Xbox One, PS4,
August 21, 2020
HB Studios created, in my opinion, some of the best golf video games in recent memory. Their take on the virtual fairway with The Golf Club series showed an understanding and love for the sport that took it beyond just a tie-in. With no specific “name” attached to the title (à la Tiger Woods PGA Tour), they carved out a niche for themselves as a talented team that just needed a bit more time and a bit more money to make something truly special. Now, they’ve partnered with 2K Sports on PGA Tour 2K21, utilising the production values and quality we’ve come to expect from 2K over the years with their consistently great NBA 2K series and the usually pretty good but last year unfortunately bad WWE 2K series.
So with the talent and passion of HB Studios with the budget and namesake of 2K, it certainly sounds like the perfect combo to achieve an elusive hole-in-one. The good news is, while it isn’t an Albatross, PGA Tour 2K21 is easily one of the best golf video games I have ever played, and is a must-have for golfing fans everywhere.
Let’s start with the basics. As I noted during my initial preview of PGA Tour 2K21, the tutorial is incredibly helpful to teach you the lay of the land, not just on a fundamental level but also for when it comes to advanced techniques. It’s fully voiced and explains things really clearly and concisely, making the experience far less daunting than other golf games in the past where I felt like I was just hitting and hoping for the best. 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. The game auto-chooses the most feasible club or shot type for you, which means you’re often set up for success with a decent choice of shot, but if you spend the time tweaking yourself, you can likely find a much better option to get closer to the pin. Relying on the automatic setup or choosing to modify manually is often the difference between a par and a birdie.
It’s good that the tutorial is welcoming for newcomers, as the mechanics will still take some getting used to, particularly when it comes to timing. My first few rounds of golf had me really struggling with getting a “perfect” timing on my swing, and it’s the one thing that can really stuff up your shot, no matter how prepared and meticulous you are regarding your choice of shot. Especially when you start accounting for wind, the need to make sure you’re swing is perfect becomes more and more critical. It bothered me so much that I couldn’t get it right that I actively went into the available training mode to practice, and through some work refining my swing and also doing a swing calibration, I finally felt like I was able to confidently take on the tournaments with gusto.
The more I played, the better I got, too. While there were rounds that absolutely tested me and mistakes were made with an errant swing or an unfortunately placed bunker, I found that the tools and systems provided like Pro Vision and Shot Feedback UI really helped enhance my game, and after a week of play, I was dominating the competition. Hitting a good tee-off sounds and feels almost as great as in real life. You feel like you’ve truly connected with the ball smoothly and are rewarded with a slick shot that lands exactly where you’ve expected it to. On the flip side, when you do stuff up your rhythm, you definitely can tell, as the swing erratically ends with your player off balance, the ball sailing into the rough terrain.
“…once I got into the groove on the dance-floor it didn’t bother me that much where I landed as I knew that my putts always had a good chance…”
Putting as well, once you’re used to it, is incredibly satisfying. The coloured moving line indicators on the grid are the most helpful I’ve seen in a golf game when it comes to understanding and adjusting each putt, no matter the distance. Again, this wasn’t something I nailed straight away, but once I got into the groove on the dance-floor (golf slang for the green) it didn’t bother me that much where I landed as I knew that my putts always had a good chance once I figured out how the method.
One you’re in the PGA Tour, you can take on sponsor contracts and unlock exclusive rewards. These come with their own goals to achieve and you can browse the sponsors you want to take on, adding a bit more autonomy to your objective chasing. They span multiple events too, but if you can complete them quicker you can take on alternative ones without having to wait a whole event. Harder contracts give better rewards, and there was some satisfaction in slowly acquiring new pieces of gear so that I could strut my stuff on the course with brands like Adidas. Rivals also add another thing to keep track of, but as they’re sort of randomly assigned to you and you just have to play well and hope that you do better than them, I didn’t feel like this added much to the experience beyond some more pieces of gear.
While it starts off more basic in the early qualifying tournaments, during the major tour, presentation really ramps up to the point where it is very familiar to anybody who has watched golf on television before. During your own course attempts, it will quickly show the occasional highlight from other players on the course, whether they’ve done well or made a mistake, also tracking their score. You’ll randomly hear applause and crowd noise from other parts of the course, and commentary will call it out. This keeps you feeling connected to proceedings, when golf can sometimes feel like you’re the only player out there. The career mode is long, with a large number of different tournaments to take part in; I’ve played a lot of this game over the last week and I’m still competing, and that’s before explaining the other modes available.
