Good ideas tend to speak for themselves. The fact that this game exists is a proof of that. When The Golf Club was released by HB Studios in 2014 it was the underdog. EA still had the license for the PGA and was still making big-named-player focused golf games. The Golf Club presented something new. A new take on simulation golf with a modernized interesting control scheme and robust course editor. It didn’t have any licensed courses or players but made up for it with innovation and clear passion for the subject matter. Two games later, after EA lost the PGA license, the team at HB Studios would have their chance to take the top spot in simulation golf games with The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA TOUR. That game was mostly an update to the previous two in the series but with the exception of having six officially licensed replicas of real courses. The PGA must have been pleased because now we officially have a new fully licensed PGA game published under the 2K Sports label, but still developed by HB Studios. The question is, has success and the increased influence of corporate interests affected the quality of the product that got us here in the first place. Let’s talk about it in our PGA Tour 2K21 review.
The Names of the Game
Let’s start with the biggest change, PGA Tour 2K21 has not just six licensed replica courses, but a full 15 TPC courses and 11 real world Pro-players to compete against. The single-player campaign is broken into four tours, as you progress through each you get points and sponsorships and eventually rank up to the next tour until you become an official PGA player. It is at this point that you will develop rivalries with these 11 real world professionals and have to beat them enough times to move on to the next. It’s a fun way to create “levels” in a sports sim. Though I did find myself wanting to get to play as these pros rather than just against them.
It does, however, make sense. The focus of this game is clearly the sport, not the players. The 15 TPC courses are all well realized and unique. The different courses all have a strong sense of climate and place, though it doesn’t really affect the gameplay unless you hit a ball off the course. (Which I promise you, you will do at some point.)
The first two games got by just fine on entirely fictional and user generated courses. But the gameplay feels right at home on these real courses, granted their more realistic designs do prevent some of the cliff-side shenanigans that happen in user generated courses. Not to worry though, as the course editor is still here in full swing.
Swinging for the Fences
All that being said about the single-player and the work with the PGA Tour license, there are really four aspects of this game for which one shows up. the multiplayer, the CCourse editor, the My Player, and the control scheme.
For the uninitiated, HB Studios biggest innovation to the golf games landscape has been the mechanics of how the actual swing works. In brief, it barrows a page from the SKATE games by mimicking the bodily movement of the action onto the right stick. This time out the mechanics of actually being on the course and plotting the perfect shot are more in depth than ever, with what feels like a half dozen potential dials to tweak: Club, Stance, Aim (paying attention to the wind and terrain), orientation of the club in relation to the ball, etc. It can sometimes feel like a lot if you aren’t familiar and it is definitely the kind of system that rewards practice.
In fact I found myself returning to the training classes multiple times to try and gleam more information on how to perfect my game. The various lessons are well laid out and well explained with the series’ returning announcer and written text doing a good job of explaining what they are trying to teach you. This is perhaps the reason that they restrict you to only playing as created characters, because it is a matter of actual skill, not background statistics and chance, that affect your shots. So the Pro-Players wouldn’t play any better than your created character and thereby wouldn’t represent their real world skill.
That is not to say that there aren’t aspects of the simulation perspective that can limit the fun you’re having. While there is music at the menus, the equivalent of if Electronic Dance Music had its own version of Soft Rock, there is no music on the course. Hardly any sound at all actually. Mostly the ambient sound of wind and birds chirping until you swing, then the gentle hit of the club, the crowd sucks in air from a distance and the announcers quietly comment on the result (All three of them do a fine job by the way, though like most sports games there are occasions where the emotions in their voice don’t match where your ball lands.)
Just as with the three entries in The Golf Club, the sound design is definitely something that will rub you one way or another depending on what you’re coming to this game desiring. If you’re hoping for a deep immersive simulation so you can feel like you’re actually on the green with Justin Thomas and Sergio Garcia, Welcome Home. But if you’re more casual and just want a solid, fun golfing experience, this lack of music or fanfare around the gameplay itself might feel boring or lackluster at times. I found Spotify and podcasts to be welcome friends during my time with the game.
