There’s something especially calming about golf whenever I see it on TV. The calming, hushed tones of the Beeb’s commentators, the lackadaisical pace as the golfers take their shots and then saunter up the green after their ball, the ambient hubbub of the watching crowds and their appreciation of a good stroke. It’s only once you reach the pointy end of a competition (or any day of the fiercely competed Ryder Cup) that the noise levels and heart rates seem to rise.
For golf fans, it’s been far too long since the sport has felt like it’s had a proper licensed video game series to be its flag bearer. That’s all set to change later this month with PGA Tour 2K21, the first game to feature 2K’s distinctive branding after they took over the license from EA.
Don’t let the naming fool you; this isn’t really a brand new franchise starting from scratch. Instead PGA Tour 2K21 sees HB Studios put their The Golf Club branding to one side and smoothly transition their homegrown game series to sporting the official PGA license front and centre. Even with the new name, this is building on the foundations that they set out in The Golf Club, expanding on how they feature the PGA Tour from their last game.
Having been able to feature a bunch of official PGA Tour courses to the game for The Golf Club 2019, that’s been more than doubled, from seven to fifteen licensed courses. PGA Tour 2K21 adds licensed player likenesses into the mix as well. From the cover, there’s the newly crowned world #1 golfer Justin Thomas, and he’s part of a line up that also includes Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter, Jim Furyk and more for a total of 12 PGA Tour pros that you’ll probably recognise.
But you can’t play as any of these pros. Instead, it’s still all about the custom players in the 2K staple MyPlayer system. There’s fully customisable faces, you can wear a mixture of generic and licensed clothing to make your player look exactly how you want, and for the first time, you can really dig in and customise what’s in your golf bag.
This lets you go club-by-club, swapping out a particular 9 wood, wedge, putter and whatever else you want for a different club that has different characteristics. Distance, Shot Shaping, Forgiveness, Swing Plane and Distance Control all shift up and down varying degrees. There’s a natural inclination to want the clubs that let you smash the ball absolutely miles, but for that, there’s then less forgiveness within the swing mechanics, and so more risk with sliding off to either side of the fairway.
All of this relies on VC, ah, the ever-present in-game currency of 2K’s sports games. Its inclusion here is quite light, though. Yes, you can drop some cash on the game and buy more in-game currency, but it’s also earned just through playing and levelling up your character. With the cosmetics, it obviously won’t affect the game, and even with the clubs, there’s the tradeoffs that each one has to maintain balance when playing online. None of the super club shenanigans you might have feared.
PGA Tour 2K21 is still a game based off skill and judgement. The shot mechanics have been tweaked for this entry, so while you’re still drawing the thumbstick back and then flicking forward to swing, HB Studios have removed the backswing tempo from their 2018 game. It’s just that little bit more intuitive to find your rhythm, but no less challenging to maintain a perfect back and forth motion and nail the timing.
There’s new and improved elements around this, with Pro Vision, shot suggestions, training systems, the shot feedback and a new haptic feedback for timing using the rumble of the controller. They’re elements to try and lower the bar for entry a little for newcomers to the series, but can also enable more experienced players to go for higher levels of difficulty. There’s new mechanics for partial swings, dynamics shot-shaping and a yardage book that can be a tool for learning how to improve your course management skills. I’m someone who will rely on the game’s suggestions most of the time, but you can always override that, pick a different stance, club, distance, and forge your own path.
As before, the game is built on the Unity Engine, and that does mean the game can lack some of the visual pizazz that you might expect from a big licensed sports game. At least with Rich Beem and Luke Elvy commentating on every one of my wayward balls, it certainly sounds authentic.
Another element of authenticity comes through the career. As you go from event to event, aiming to earn your spot and compete for the FedEx Cup, you’ll have the ability to sign for a sponsor, getting new goals and objectives to beat over the following seasons. Manage to do so and it’s not just currency and experience that you’ll earn, but also a range of sponsor exclusive clubs and gear that you can only get through this side of the game. As your reputation rises, you’ll also be sparking rivalries against those pros, challenging them to head to head battles where your performance is compared them on your way up the rankings.
Of course, there’s nothing quite like competing against other people. There’s a range of game modes to choose from locally and online, including Stroke, Stableford, Match Play, Skins, Alt Shot, Fourball and Scramble – this last one is a new mode where you and your partner both hit and then decide which ball to follow for your next spot. Private matches will have tons of options for tweaking the green speed, crowd size, what assists are allowed, and more.
And then there’s the series’ popular course creation mode. This leans on the same tools that the dev team uses to create their courses, but has now been expanded so that objects are no longer restricted to a particular theme. You could set your course in a Swiss theme and then sprinkle it with alligators, if you really wanted. You’ll be able to bring across creations from previous games as well, meaning there will be thousands of courses ready to go on day one.
PGA Tour 2K21 sees HB Studios’ hard work rewarded with the trust to represent the tour as a whole. It’s building on the foundations of The Golf Club and its realistic take on golf, that’s for sure, but it also points to a bright future with the potential to grow and include more and more of the PGA Tour.