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The Biggest Maker of Sports Video Games Hits the Rough Yet Again

The Biggest Maker of Sports Video Games Hits the Rough Yet Again:

Sun filters through the trees on a par 4 at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, a luxury course in Orlando that makes a commandingly beautiful appearance in the recently launched Xbox One and PS4 game Rory McIlroy’s PGA Tour. And it should be gorgeous—Bay Hill is one of only eight real world courses in Electronic Arts’ rebranded golf series. Compare that with EA’s final Tiger Woods-branded game—and final golf game for the Xbox 360/PS3 generation—2014’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, which featured 20 courses at launch.

New console launches have long proved problematic for EA Sports, the division of the massive game developer and publisher that handles its football (the Madden franchise), basketball (NBA Live) and other sports games. After Tiger Woods 2014, they selected McIlroy as the next cover athlete, but his debut is unfortunately part of a regression—and an expected one, at that. Madden NFL’s auspicious PlayStation debut in 1996 was canceled for quality reasons. Competition from 2K’s NHL series squeezed EA’s own hockey sim into shameful retreat at the dawn of the Xbox 360. In the same time window, Madden NFL 06 dropped its create-a-player feature, its broadcast commentary, and even key rules such as play challenges. In the current generation, NHL 15 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is an icon of feature loss and regression.

EA’s bungling of NBA Live is even more remarkable, a stop-and-restart, cross-generational saga of stumbling releases leading to the late cancellation of a hyped rebranding—NBA Elite 11 was recalled days before fully shipping to stores. The full NBA fiasco, finally sorted by 2014, eventually led to an apology from the developers. “We fell short,” wrote Executive Producer Sean O'Brien—this after promotional teasers sold the next-gen basketball rebirth as “ultimate” because “science.” Falling short—and realizing it only in preparation to sell the following year’s iteration—has become EA Sports’ most enduring tradition, and Rory’s debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is just upholding it.

Expect another open letter for Rory McIlroy’s PGA Tour any time now.

OLD TIMEY

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is old. New, but old. Celebration animations carry over from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003. Yes, a game from twelve years ago. There is the swing system, sufficient if identical to one in 2013, with the core of its back-and-forth analog stick motion from 2003 as well.

But there is a new Night Club mode. The course becomes emblazoned with strips of neon. The featured skill shot challenges are reminiscent of EA’s 2014 free-to-play mobile release, King of the Course Golf. Upon deeper consideration, no, none of this is new either.

It’s all luster. Trees look richer. The grass? It’s stunning, if grass is ever such a thing. Sound design has made a turn for the brilliant—slow motion “BOSE Heartbeat Moments” trigger upon a shot nearing the pin. And mystified players wonder what happened to exquisite custom face creation features, enriched club selections, embellished career play, and the suite of well regarded courses. Why is the focus on the superficiality of grass? Because superficial can be sold.

High resolution screenshots, 1080p video trailers, a battleship exploding onto a par 3 (yes, that happens in this game); those gloss over PGA Tour’s mediocre undercurrent, until you scratch beneath the surface. When the apology comes next year, it can easily take the form of a feature list—features that may or may not be restored in the next iteration. McIlroy’s game will still look beautifully sellable, and they can keep trying to fix what‘s been shattered—which is trust, mostly.

If buzzwords like “next gen golf” can tell a story, so too can numbers. Tiger Woods 14 landed at 77 on Metacritic. Rory is stuck at 66, both miles away from the celebratory 88 awarded to Tiger Woods 10. The fall has been rapid. The trend follows everywhere. NHL 14? 80. NHL 15? 59 on Xbox One. NBA Live 10 (arguably the height of the 360/PS3 era) nabbed an 81, the debut on PlayStation 4 a dreadful 43. And in the American tentpole spot, Madden 13 scored an 83, the oddly named Madden 25, released during the latest console launch window, a 74.

EA corporate promised not to make the same mistakes with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as they did on 360/PS3. Speaking with Bloomberg in 2012, then president of labels at Electronic Arts, Frank Gibeau, stated, “EA Sports is there with all of its power.” The critical and consumer drubbing says otherwise, though, and two years in, the same mistakes are still being made.

Gibeau left the company in May of 2015. Lucky him. At least now he doesn’t have to approve an apology for Rory McIlroy’s PGA Tour.


Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.


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