The commentary in particular in PGA Tour 2K21 is some of the best I’ve ever heard in a sports game. Luke Elvy and Rich Beem have loads of personality, and their breakdown of each course even motivated me to take risks at times. When Rich suggests that it’s an opportunity to go hard or go home, I took that as a challenge, and found that when the shot paid off I was rewarded with crowds cheering and the announcers excited.
They’re also very relevant with their calls; when you do particularly well with an approach shot on a regular basis, it’ll be noted. It feels nice to be recognised not just on the scoreboard but with the audio cue as well. At times they’re funny, genuinely causing me to giggle, and they come off completely natural and with fantastic banter and brutal jabs if you’re playing poorly. It’s no wonder they’ve been promoted so heavily in the lead-up; they make the game feel even more special, with the addition of John McCarthy from the audio team at HB Studios playing the more serous play-by-play from down on the course. I can’t express enough how much value they add to the production.
“…a potentially infinite amount of courses to muck around with… I love that there will be people out there creating more content for me to enjoy long-term.”
Those who want to tweak further can tune their golf bag with clubs, which also unlock over meeting certain requirements. They often have pros and cons for each, so it’s not like any of them are overpowered. For example, some that can achieve more distance sacrifice forgiveness or even distance control. I dabbled with a few different clubs and noticed the difference, but certainly didn’t feel overly advantaged even with some of the more expensive ones available.
Beyond all of that, there is online and local multiplayer, with one particular feature standing out as special being online Societies. Anyone can create a Society, or you can join an existing one. This allows you to compete against other society members in events that are uniquely set up to each, and you can control the member list and other settings. I like the idea of making a little golf club that others can join and will likely extend the longevity of PGA Tour 2K21 beyond the career. You can join my Society on Xbox One, “Aussie Dancefloor”, if you want me to take you to school (or, more likely, eclipse my skill level within days).
Then, there’s the course designer, which allows you to make your own. Due to the history with The Golf Club developers, you can import courses you’ve already made from The Golf Club 2, which means it isn’t going to take long for the user-generated content to start piling up. This creates a potentially infinite amount of courses to muck around with, as well as extra incentive for those creative folk who want to spend the time making their own, adding trees, plants, wildlife, bunkers or man-made objects to your designs. You can play-test the courses you’ve made from various points as well. I’m pretty terrible when it comes to creating my own “stuff” in video games, which is why I have avoided games like Minecraft and Dreams, but I love that there will be people out there far more talented and dedicated than I am, creating more content for me to enjoy long-term.
The course-mapping they’ve used, bringing in real-world data to ensure that the golf tournaments are as realistic as possible is cool, and it’s definitely great to be able to play on courses that are designed as intricately as they are in real life. Because of this, the environments look wonderful and true-to life. Add in the flair of the presentation and strong audio, and it’s a pretty appetising production. However, the same love and care isn’t necessarily there for the players themselves. They look a little bit stilted, with limited animations, and that goes for the crowd watching as well. It’s also worth noting that you don’t get to play PGA Tour 2K21 as actual professional players.
While other sports games let you live out your fantasy by becoming one of the stars, this game is more focused on your own personal player – which, as someone who doesn’t follow the sport of golf that closely nowadays certainly didn’t worry me, but I can see purists being miffed that they can’t hit the fairway as one of their favourite players. Also less successful, the leveling up to earn in-game currency and rewards feels a bit negligible. I certainly don’t play golf games to make my player look a certain way or wear different clothing, but I suppose this sort of thing is built into all sport games nowadays to add an extra layer of progression for those who need it. I did appreciate the mini-challenges on each course though, giving you something else to strive for, providing some added motivation.
- Presentation is mostly fantastic
- Gameplay feels really good, for amateurs and advanced players
- Course-mapping is impressive, course designer even better
- Commentary team is amazing and fun
- Players and animations look basic and stilted
- No pros to play as, and very few to play against
- Some "reward" systems feel negligible
PGA Tour 2K21 sets a new standard for golf games. It has detailed gameplay that is welcoming for newcomers but incredibly complex for the veteran golfers. The presentation is also incredibly impressive, with strong audio and course-mapping that made me feel like I was an actual pro. There are some elements of its visuals that could use some tweaking, and some of the in-game currency and reward system feels a little redundant at times, but the course designer and persistent Society mode is sure to keep fans coming back for more time and time again. HB Studios and 2K have come together to make one of the best golf video games available today; with some more refinement in future, this series could easily end up being a hole-in-one.