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PGA Tour 2K21 review

Up and Down

The prospect of The Golf Club developer HB Studios teaming up with 2K Games is like an independent filmmaker with a very specific vision signing on to direct a big-budget Hollywood movie. That kind of situation can go either way. It can either be like Taika Waititi bringing his signature humor and energy to Thor: Ragnarok, or it can be Gavin Hood completely derailing an entire franchise with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Sometimes, it can really work out. Other times, it can destroy careers.

HB Studios taking the formula of The Golf Club, which was single-handedly keeping the golf sim genre alive, and putting it under the scrutiny of 2K’s business-driven lens could have been disastrous for the series. The upsides of getting the backing of a major publisher are obvious, but 2K Games has done a pretty good job over the years of completely squeezing the joy out of the NBA 2K franchise and replacing it with a need to spend. The risk was the publisher doing the same thing to The Golf Club.

Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have happened—at least, not yet. PGA Tour 2K21, which a splash screen says is “powered by The Golf Club,” is an evolution of what HB Studios has done with its last three games, and it steers clear of the greedy trappings of 2K’s other series. In terms of how it plays and the content it offers, PGA 2K21 is one of the best golf sims ever. Unfortunately, the little bells and whistles you’d expect from a fully licensed sports game seem to be either missing completely or, at best, undercooked and underwhelming.

PGA Tour 2K21 doesn’t stray too far from the formula that has made The Golf Club the go-to series for fans of more serious golf games. More experienced players will find the same mechanics that made HB Studios’ flagship franchise so challenging and rewarding, but PGA Tour 2K21 makes a few key changes across the board that make it easier for new players to get started and develop their skills.

One of the biggest changes is the removal of backswing timing as a key aspect to the gameplay. Even on the higher difficulty levels, players don’t need to worry about the backswing impacting their results. Instead, downswing tempo and how straight you keep your swing are what determine whether you hook or slice the ball, while backswing determines the power of your shot. This might not sound like a big change for those who haven’t played HB Studios’ previous outings, but for those who found those games a little too technical and mechanically demanding, PGA Tour 2K21 eases up on the skill required to hit a decent shot.

This change brings a host of other difficulty options that let players meticulously set the right amount of challenge for them. Changing the base difficulty impacts your swing the most. On lower difficulties, the game’s pretty generous with what it considers a perfectly timed downswing, and the consequences for messing up the timing or going a little crooked on the swing are far less punishing than they are on higher difficulties.

User interface elements like the Distance Control Meter and Pro Vision visual aids (such as the specific arc your ball will make off a hit) can be toggled no matter what difficulty settings you’ve chosen, so if you want to keep the timing of Amateur difficulty but want to turn off all the visual aids to give yourself a bigger challenge, you can do that. When it comes to outside factors, you can adjust the difficulty level for AI opponents, which basically just determines how much under par you’ll have to shoot to beat them, as well as the conditions on a course such as wind speed and terrain firmness.

This design philosophy of micro adjustments extends to your golf bag as well. Instead of selecting an overall difficulty for your clubs, you can now select individual clubs. For example, drivers with a better distance rating are also more difficult to use and shrink your timing windows, giving your selection an element of risk-reward decision making. However, every club is well balanced, meaning you can get by just fine with even the beginning clubs.

All of this is filtered through 2K’s signature MyPlayer system, which means that you can purchase clubs with Virtual Currency. Thankfully, the aggressive microtransaction system in NBA 2K’s approach to the MyPlayer system is nowhere to be found in PGA Tour 2K21. Since your MyPlayer’s “attributes” are tied to what clubs you choose, you won’t start with an underpowered golfer. And while you can purchase clubs with VC, the game is fairly generous when it comes to doling out the stuff. Leveling up your player by completing events in the game’s PGA Tour career mode earns you 250 VC every time, and the most expensive club I’ve seen so far is only 800 VC.

On top of that, you can also earn additional experience and VC by completing in-game challenges, such as getting the ball on the green within regulation or completing a hole at Par or better without hitting any hazards. This makes progression fairly breezy early on, empowering players to start making adjustments to their golf bag right out of the gate. Given 2K’s history with exploitative microtransactions and how it can derail franchises, it’s great to see the publisher giving HB Studios a fighting chance to prove itself.

Speaking of your MyPlayer, HB Studios once again integrates your created character throughout the entire game, so my talented multisport athlete Jumbo Dirtbag acted as my avatar throughout the PGA Tour, as he will for online multiplayer. PGA Tour 2K21’s character creator is pretty much exactly as it was in The Golf Club 2019, meaning it’s got more options than EA Sports games but isn’t quite as robust as something like MLB The Show or WWE 2K. Unfortunately, there’s no option to give your character a nickname by which the announcer will refer to him or her, but the visual options are decent enough, and either unlocking cosmetics by leveling up or purchasing them with VC gives you plenty of opportunity to show off your personal style.

