If you’re the type of person who prefers their country parks to have 18 holes, then you’ll no doubt be familiar with The Golf Club series. Canadian developer HB Studios’ efforts over the course of this generation have been fascinating to observe from afar. The first game in its simulation series launched shortly after the PlayStation 4, and was very much pitched as an indie effort. Since then, it’s designed a vastly improved sequel, obtained the rights to the PGA Tour off EA Sports, signed a publishing deal with 2K Sports, and now – on the eve of the PlayStation 5 – it’s rebranding the franchise as PGA Tour 2K21.
In many ways, this is an amalgamation of The Golf Club and NBA 2K’s trademark MyCareer mode. The emphasis is on building your own custom character and kitting them out with licensed brands, be it baseball caps from Under Armour or colourful pants from Tattoo Golf. Many of the clothes and clubs that you’ll find to personalise your player are based upon real-life items, and it’s undeniably entertaining when you’re unlocking rare bits-and-bobs through goals-based contracts as you work your way to the top of the global golf leaderboards.
But this is a golf game first and foremost, and fortunately HB Studios’ iteration over the past seven or so years is really beginning to pay off now. As with previous instalments, you swing using either analogue stick, and the title determines your accuracy based on the precision of your motion. On the higher difficulties, you’ll need to move smoothly, flicking the stick cleanly with the right timing. Follow through too slowly and your shot will fade, potentially adding unnecessary challenge to your next shot.
It’s a simple setup, but there’s depth to the gameplay should you wish to extract it. The shot shaper system returns, allowing you to soften the trajectory of your shot to beat high winds, or add draw in order to avoid hazards. Of course, the more complicated your shot, the better your accuracy will need to be, and it’s this risk/reward system that really elevates the gameplay. After playing dozens of rounds, we never really feel like the title’s cheated us; any bad lies are directly attributable to our own errors, and that makes the title moreish as you attempt to clean up your own mistakes.
Don’t worry if you haven’t got a great handicap, however, as the difficulty is highly adjustable. You can tweak how challenging you want the conditions to be, as well as how good your opponents are, meaning all skill levels can find a setting that they enjoy. Additionally, you can choose to play against friends or strangers from around the world, and because the title records every shot you make, you can test yourself against others even when they’re offline.
While the excellent golf course creator from previous releases returns, there are more licensed courses than ever before. The likes of TPC Sawgrass, TPC Boston, and TPC Deere Run are accompanied by Quail Hollow, TPC Louisiana, and TPC San Antonio. While these are accurately represented in terms of their layouts and features, one criticism we have is that the official courses do still lack the character of their real-life counterparts, as they’re still mostly made up of stock assets available in the golf course creator mode.
The game looks sharp and colourful, though, and the presentation has been seriously overhauled for this version. Broadcast highlights from around the course as well as tailored commentary bring the action more in-line with NBA 2K, and it’s clear that the benefits of 2K Sports’ boosted budget have been put to good use. While you’ll probably end up skipping through some of the replays after a few hours, the entire package feels much more premium in this edition – it’s still a rung lower than the juggernauts of the sports genre, but it’s getting closer now.
That said, the release is still a little too static for our tastes. Given that golf is a sport heavily influenced by the weather, we’d like to see more movement in the scene to reflect what’s happening in the match. Currently, trees and grass remain completely still, even if you’re playing the ball into a brisk wind. While the physics system will ensure that the ball’s flight is accurately affected by the breeze, we reckon a bit more visual feedback could really improve the look of the game.
As you play through your career, working your way through the ranks, you’ll encounter real-world opponents like cover star Justin Thomas and build rivalries with them. Unfortunately, these amount to little more than getting a better score, but you’ll unlock gear and in-game currency as you complete them. Contracts with sponsors like Adidas are reflected similarly in the release, and while there’s very little spectacle to completing them, it’s always nice when you unlock that rare belt buckle you’ve been coveting.
Outside of the career, there’s both local and online multiplayer across a variety of different modes, ranging from traditional golf all the way through to team-based challenges where pairs of players compete for the lowest score. You can also create Societies, which act as in-game hubs for communities and friends groups. Here you can schedule events and even set entry fees, although the whole system feels undercooked compared to previous instalments.
PGA Tour 2K21 is the best simulation golf game on the PS4, and it represents a real evolution for The Golf Club franchise as a whole. While it retains many of the features from previous instalments, it’s much better presented than ever before, and it finally includes a career mode that’s worth your time and attention. There are still improvements to be made here – the licensed courses lack character and the visuals are static – but if this were a long par five tee shot it’d comfortably find the fairway.