I’m dominating the PGA Tour with an unprecedented display of power and skill, but I can’t stomach the thought of finishing another round. This is it: I’m retiring.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour came out last week for PS4 and Xbox One, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was more hyped for the game than any other release this year — more than Bloodborne, more than The Witcher 3, more than Batman: Arkham Knight, everything. I grew up playing the mid-’00s entries in the series with my dad, back when Tiger Woods was still racking up majors and gracing the game’s covers. (This is the first game in the series since 1998 that doesn’t bear Woods’ name or likeness.) They were stuffed to the brim with real golfers and real courses — 2004’s edition had to be spread across two GameCube discs, a storage reality that was very annoying for this lazy child — and they allowed you to immerse yourself in a world of stunning vistas and booming drives you’d never experience otherwise. I was never going to fly around the world earning millions with a putter or stalk the fairways of the world’s greatest courses, but at least I could pretend before leaving to play a round on my local 18 before sunset.
Who wouldn't want to be John Daly?
As the series continued into the late '00s, the games became even better at capitalizing on the appeal of this feeling. Batman: Arkham Knight said players could be the Batman. In Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, you could become John Daly. And who wouldn’t want to be John Daly? You could play against legends of the game, access even more courses (like the famed Augusta National), and play in both PGA and LPGA tournaments as either yourself or your favorite player on tour. They cultivated their own tradition of electronic excellence.
I don’t play real golf any more, nor am I on the hunt for complete immersion in golf video games. The appeal of a game like Rory McIlroy is all tied up in its meditative, familiar qualities now. I can play Destiny or one of the many other action games / shooters on my hard drive, but they’re not exactly going to calm my nerves after a day spent writing and watching news. Working my way through a golf course is like solving a puzzle, one stuffed with bunkers and trees instead of jigsaw pieces or mechanical contraptions. You have to assess a selection of variables — the position of your ball, the length of the grass around it, the wind, the speed and slope of the green, et cetera — and make an appropriate decision. And Rory McIlroy renders those puzzles ably, better than any game in the series before. The game generates courses in one huge blob instead of hole by hole, so there are barely any waits from green to tee: divots fly, bugs buzz, wedge shots impact the green with ball marks and skid back with spin. It plays like a gem, and that makes everything else about the game doubly frustrating.
I had to settle for a bad haircut and a premade head
Let me walk you through my first season on tour, one where I rose from an impressive stint at my college of choice — yes, you get to pick one of three backstories, like it’s Mass Effect or something — to win six tournaments, three majors, and the FedEx Cup. I had trouble making my golfer look like me in the absence of advanced creator features, settling instead for a bad haircut and one of several pre-made heads. I played my way into the big leagues by placing in the Web.com Tour Championship, but quickly learned that I couldn’t look at either a schedule for the full year or a full leaderboard for any tournament in which I was entered. I also had to choose between playing complete rounds and truncated versions called "quick rounds," where the holes I’d play were automatically selected for me.
I was earning experience from playing, but I couldn’t actually direct where that experience was being applied; instead, I earned new packs of "attribute bonuses" every few levels, and could apply a new one to my character every 25. I discovered that there were only eight real courses in the game, and only two fantasy courses fit for use in a career mode, so I ended up playing some courses multiple times over the course of the season. They were wrapped in different tournaments, like a parent rewrapping a Christmas gift after it’s just been opened, as if the child will be just as happy to get the same damned thing. (Consider that the last game in the series, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, came with 20 courses standard, and allowed you to add up to 24 more through DLC and other purchasing options.) I quickly exhausted the commentators’ bank of phrases and anecdotes, so I got to hear a) how my swing looked like Tom Weiskopf's and b) how missing a short putt is like kissing your mother-in-law about once every two rounds. And when I managed to overcome all of these issues and distractions to string together a few birdies or pop an eagle, this is how my character liked to celebrate:
EA is promising to provide free content updates over the course of the game’s lifespan, and that’ll solve at least one of the major problems mentioned above. In the meantime, I can’t help but exit the tour at the top of my game. There’s just too much missing from Rory McIlroy, too many decisions that don’t make any sense, too many lumps under the game’s mattress. I’m not looking to golf games for a ton these days. I want to relax. But trying to immerse myself in a game littered with holes and wrinkles — problems that have been solved for decades in this same series, on systems with a tiny fraction of the power we have now — is just stressing me out.