Unfortunately, this seemingly hands-off approach from 2K is a double-edged sword. Signing with a major publisher definitely has its benefits, such as a full licensing agreement with the PGA and even more brand partnerships. There are now seven additional real-world golf courses to play on, as well as the likenesses of about a dozen or so professional golfers. This might sound great to fans of The Golf Club who wanted more of the PGA in their game, but the results feel more like half-measures and proof-of-concepts than actual features.

Take, for example, the rivalry system, which pits you against a pro golfer and requires you to complete certain challenges to beat them. It’s a neat idea on paper, but the game never really delivers on any potential drama. There’s no real attempt at creating a story with cutscenes, and the tepid play-by-play commentary never really alludes to specific rivalries. There’s so little drama, in fact, that it’s easy to forget you even have a rival.

This lackluster attempt at creating drama extends to the overall presentation as well. The game has added the voices of Luke Elvy and Rich Beem, though unless you’re really into golf you probably won’t know or care who they are. As with The Golf Club 2019, the resulting commentary is painfully repetitive and shallow. Occasionally, you’ll get a sound bite you haven’t heard before, but it mostly feels like background noise. There are fun little cutaways during a round that will show replays and highlights from the other competitors on a course, but those also start to feel repetitive. Compared to how much effort other sports games with professional licenses put into their presentation, PGA Tour 2K21 doesn’t feel all that different from when HB Studios was making games independently.

Likewise, the multiplayer has only seen marginal updates, though at least these improvements are more noticeable. Online Societies have made a return, and their options are more robust, though they still function in mostly the same way they did in The Golf Club 2019. There are several more multiplayer modes, too, which will give you and your friends more options when facing off against one another, though I couldn’t seem to find an online match during my time pre-release time with the game, so it’s a little hard to say how much of an impact it has on the overall experience.

Finally, there’s HB Studios’ legendary course creator. Besides adding a ton of new assets, the creator remains largely unchanged from its The Golf Club 2019 counterpart. Since it’s based off the actual creative tools that HB Studios uses when building its courses, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though it does mean that the UI can be a little overwhelming, especially when it comes to fine-tuning certain aspects. It’s also a real pain in the butt to use with a controller, as even selecting a specific hole to work on was needlessly cumbersome.

Still, it’s a robust and fully featured experience that I expect will once again provide the kind of longevity to PGA Tour 2K21 that it did to The Golf Club 2019. You can even import courses from the previous title to PGA Tour 2K21, which means that there’s already a robust library of content that’s waiting to be uploaded. While I personally won’t be spending a lot of time making them, I sure as hell will spend a ton of time playing on other people’s courses, especially considering you can play on them no matter what platform they originated from.

PGA Tour 2K21 is probably one of the best-playing golf sims of all time, and yet I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling that it maybe doesn’t go far enough in establishing itself as a major sports title. While it’s a fully licensed game, it doesn’t feel all that different from HB Studios’ independent offerings, and I don’t know how that will pan out. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic game that should please longtime fans of the developers’ games while being accessible enough for new players to enjoy. On the other hand, it’s about the least flashiest sports game I’ve ever played, and golf is fighting an uphill battle in capturing an audience that doesn’t already care about the sport.

I want HB Studios to succeed because I love playing its games and I think it’s worked hard at establishing itself. It’s earned the right to be on the main stage. But I also don’t want the game to succeed so much to the point where 2K starts sinking its greedy little fangs into every aspect of it. The more players it has, the more likely 2K is to try to exploit them for every little penny. But there’s no real point in speculating, I suppose, other than to slap 2K’s grabby fingers away from the proverbial honey pot. These are questions for the future, a future that may never even arrive! Presently, what we have is a fantastic golf game, and that’s good enough for now.

★★★★☆

PGA Tour 2K21 is hands down one of the best-playing golf games in the last decade. HB Studios has fine-tuned its formula while giving players enough options to find that sweet spot of challenge and accessibility. The overall presentation doesn’t really feel like a fully licensed sports game, and its career mode lacks in drama, but at least it’s a 2K Sports game that isn’t squeezing players for every cent. If you’ve taken a break from golf games, PGA Tour 2K21 is the best excuse to jump back into the genre.

Developer
HB Studios
Publisher
2K Games
ESRB
E - Everyone
Release Date
08.21.20
PGA Tour 2K21 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Code/hardware was provided by 2K Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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