Review by Matt S.
The appeal of golf is that, unlike most other sports, the competition is almost entirely internal. Sure, you’re trying to land at the top of a leaderboard, but to do that you’re testing your own powers of concentration and precision, rather than trying to directly out-perform other players. This gives golf a relaxing, reflective edge, making golf video games the perfect way to unwind.
2K Games has purchased HB Studios in order to gain access to the excellent golf technology that went into the previous The Golf Club titles. In doing so, 2K Games has gained access to another valuable sporting property beloved across the world. PGA Tour 2K21 doesn’t have the “AAA-blockbuster” production values of 2K’s NBA titles, and indeed, quite humbly, it was built in Unity. But it’s also a joyfully unpretentious and uncomplicated game, eschewing the endless microtransactions and overwrought features that make the blockbuster sports titles so much harder to love. PGA Tour 2K21 is a game that you can love.
There are two principal ways to play. There’s a career mode, which allows you to rise from amateur right to the heights of the sport. There are more detailed career modes in sports games out there, and this one progresses at a snail’s pace, because playing multiple rounds of a single course is a time-consuming affair, but nonetheless, it’s slickly presented, and nicely challenging – drive your ball into the river on hole nine on the second day’s play of four rounds, and you can really mess up your chances of nabbing that trophy. The developers have captured the subtle pressure of needing to execute on every shot across a marathon beautifully in that career mode.
I think more people will get stuck into the online competitions and course creator. Having not played one of HB Studios’ previous titles, I was amazed at just how comprehensive the course creation and sharing tools are, and while I don’t have the time or patience to spend a lot of time in there myself, I am certainly going to take full advantage of the community’s creativity to play on famous and (I hope) my local golf courses once they’ve been created. When you think about the sport of golf, 99 per cent of the experience is those courses. This isn’t a stadium creator or even player creator where the results don’t change the fundamentals of how the game is played. This course creator really does give you a game of unlimited scale and depth, and that’s a genuinely impressive feature.
Mechanically, PGA Tour 2K21 likes to punish a bad swing, and aims to be an authentic take on the precision and finesse required within the sport of golf. The basic mechanic is a “flick” action on the control stick. Pull back to start a power bar growing, and then “flick” it forward at just the right moment to hit the ball. Flick too slowly or too quickly and you’ll skew the ball direction (likely into a bunker, lake or patch of rough). Flick the stick in a wonky angle, other than straight up, and you’ll do the same. Fail to take into account the wind conditions and even a straight drive can become a nightmare.
It took me a while to get a good feel for this system. By default, the game is far too demanding that the “flick up” action is far too fast, meaning that I was sending myself nuts by being unable to physically push the stick quick enough to hit the ball straight. Perhaps I really am getting old. Thankfully, a bit of tweaking in the settings helped me find something more natural. I wanted to challenge myself, so it wasn’t about turning on an “easy mode”, but I needed to find something that felt natural within the rhythms and range of my movement, so thankfully the options there were substantial (and not condescending).
Once I was able to get into the groove of PGA Tour 2K21, I found it to be an enormously engaging experience. Golf is a game of subtlety, patience, and skill, and before you even get into the player-created courses, the breadth of challenging course design is on display in full in this game. With the ever-present danger of a slight mistake sending the ball into an undesirable position, I often found myself playing defensively on holes that I knew I would find challenging – consistently throwing caution to the wind is never a successful play in golf because the game is too extended for a momentary burst of luck or brilliance to sustain you its length. Playing the percentages and knowing when a best opportunity for a birdie or better will come along is the way to play golf successfully. I also found that, just like in real life, long par 4s and par 5s are my strengths and I really (really) struggle at the short game and par 3s. Other players will have a different experience, but the nuance of golf gives it more strategy and allows for a broader range of skills than most are immediately aware of, and all of this is captured beautifully in PGA Tour 2K21.
The only thing that disappointed me about this game was its presentation. I appreciate the desire to produce simulations means gunning for authenticity, but let’s face things here; golf ain’t fashionable. Golf is a sport that is weirdly proud of just how unfashionable it is. PGA Tour 2K21 takes this to a whole other level with a clumsy player editor (that just won’t let you have fun with it), and unlocks which are… dry, to say the least. The developers really should have thrown in some novelties for the sake of humour and creative play. They should be completely optional, of course, but for those of us that aren’t enamoured to the aesthetics of the golfing individual, being able to subvert that a little would have gone a long way to make this game feel less dry.
Still. It’s an excellent simulation of an excellent sport. With most other sports properties out there aiming for intensity, action, and excitement, having the laid-back, strategic pace of golf is a nice alternative, and this will likely be a game I keep coming back to for some time to come simply for that change of pace and undemanding nature.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb
The critic was provided a code for the purposes of this review.