Golf and gaming go way back. The first virtual version of the elitist hit-balls-with-sticks sport – simply titled Golf – sent pixelated balls flying in living rooms around the world in 1979 – the same year Dukes of Hazzard debuted in the US and Philips first demonstrated its new ‘compact disk’ technology.

EA’s efforts with licensed PGA Tour golf games began some 25 years ago, with the debut of PGA Tour Golf in 1990. Tiger Woods lent his name to the series from 1998, and since then, iteration has been the name of the game.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the switch from a scandalised and no longer invincible Tiger to Rory McIlroy would herald a new era in one of EA’s marquee sporting franchises – especially given the lack of a title last year, which suggested one of the world’s biggest publishers was taking its time lining up its relaunch tee-off.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour returns to the clubhouse too soon

Available only on new-gen hardware, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour leverages the latest iteration of EA’s internal Frostbite game engine. Developed by Digital Illusions CE, this proprietary set of tools is also behind upcoming shooter Star Wars Battlefront, the visual acuity and rich environments of which have been impressing fans and critics.

However, Rory’s first golf game is unlikely to be a sound advertisement for EA’s technology. Simply, PGA Tour’s visual package is a mess. There is constant pop-in, some awkward camera angles, and the swimming shimmer in mid to far detail is thrown into sharp relief by poor landscape lighting, the baffling use of Instagram-style filters, and long shots that make the world look like a pop-up book.

Walking in front of this mélange are the worst-looking player-created characters in recent memory. The prodigy golfer I spent 15 minutes hand-crafting to the best of my ability looks (unintentionally) like a creepy psychopath – an effect that’s only amplified by horrid animation and poor character lighting that gives him big shadows over his eyes.

Swinging a virtual stick at a cluster of white pixels on a sea of pretend green grass is still just as fun as it was 30 years ago

Combine all of that with forced, oft-repeated, awkward post-shot animations, and you’ve got the stuff of nightmares. All that’s needed is an unlockable clown costume and players will never sleep again. Nothing interesting is unlockable for the character editor though, so we’re safe for now.

Fortunately, swinging a virtual stick at a cluster of white pixels on a sea of pretend green grass is still just as fun as it was 30 years ago, and beyond Rory McIlroy PGA Tour’s visual shortcomings is a solid golf title. EA provides three different swing mechanics in this year’s game, including the classic ‘three click’ method, alongside two variants that require you to swing the club with the left analogue stick.

It was the latter, arcade mode, that would up being my preferred approach, and it’s most similar to the mechanics of the recent Tiger Woods games. A new pro version of this technique adds nuance and is generally quite good, but it also punishes you for taking too long in your backswing.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour returns to the clubhouse too soon

In particular, you get slammed if you hold your swing even for a microsecond at the peak, which just didn’t gel with me. By contrast, three-click – where you stop a meter in power and accuracy zones – works as it does in pretty much every golf game ever.

Whatever your preferred control method, there’s a good combination of skill and luck required, although things do tend to lean towards the ‘too easy’ side of the ledger, with online tournaments regularly won by people coming in 20 or more strokes under par. Of course, a tweak of difficulty settings sorts this out.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour returns to the clubhouse too soon
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour returns to the clubhouse too soon

One of the positive changes brought about by the updated game engine is that courses are now all loaded at once rather than hole-by-hole. This allows shots that might once have been out of bounds to now be playable. Of course, if you’re using the arcade mode and leveraging its new aiming arc shot visualization system, chances are pretty good you’ll never stray that far from the fairway anyway.

The fact that there are only seven real-world and four fantasy courses is a substantial step backwards

Unfortunately, there’s very little content here to keep you entertained during the remaining winter months. The new Nightclub Challenge mode – think “neon” and you’ll be close enough – is a decent if not particularly exciting arcade-style mode, and the Battlefield 4-themed Paracel Storm map is a welcome, amusing inclusion. The fact that there are only seven real-world and four fantasy courses is a substantial step backwards however, and the ugly custom player characters do little to offset a significantly reduced pro player roster.

Commentary and crowd sounds are a mixed bag. On the one hand, some of the inter-commentator banter is amusing, and seeing the crowd and commentator finally react to shots before they land is great. Repetition soon sets in though, and commentators frequently completely miss important action, or overreact wildly to some tiny detail.

Given the quality of the majority of the Tiger Woods series and the time since the last EA Tiburon golf release, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is disappointing. There’s not much to it, and what is here feels unpolished. It’s clear that the game was rushed to release – a charge that can be levelled at too many EA games as of late, sadly – so there’s every chance the publisher will look to rectify its faults through a series of patches and DLC.

That might see Rory McIlroy improve, but for the moment it’s well down the order – a sparse offering for fanatics only.