Breaking into the sports genre is almost impossible if you’re an indie outfit. There’s money to be made in pub games and the like, but you’re never going to see a ten man team take on FIFA or Madden – the odds of success are significantly worse than Tiger Woods’ now that he’s busted his back. The Golf Club by Canadian outfit HB Studios is something of an anomaly, then – a title that just so happens to be hitting the fairway in a year where EA Sports has failed to trot out its annual PGA Tour tie-in. The big question is: does this home grown simulation soar like an eagle, or disappoint like a clumsy double bogey?
Fortunately for fans eagerly anticipating their first PlayStation 4 putting experience, this isn’t a swing and a miss by any stretch. In fact, quite the contrary: the Nova Scotia-based studio has crafted a decent digital analogue of one of the world’s most popular sports that cleverly captures the inaccuracies of the real thing. This is because the classic three-click format has been replaced by a more skill-based mechanic, which requires you to communicate power and direction through the right analogue stick. It’s a setup that will be familiar to Tiger Woods veterans, but the absence of caddies and percentage indicators brings an element of unpredictability to the action.
You’ll often find yourself compensating for a wayward swing, as you would on a real golf course, and this leads to infinitely more interesting rounds. Unfortunately, these positives become a real problem when you take to the putting green, as it can be difficult to judge distances with the limited information and camera angles available. Unless you’re really in the groove, you’ll find often find that you’ll sell yourself short when playing for that all important birdie – or over hitting the ball so that it bumbles over the cup-shaped slot in the perfectly trimmed turf.
Fortunately, everyone’s in the same slightly imperfect cart, and it’s a problem that can be overcome with practice; the more time that you spend on the green, the better your grasp of the game’s fiddly putting format will become. And thankfully there’s a lot of content to get through, thanks in part to the release’s robust course creator. This allows you to deface your own slice of untarnished woodland with a garish clubhouse of your own, complete with sports cars, yachts, and other luxuries for the filthy rich.
Even better, unlike most level designers, you won’t necessarily need a degree to replicate your dream 18-holes on the screen. The feature functions using a handful of sliders, allowing you to set difficulty, tree density, and water levels. From there, you’ll be able to pick a theme – from a choice of four, including a particularly picturesque alpine option – and toggle other settings, such as the time of day. The title will then automatically build your course based on the parameters that you select, but you can edit individual holes to your heart’s content.
Sadly, it’s here that proceedings get a little bit fiddly, as the inconsistent control scheme means that you’ll constantly be questioning what particular inputs do. Moreover, the lack of any real brush tools means that sculpting the landscape and placing bunkers can be more challenging than it should be – even if there are a range of ‘stamps’ for you to use. At least there are tons of buildings, furnishings, and even animals for you to decorate your arena with, allowing you to inject a little more personality into the surroundings than the themes allow.
The sharing capabilities are strong, too, enabling you to upload your course within seconds. This can then be downloaded and enjoyed by anyone that owns the game, with online leaderboards and ratings incorporated across the board. Any course can be rolled into a tournament or tour, with the best even earning the developer’s stamp of approval – essentially making them part of the package’s core campaign. The only real issue is that with so many layouts being submitted, it’s easy for potentially great levels to get lost; there are no trending features, so unless you get recommended, there’s always a danger that your creation will slip into the void.
The other problem is that, outside of the impressive course roster, the game’s fairly threadbare. There are only three modes to choose from – the bog standard Stroke Play, Match Play, and Four Ball – with no real capacity to customise rule sets or create target practice minigames. Moreover, character customisation is as embarrassingly basic as it gets, with a few different flat caps and polo shirts to choose from – and not a lot else. As a result, the sense of progression that makes EA Sports’ outings so addictive is absent.
Still, if you make friends with some other fans of the game you’ll never be short of things to do. The title features an Autolog-esque system similar to what’s seen in modern Need for Speed outings, constantly challenging you with different score targets and more. If that’s not enough, you’ll get prompts when your buddies are online to join their game, allowing you to tee off together – with no real requirement to maintain the same pace. This gives the experience a lovely casual feel, with the occasional updates from the condescending Canadian commentator keeping you aware of what’s occurring elsewhere on the course.
The Golf Club successfully captures the inconsistencies of the real world sport that it’s based upon, and that makes for some interesting rounds. Unfortunately, the hard to gauge putting greens and clunky course design options are the weakest links in this package, even if the issues can be overcome with a little elbow grease. The almost unlimited course options are let down by a dearth of rules and game types, while the presentation lacks the sheen that you may expect from a next-gen release – even if the load times are refreshingly prompt. The result is a package that settles for a par score – nothing less and nothing more.