Golf games go one of two ways; realistic, simulation style or cutesy arcade style like Mario Golf or Everybody’s Golf. It’s been several years since the last “officially licensed with a known golf star on the cover” golf video game, back in 2015 with Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. Before that, Tiger Woods was the face that ran the place, all of those licensed entries coming from EA Sports. Since then, the talented team at HB Studios worked on another franchise, The Golf Club, a feature-packed title which many people (myself included) considered to be one of the best golf games ever made. On the flipside, 2K Sports has been successfully producing high-quality sports games for years, albeit with a focus on NBA and more recently WWE.
Enter PGA Tour 2K21, taking the budget and marketing of 2K and the skills of HB Studios, mixing them together to create what has the potential to be the best golf video game ever, period. I had the chance to sit down with some of the developers and play the game for myself over the past few days… and things are, so far, looking pretty damn good.
PGA Tour 2K21 kicks off with a tutorial that is fully voiced and explains things really really clearly, especially for novices. I haven’t played golf in real life for a few years now, and even then my skills were… let’s say below average, at best. Every golf video game I’ve played as a different control setup, and the basics for this iteration feel natural and make sense in context. You can choose which stick you want to use, but either way you’ll be pushing backwards and then forwards on one of them to simulate a swinging motion. There’s a variety of clubs and shot types you can choose, and you can easily modify to a more advanced shot with a couple of quick button presses. It’s a lot to take in at first, but the tutorial does a good job of explaining things, and tips kept popping up during my session with suggestions. The game auto-chooses the most feasible club or shot type for you, but if you spend the time tweaking yourself, you can likely find a much better shot option to get closer to the pin.
The team at HB Studios let us know that this effort to include lots of tutorials and tips was quite deliberate; a barrier for entry for any serious sports sim is the control scheme and understanding the nuance of the sport itself, and they noted “for new players who haven’t played golf video games before, or even those who haven’t played one for a while, there is a focus on rookies being able to find success”. Even I definitely appreciated this, and I’d consider myself a seasoned golf video game player. Before I knew it, I was chipping in birdies from the bunker like I’d been playing for weeks, not hours. While not every swing was perfect, it made me feel like getting a low score right from the start was possible, which is a good motivator for newcomers.
“…authenticity is a focus, whether it’s the broadcast feel or getting into the mindset of the player.”
The team have streamlined their new user flow and accessibility features, including Pro Vision, which accounts for conditions, the impact the wind will have on the shot and shows where the ball will go so that you can learn and improve rather than get frustrated in the rough. Other features include Shot Feedback UI, Shot Suggestion, a full Training system and difficulty settings with six preset levels. These features aren’t just for newbies though; they allow for more advanced players to learn more and really refine what they’re doing on each course.
While an onlooker might think that a golf video game is kind of simplistic in nature, PGA Tour 2K21 has ensured that there is a lot of depth for those looking for it, while still being simple enough to just muck around on the course with a few quick pars without being too intense or difficult. It’s a fine balance, but they’ve achieved it here.
Chatting with the devs, they mentioned that “authenticity is a focus, whether it’s the broadcast feel or getting into the mindset of the player.” I definitely felt that the realistic presentation kept me on board throughout; they’ve done a fantastic job of making PGA Tour 2K21 feel as close to the real thing as possible in terms of what you’d watch on television. Production values are high, with dramatic music in-between tours, appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd and the commentary crisp and clear. Commentary can be really dire in some sports games, but the duo of Luke Elvy and Rich Beem are easily some of the best commentary I’ve heard in a video game before. They’re never jarringly off-base with what they say, I didn’t hear much repetition (and if there was it wasn’t noticeable) and I appreciate that they have a good mix of analysis and personality, particularly when you shank a ball directly into the deep rough instead of landing on the fairway.
Having played a few courses of the PGA Tour Career Mode, a schedule of events keeps track of your progress compared to other AI players, with some events gated by an entry criteria, meaning that you need to improve and achieve certain results before accessing them. Taking your player through the career means playing well, unlocking sponsors that will support you and have their own unique goals as well. There are also Rivals, ensuring your performance always matters; at the end of each PGA Tour round that both you and your rival participate in your performances will be compared and rivalry points will be awarded. Ultimately beating your rival will reward you with an additional currency bonus.
PGA Tour 2K21 more “gamified” than other serious golf games while retaining its professional nature. Course Challenges provide opportunities for XP by achieving milestones within each hole, such as hitting the ball a certain distance, making par or simply avoiding hazards over a course. These smaller goals give you something to strive for, which I found helpful to retain my focus over an 18-hole course that can take a bit of time. I am a little unsure about leveling up to get gear to customise your golfer; golf for me is not a sport where I particularly care what my character looks like, and being “rewarded” with a pair of gloves that only change the visual of my character is a little silly, but for those who want to bling up their golfer then there is plenty of licensed apparel from brands like adidas and Polo Ralph Lauren, among others, to strive for and choose from.
The courses themselves also look fantastic using real-world scanning, and the game has a level of polish overall that we’ve come to expect from 2K Sports, considering NBA has always nailed the broadcast-style elements as well. The fact that you’ll be able design your own course means that there is a lot of opportunity for sharing courses online and playing an infinite amount of golf, so the value is definitely going to be there too. Societies are another feature I haven’t even touched on yet, an online place where you can run events for an online environment hat’s relaxed but still competitive.
Overall, after putting several hours into PGA Tour 2K21 so far, I am not surprised by the amount of features available, considering The Golf Club 2 was feature-packed to an almost overwhelming degree. This time around though, the golf feels a whole lot more accessible, and the features are presented in a way that doesn’t feel intimidating, but offers a tantalising look at the kind of longevity we can expect. With the 2K style and the HB Games skill, PGA Tour 2K21 could indeed be the hole-in-one golf game lovers been waiting for.
PGA Tour 2K21 releases on August 21st for PS4, Xbox One and PC. It’s also coming to Nintendo Switch on September 25th.