generation PGA Tour, suck it up, sunshine. Make your recovery and don't hit it here next time.

"It doesn't matter where you hit the ball, if it's in play, you're in trouble, and you play it where it lies," Nielsen said, of this allegedly arcade game.

A new engine means no loading times and truer lies — on the course.

Nielsen knew what he was in for by offering this hole for show at E3. There's no pleasing some people. But, he insists, the game's core and casual fan bases — practically divided into PS3/360 and Wii camps for about 5 years — have more in common than they think. "It's not that our core likes one thing and our casual consumers like another," he said. They want to approach the challenge in the same way, one is just willing to tackle a more demanding set of expectations than another. "Our research shows they also like a lot of the same things. Like fantasy golf courses.

"We haven't built one in a number of years," Nielsen said, "but they were always our most popular DLC courses. We don't feel like we have to build two separate games; it's one game that reaches that broader audience."

Nielsen wasn't talking any additional features — courses, golfers, career or other modes — at E3. No release date for PGA Tour has been given, but it's at least nine months away if the series' traditional March launch, in time for The Masters, is observed. Then again, the series will be published without Tiger Woods for the first time in 18 years, and he is strongly identified with that tournament. A PGA Tour-only game might wait until the U.S. Open. Nielsen wouldn't say and wouldn't discuss any courses that will appear in the game, real or fantasy.

"Don't get me wrong.; obviously having Tiger in the game has been huge for us," Nielsen said. "We've always thought, what would life without having Tiger in the game look like, but I wouldn't say it was something we were focusing on well in advance of it happening. It was a little more when we had set our sights on (PS4/Xbox One) that's when we started thinking about what are the types of things that are going to make this a big deal?"

We'll find out all of that later. For now, some people are making a big deal over nothing.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.