It only seems like the biggest features in EA Sports PGA Tour, which launches March 24, are the ones that fans already played and enjoyed a decade ago. Augusta National Golf Course and all four of the men’s major championships are in; even things like boosted drives with “big-hit moment” camera changes are making a return.
But focusing only on the return of the Masters Tournament, or the visual fidelity with which Augusta National and other courses are presented, would sell short what I saw in a presentation last week. Namely, a career mode that is even more RPG-like than before, offers more ways to customize and mold your created golfer’s playing style, and looks like it will swallow just as many of my evenings as the old Tiger Woods games did.
EA Sports PGA Tour looks like a game where, even though there will be more real-life professionals on the roster than ever, the developers understand that the users themselves are the real stars of the show.
“Even when we had Tiger, over 97% of people play as a created player,” producer Ben Ramsour told Polygon in an interview after the presentation. “So we know that’s a core motivation. However, we’ve done a lot to build these relationships with these pros, and we want to tell their stories in the game.”
Granted, I couldn’t pull much from a single glimpse of the detailed golfer progression screen we were shown. But players will rank up 10 different skills (each with 10 ranks) as they acquire skill points with each level. Lead producer David Baker even intimated that at advanced levels, players will be able to unlock packages of traits that will make their golfer’s abilities resemble the playing styles of the PGA’s and LPGA’s biggest stars.
All of this leans into new gameplay that continues to offer broad-based shot-shaping features and differentiates them even more with 20 shot types, some of which are unlocked in the later stages of attribute progression. Those shot types may also be ranked up, it seems.
“I think a big thing is experimentation,” Ramsour said, noting that players can again create multiple avatars and progress them individually. He also said, “We want users to see, Hey, Tony Finau’s game really matches well to Augusta, but it’s terrible for Harbour Town.”
This is surfaced through a nifty little menu that I saw called Course Fit, which stole the show as far as something new that will connect me more to my created golfer. Course Fit, seen on the course selection screen, gives players a relative view of their skills versus what the course will expect of a winning player. Five attributes — Power, Driving, Approach, Short Game, and Putting — all have bars; the closer a player’s bar is to the course’s, the more they’ll be able to take advantage of that characteristic.
It’s not an attribute boost; it’s just visual information that will give me a sense of just how risky my ideas are on the second shot of, say, one of East Lake Golf Club’s par-5 holes, or how important it’s going to be to stick this approach at Pebble Beach, where there’s a demanding putting game waiting for me.
“So for me, I want to win the major championships,” Ramsour said. “So in my primary created player, I am leveling up the shot types to win the four majors. But eventually, I’m going to want to win every single tournament on the hardest mode. So I know I’m going to have to be less of a bomber and more precise to win at Harbour Town.”
Although players may have multiple created golfers, most stick with one for Career. They will most likely see all of the differences Ramsour mentioned in Challenges, a separate mode, but one that has a supplementary effect to Career.
Challenges, to me, resembled the kind of bite-sized moments available in Madden Ultimate Team’s single-player offering. Indeed, they’ll be live-service content, driven by real-world occurrences, and like MUT, they’ll use different players in addition to the created pro. Baker said that the challenges are designed to play like between-rounds practices, meaning they’ll be shorter experiences focused on a particular skill or a particular moment.
The rewards will be skill points for use in created-player progression, as well as clubs and cosmetic items they can equip. (Importantly, these clubs, equipment, and apparel do not affect player attributes, as they may have in the past.) Golfers can expect a season-based approach here that other online sports video games have adopted.
- Augusta National’s fabled Amen Corner comprises the second shot on No. 11, all of the par-3 No. 12 (above), and the tee shot from No. 13. Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
- Long hitters might be able to reach par-5 No. 13’s green in two, but they’ll still need an elite putting game to get the job done. Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
- Tony Finau is one of pro golf’s top drivers. Here he is at Pebble Beach. Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
- Danielle Kang, winner of the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship, at Pebble Beach. Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
- Players with Jordan Spieth will be able to take advantage of two new shot types from the bunker, the Blast and the Pick. Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
All of these modes, players, and courses — 30 at launch, the most ever for the standard edition of an EA Sports golf title — mean little if the core gameplay isn’t tight, informative, and understandable. While the event last week was not hands-on, the developers focused on the swing mechanism and the 20 shot types supporting it in a one-hole demonstration at Augusta’s No. 13.
Best example: a “stinger,” which is a lower but safer shot from the tee. Gameplay designer Craig Penner used the stinger to rope a 266-yard drive with Jordan Spieth that still hugged No. 13’s famous left-hand sweep — it just used the downhill fairway to get its distance. In the end, Spieth sacrificed about 10 yards of distance to make a safer shot. This is something I would often try to replicate in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, but the lowest trajectory that game offered didn’t come close to what I saw last week.
Ramsour, playing as 2022 Masters winner Scottie Scheffler, used a boost-assisted power drive — impressive, and successful, but still a dangerous shot that is a blind approach, and which could clip the treetops if not executed perfectly. But again, Scheffler is longer off the tee than Spieth, so both golfers were playing to type and taking, or avoiding, appropriate risks (especially as they were highlighted by Course Fit).
I was also struck by the bits of commentary we heard from the game as the demonstration played out. For once, it sounded like the broadcast team was actually watching what was being played. Lead commentator Rich Lerner returns from 2015’s Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, and on Penner’s shot with Spieth, I heard him discussing the use of the fairway’s width and slope to get the desired result.
Returning broadcast partner Frank Nobilo (and new course reporters Notah Begay III and Iona Stephen) also provided context-appropriate color, a dramatic improvement over past games, which mostly offered generic repetition.
“We have tech that delivers detailed analysis on how putts will break,” Baker said in last week’s presentation. “There’s also a system that connects the field reporter analysis of the current situation, and also highlights landmarks from our great list of courses, to tell historical stories from those exact spots on the course.”
EA Sports PGA Tour launches March 24 — two weeks before the 2023 Masters — on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. It will be available in a standard edition as well as a digital deluxe version, which offers three-day early access, plus some content that includes an XP boost and virtual currency for the in-game pro shop’s items.