Similar thoughts apply to the My Player experience. While it’s always a welcome inclusion to get to play as a custom character in a sports game, this is a rather basic character editor. Though the more you play, the more coins you earn so you can unlock cooler and more colorful clothes to wear. These aesthetics don’t apply to the Singleplayer, where you are limited to the sponsors you have at the time. But it is fun to see the outfits people put together from the limited options.
There’s three basic ways to play with other people in PGA Tour 2K21. There’s the typical matchmaking with random players and private matches both local and online. The net code worked fine in my experience on the Xbox One and most players seemed willing to see the game all the way through. The most interesting online mode however is Online Societies.
Functionally, Online Societies are social clubs for groups of players to form tournaments. You can set up regular play schedules and whole seasons for players in the group to drop in on. All this is monitored and the game keeps statistics on how the group dynamics are shaking out: who plays the most, who wins the most, etc. You can even set an ante-in where someone has to contribute a certain amount of in-game-currency to contribute to skins games. There’s already plenty of Societies set up that you can jump into if you don’t have enough friends to form a new group. Last I checked there were several larger fully active groups of players dedicated to different sports news outlets like Barstool Sports, and films like Caddyshack. It will be interesting to see how the community engages with the Online Societies. If they are taken up and really engaged with by the players it could add a lot of longevity.
Yes We Can!
Underneath all of these multiplayer offerings is the return of the course editor. As with most creation tools, the work that people turn out ranges from silly to downright amazing. Especially assuming that any of them are using an Xbox One controller.
The basics of creation are easy. After you name the course and then select the terrain type there’s a series of percentage sliders to determine how much of each geographical feature should be present. A couple more short decisions and you can save what you have and call it good. But for those with heartier souls, you can then go in and piece by piece move each tee and green. You can terraform the terrain to your liking within allowed parameters. It was complex enough that I found myself plugging in a wireless mouse just to navigate. I think my rugged mountain course was cool, but it felt somewhat generic since I know I could have done a lot more with it if I had the patience.
Not to worry if you’re like me and just not much of a designer. There’s plenty to see if you want to dip into the plethora of uploaded courses from which to choose. And you can pull them down for almost any game type except the PGA Tour campaign or matchmaking.
Drive for Show. Putt for Dough.
I very much enjoyed my time with PGA TOUR 2K21. It’s a sport simulation that takes itself seriously by leaning in to the experience of golf. But it is light and pleasant enough that it is just not the type of game that most people are ever going to rage over. If you keep struggling to beat the next level of the campaign and advance through the tournaments, take a step back, retry the training sessions. It is decidedly a difficult game, but just like real golf it gets easier with practice. Maybe that’s the secret brilliance of HB Studios design for their golf games. You get better by getting better. Not by increasing stats or finding nicer gear. You just learn how to make better decisions and execute with consistency. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an incredibly calm, relaxing time if you let it be. If you get a bad swing and end up standing on a sidewalk trying to navigate some trees to get back on the actual course, you can laugh it off and keep going. Now you know not to do that.
I’d be lying if I said that this is my favorite golf game ever. But I’d also be lying if I said that I’m not going to play it when I get home tonight. It’s a fun experience that calms the nerves. It has its shortcomings for sure and it can occasionally slide past relaxing right into boring if you aren’t careful. But you’re also not going to find a more realistic golfing game anywhere. This game is made for fans of golf and fans of sports simulations. If you find yourself in either of those groups I recommend this without hesitation. If you are any other kind of gamer that admires well done sports games and quieter, thoughtful experiences. I would recommend this one heartily with only a couple of words of caution. Whatever your background and preferences, nearly everyone loves an underdog. The scrappy challenger that tries something new and ends up changing the game and becoming the new top dog. That’s kind of the story of this franchise. You have to respect it for that if nothing else.
- Intuitive, Deep Gameplay Returns
- Incredible Course Variety
- Online Societies and Solid Net Code
- Useful Training Sessions That Are Actually Helpful
- Powerful Level Editor
- 15 TPC Courses Well Realized
- Some Dope Hats
- Lack of Presence or Options for Music and Fanfare In Game
- Would be Nice to Play as the Real World Players
- Limited Options in My Player
- Gets Very Difficult Very Quickly.
A review code of PGA Tour 2K21 was provided by the publisher. Game reviewed on XBOX ONE S. Click here to read SP1st and MP1st’s review and scoring policy. PGA Tour 2K21 is now available on all platforms.