A great effort within inches of the hole
For the first time in five years, a AAA publisher has finally put their full backing behind a simulation golf game. 2K Sports acquired HB Studios, makers of the Golf Club series, and released PGA 2k21 this year with a lot more hype around it than any of HB Studios’ previous games. It’s clear, however, that this is very much a stepping stone game for the studio – a transition between their previously more niche golf simulators of the past and a more accessible, commercially viable experience that I’m sure 2K Sports will want to tap into.
Accessibility is key here in PGA 2k21, as shown in the wide range of difficulty options for you to tinker with. Finding a sweet spot for starting the game is very easy, and as you go you can slowly add more difficulty into your round by turning off assists. The tutorial for the game also thoroughly helps you through what you need to do to land good shots. Personally, I found the automatically set “pro” difficulty – also the required option for online matchmaking – just a tiny bit too hard, so I kept all the difficulty settings for that level on aside from the swing timing, which I turned down one level. I’m very comfortable at this level but I know there’s always improvements to be made, especially if I wanted to play more online against other players.
The swing mechanics themselves are extremely well thought out: getting a perfect shot in this game requires a lot more skill and technique than the EA Sports PGA titles. There’s everything a real-life golfer would need to take into account here – lie of the ball, wind, the slope the ball’s sitting on, and adjusting the difficulty settings means you can be given as much (or as little) help as you want. Shaping your shot how you want it is also very easy, with a “true shot” button allowing you to add or reduce loft, apply topspin and back spin and play a draw or fade.
Much is the same for putting, with the optional green grid and “putt previews” giving a good measure of where you’re supposed to hit the ball. One major gripe I have regarding the putting is that, irrelevant of difficulty settings, your marker gets automatically placed at the power you’ll need to make the shot – you only need to change the direction. It would be nice to always have your power pin-high so that you also have to account for any upwards or downwards slope in your putting, otherwise the putting just feels way too easy.
The career mode available in the game is a good honest first step for the PGA 2K series. Starting in qualifying tournaments, your aim is to reach the PGA Tour and then win the two main titles on offer – the FedEx Cup and the PGA Tour Championship. The career mode makes you feel like there’s stakes on the line: the commentary is fairly solid and relevant to your play, if a bit repetitive, there’s a sleek UI based on the overlay on PGA TV coverage and you also get cutaway replays from licensed players you’re competing against. The replays are very excessive, coming up every other hole or so, where it got to the point where I just had to turn them off – it would be nice if there was in an in-between where I could see the replays less frequently. I’ve really enjoyed the career so far – I haven’t completed a full season yet but it’s provided a fun challenge and easily the game mode I’ve sunk the most time into.
Aside from career mode, your only other single player option is playing solo on licensed courses or courses made by users – it would be nice to play against an AI outside of career mode, but this option isn’t available. Speaking of user made courses, some of the courses made are really spectacular, providing an extra gameplay experience on top of the 15 licensed courses and 24 fictional courses made by the developer. What is less spectacular is the course editor itself: I just can’t get to grips with it. It’s so awkward to build a course. If you're looking for a course building experience with less emphasis on golf, I'd recommend Golftopia, a game that’s one third of the price and does a better job at being a functional and accessible course builder.
Multiplayer options are also limited if you want to play against random players – there’s the option of 1v1 match play, 2-4 player skins (hole play with betting of in-game currency), and rotational 2v2 game modes. There’s more options in private games, as well as “societies”, player made groups which you can join and take part in group tournaments and events. I hope they provide the game with more multiplayer options in the future, as at the moment this is probably where the game is most lacking.
Character customisation is relatively expansive, with a good amount of options for adjusting the look and physique of your golfer – even though I couldn’t make my guy really lanky. Also included are licensed cosmetic items and clubs, the latter of which actually have an impact on your ability on the course, with varying levels of distance, forgiveness, and other attributes that affect your shot. Generally, this is a huge step up from the previous game, which had very limited customisation options and just the choice of just beginner, intermediate and expert clubs that provided increasing distances at the cost of swing forgiveness.
The graphics and sounds of the game hold up okay but are nothing to be blown away by. The crowd of spectators are probably the weakest part in regards to both graphics and sound, not really looking like people and not really making much noise after you’ve hit your shot. As mentioned before the commentary is a tad repetitive, but when playing outside of career this can get bad – the commentary there is just very lazily done, almost as if some guy is just chatting to you rather than providing actual commentary.
Just as your skill at PGA 2k21 will improve with time, I’m very hopeful that the game will also improve, even if just by the merit of more user courses alone. But from the start PGA 2k21 has provided a strong career mode and swing mechanics that really shine. In its current state I’d still question the steep £50/$60 price tag on the game, considering there’s not that much content available to justify the price, but picking this up on sale or finding it cheaper by not purchasing directly on Steam is a very safe bet. If this is the first of yearly PGA games, then it’s a great start, and I hope HB Studios can really build on this foundation for future installments.