After almost eight years, EA are swinging back into the world of golf with EA Sports PGA Tour. It’s set to be a grand return to the sport, with plenty of licensed courses and the four majors, top stars from both the men’s and women’s game, and strikingly realistic graphics.
There’s a lot of quirks to different sports, whether it’s the tights and body armour uniforms of American football, the pyjamas and giant gloves of baseball, or the five days of standing around in a field of cricket, but golf is especially odd to my mind. Hitting a small ball very long distances across the countryside, trying to gently knock it into a small hole, often while wearing luridly patterned and colourful clothing? Sure, it sounds a nice way to get some walking in with your nobleman friends on a balmy summers day, but that doesn’t exactly match the stereotypes of weather in Scotland, from where the modern sport originated.
Golf is probably as popular as it’s ever been – that whole “just going out for a walk” gelling well with public health guidelines over the last few years – and with that resurgent interest in the game, EA saw the opportunity to make a comeback. It’s taken a year longer than originally planned, but we’ll have the first EA golf game in eight years by the end of March.
At the heart of EA’s pitch to golf fans – wait, pitching is baseball, isn’t it? – is all of the licensed content that they can bring to the game. In particular, they’ve secured the exclusive license to the PGA Championship, US Open, The Open, and the Masters, but there’s also 30 real world courses that have been faithfully recreated – from Augusta National to The Old Course at St Andrews – and it’s all built off real world data.
EA Tiburon are leaning on the latest version of the Frostbite engine, and with this a PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC game that ditches the last generation, that allows them to shoot for some fantastic digital recreations – the game does stick to a 4K and 30fps target on console, which will surely disappoint a fair few gamers. They’ve used LIDAR helicopter flights to map the terrain, supplemented that with drone flights and ground-level scanning to capture every little bit of every rolling green, and taken photogrammetry to precisely capture clubhouses, bridges, tees, rock formations and trees.
That goes hand in hand with the partnerships with ShotLink and TrackMan, which has tracked 3D ball flight and swing. In addition to speaking with superintendents and caddies, that’s enabled them to tune the physics and variation that’s found between each golf course. Different grass and local weather conditions will ensure that balls will carry and roll in a fashion similar to real life – Bermuda grass gives a more uneven lie, while Rye grass will generally drop more quickly.
There’s a new user interface to get used to for taking shots, with a golf swing arc around your golfer that acts as the power meter, and a now familiar pull back and flick forward on the analogue stick to pull off your chosen shot – an old school three-click system is planned for after launch.
More fundamental, though, is the Pure Strike system. Again feeding off ShotLink and TrackMan data, picking your shot is now a combination of choosing the right club and from a range of 20 different shot types. There’s now 1300 outcomes with ball speeds, shot dispersions and everything else modelled on real life. Absolutely nail your shot and you’ll be greeted with a Mario Golf-esque Big Hit moment with a fun cutscene alongside.
When it comes to putting, you have the familiar topographical grid overlaid on the putting green, but there’s also a new overlay that shows a putting direction and how it should break on its way to the hole. You should more easily be able to line up the shot, though this might be considered a bit of a cheat in some circles. The mulligan will be making a comeback, so you can retake and practice shots, as well.
The golfing gameplay will be wrapped up in a variety of different game modes. For the career you can create a player, either male or female, go and take part in tournaments, level up with RPG-style progression and skills, and then spend those on unlocking new shot types and advanced strikes. You’ll be able to take inspiration from pro players for where to target your improvements, and that could make you a better fit for some courses than others.
The gear that you can buy and earn is purely cosmetic, so there’s no advantages from one set of clubs to another, but a blueprint system will let you tweak a club to have certain attributes.
Alongside that, EA is creating challenges that will take inspiration from real world events, whether that’s moments in history or a current ongoing tournament, quickly turning out scenarios and situations so you can test yourself against what the pros are going up against. It’s part of a post-launch plan that will also see them add the courses for the 2023 majors over time, as well as Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Rome, which will host the 2023 Ryder cup.
And of course there’s multiplayer. Social unranked modes will allow for playing online with friends, with up to 16 players sharing a lobby, their tee off shooting rainbow colours into the sky. There will be matchmaking and limited time tournaments where you can submit a score for the leaderboards. Oh, and they haven’t forgotten local offline multilayer, where you can take alternate shots.
EA Sports PGA Tour looks like it will be an impressive return for EA’s golf game series, with the eight years since the last game giving them the chance to completely overhaul their approach, instead of the piecemeal evolutions we see through a yearly sports series.