Football, basketball, and baseball are lousy with famous players, and tennis generally has at least a handful of household names. While a superstar can certainly elevate any sport’s popularity, golf’s mainstream appeal truly relies on having that one big name, and there have only been a few of those players throughout the game’s history. Just look at how the ratings peaked for the Tour Championship earlier this year as soon as Tiger Woods was poised to win his first title since 2015, and it’s obvious how much a single athlete can drag golf, kicking and screaming, into the spotlight.
The same can be said about golf video games. Not that they need a major name attached to them, but that a standout title can really bring the genre as a whole back into the mainstream conversation. HB Studios’ upcoming PGA Tour 2K21 might just be that game.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a high-profile golf sim. In fact, EA’s Tiger Woods games were probably the last time that golf sims were both good and popular. (Poor Rory McIlroy just didn’t hit quite the same way.) In their absence, different kinds of virtual golf tried to fill the void: Games like Golf Story, What the Golf, Desert Golfing, and Golf with Your Friends brought playful and inventive twists to the genre, but The Golf Club series is really the only one that scratched that sim itch.
PGA Tour 2K21 was born from a marriage of convenience, really. As creative director Josh Muise put it during a recent digital preview event, HB Studios was able to build the small, indie Golf Club series into a strong product for which 2K Games just happened to be in the market. The publisher gave Muise and the rest of the crew easier access to brands as well as marketing resources and expertise in growing a sports franchise into a juggernaut, and HB Studios was able to bring the most solid foundation possible for a PGA game.
To the uninitiated, PGA Tour 2K21 might just look like another golf game. Visually, it looks fine, just as The Golf Club 2019 looked fine, but stunningly realistic and detailed graphics that are often a marketing bullet point for other sports games aren’t what really matter here. What really matters are the ways in which PGA Tour 2K21 is bringing The Golf Club’s unparalleled gameplay to a wider audience—that is, if they decide to give it a chance.
I’ve had approximately 25 years of experience playing golf games in one form or another, and there are still aspects of it that give me trouble. Namely, I suck at reading the wind, and I really suck at reading greens. Thankfully, those are two of the areas that HB Studios is tackling with its new rookie-friendly tools.
One of these tools, Pro Visions, draws the projected ball flight path on your screen, a first for HB Studios’ games, and a similar tool does the same thing for your putts. Of course, these projections only consider the fact if you hit that shot perfectly, so it doesn’t completely eliminate the skill required to come in under regulation. It’s just a way for the game to help newer players adjust and learn in real-time. A more detailed Feedback UI will tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do to improve with your analog stick-based shots, and a Shot Suggestion will give you the safest route between your current lie and the flag. A robust Training System will also let you practice the areas that are giving you the most trouble and show you how to do things like read greens so that you don’t always have to rely on Pro Vision, especially when playing at a higher difficulty setting or online and the option isn’t available.
Calling PGA Tour 2K21 “casual-friendly” might turn off more hardcore fans of the game, but more experienced players can take advantage of more advanced tools. A new Partial Swing mechanic gives you more freedom when setting the intended distance, and Dynamic Shot Shaping gives you in-depth control over adjustments like shape and spin. HB Studios even lets players use a yardage book; it’s so nerdy and unnecessary, considering how often golf games include minimaps, but that’s kind of what makes it awesome. If you need a challenge, there are six different difficulty presets, but you can even adjust and customize this setting to perfectly fit your skill level and comfort with the clubs.
Speaking of which, setting up your golf bag lets you tailor your tools to match your playstyle. Instead of giving your created character specific skills and attributes, all of those player stats now live within your clubs. Different brands and types will have their own strengths and weaknesses; some clubs will have more room for error when timing a shot, while others will be able to hit the ball further at the risk of it careening wildly off course if your timing is just slightly off. In that way, your own personal skill level will determine what clubs you will want to use while giving you something to work towards when unlocking new equipment.
When it comes to character customization, PGA Tour 2K21’s version now falls under the publisher’s MyPlayer banner, which should sound familiar to NBA 2K or WWE 2K fans. Character customization is completely cosmetic, but it’s also where the game’s Virtual Currency, courtesy of the 2K moniker, factors in. Senior producer Shaun West stressed that the development team made a purposeful effort to balance the game in a way that players will be able to unlock in-game currency to purchase items without it feeling like a grind. Given 2K’s track record with that sort of monetization model, however, it remains to be seen if HB Studios will be successful in the effort to avoid its new publisher’s historically exploitative microtransaction practices—especially considering players can also purchase clubs with VC. It also means that the character creator is a little more grounded than it was in The Golf Club, which might be a bummer for fans who liked letting loose their clownish creations on the links.
In that way, 2K’s involvement with the project is a double-edged sword, because while the monetization could become a major issue, it also has given the developers access to tools that they wouldn’t otherwise have. One example of this is the new MyCareer mode, which brings in the voice talents of Luke Elvy and Rich Beem (don’t worry, John McCarthy is still making color commentary from the ground), and features 15 licensed courses, including 8 new ones, that are one-to-one recreations of their real-world counterparts. The developers traveled to some of the top courses in North America, including TPC Sawgrass, and captured them inch-by-inch with photogrammetry to make sure they were as close to the real thing as possible.
Another aspect where 2K’s influence comes in is PGA Tour’s inclusion of 12 pro players, including current Tour leader Justin Thomas. Players will take on these pros in one-on-one rivalries through their MyCareer experience and best them in specific challenges.
Single-player isn’t the only place where PGA Tour 2K21 is an upgrade over The Golf Club. Multiplayer has seen an extensive overhaul, with seven customizable game modes and the introduction of online societies. You can either join an online society, which can have thousands of players all competing in tournaments and challenges, or you can create your own societies for small groups of friends. HB Studios will even have an official society where players can compete in weekly challenges. Settings like difficulty and assists, as well as courses and conditions, can all be customized, too. Unfortunately, multiplayer isn’t cross-platform, but online societies are looking to build what is a small but dedicated community into a much larger group.
What is cross-platform (in a sense) is the course creator, and this is probably The Golf Club’s bread and butter. While the amount of official courses in HB’s previous titles were somewhat slim pickings, the community’s efforts with that series’ course creator is basically the reason a small indie franchise became popular enough to warrant 2K’s interest. PGA Tour’s course creator will allow players the same amount of freedom that The Golf Club’s did, but it’s also adding thousands of unique assets, which can be added to any course, no matter the theme. Creator courses can then be uploaded and shared across all platforms. Given the creativity of The Golf Club community, the course creator is what will assuredly keep the game active, considering HB Studios only plans to add two more courses post-launch, at least for now.
I’m not going to say that PGA Tour 2K21 will be the golf sim that will bring the genre back into the mainstream. It’s too early for that, and it will depend on how much 2K can resist monetizing the hell out of it while giving HB Studios enough resources to build it into a franchise. Unlike the NBA 2K series, which has never seen a drought, PGA Tour 2K21 is facing something of an uphill battle in claiming the throne that EA’s Tiger Woods series has left vacant for years. Muise and West were even slightly hesitant in proclaiming that PGA Tour 2K21 was the start of an annual franchise, as even WWE 2K had to take a break this year. But I will say that it’s definitely the most promising candidate for a mainstream golf sim that we’ve seen in a while, thanks to its significant efforts at onboarding new players and giving veterans the tools that they need. And heck, until Nintendo gets off its butt and makes a new Mario Golf game, there aren’t that many options for a mostly traditional golf game on the market.
Images credit: 2K Games