Caters for all skill levels and the game is either a dream or a massive frustration to play (depending on how you're playing) -- plus you're surrounded mostly by badly-dressed white guys -- in other words, it's just like the real thing.
There is no question that golf, as a sport, is a horribly elitist institution. It takes up far too much space, is far too localised in the hands of a privileged few (which is where we get off because things get awfully political from here) and just, generally, shouldn’t exist. The only sport more elitist is Formula One motor racing but they’ve also got that whole ‘developing car technology’ excuse going for them.
That said, we also get the appeal of golf. It takes a considerable amount of skill, is far more physical than you’d expect and can be quite a soothing experience… when you’re not overwhelmed by the urge to throw your clubs and caddy into the nearest water hazard. 2K Games’ PGA Tour 2K21 embodies all of these things, in a game that may be lifeless at times but is also the only way you should be playing golf in the 21 century.
Let’s lead into this on a high note: The golf in PGA Tour 2K21 is excellent across the board, no matter whether you’re playing on the assist-filled (but incredibly fun) beginners mode or have scaled up to something that’ll make you more prone to snapping your controller in half. The swish and crunch of a perfectly driven ball down the fairway is a joyful thing, hooking a ball out of the rough and onto the green even more so.
Ball behaviour varies according to how you swing your club (with either the left or right stick controlling that — your choice). Mess up your tempo and swing too fast and you’ll hook to the left. Too slow and the ball will whiffle off to the right. And if you’re sloppy with your vertical movement you can push or pull the ball in either direction just as badly. It feels like there is an actual element of skill involved in a drive, iron or putt shot. If you’re doing well, it’s the most calming activity you can engage in. If the wind’s a little iffy and you keep bonking off trees or swerving into the hazards, it’s legitimately irritating. You’ve seen the video of guys on a course freaking out about a poor shot? Don’t count on that never happening in your lounge.
The environment comes into play as well. Wind is a huge factor and learning how to compensate will take some time to master. Then there’s picking your landing, compensating for the wind and not hooking it in the wrong direction — that’ll take a while to get right as well. Playing off the rough, greens, fairways and bunkers (and, in one memorable instance, from the stands) also factors. There are a lot of variables at play and developers HB Studios have got most of them right.
It’s just a pity this excellent gameplay on even more attractive courses is surrounded by a hollow shell of a career mode, featuring a lazy progression system designed to give you a taste for using in-game currency (which can be purchased for real money) to buy accessories and clubs for your created character. There’s a fairly full-featured character creator and it’s the only way you’re going to see a brown person or a woman on the course — besides the zombified spectators who can be turned on or off, in case you’re worried they’ll eventually snap and swamp the players, cracking skulls and scooping out brain matter.
The PGA Tour itself hits the major high notes but there’s nothing really happening. Commentator dialogue is horribly generic and subdued, aside from a few genuinely interesting moments when commentators wandered off on a tangent about the course. There’s no impression that you, the player, are making any kind of an impact on the game. There are sponsors you can sign up to, which’ll unlock gear when you hit milestones, and player rivalries to engage in but they’ve all the excitement of a series of spreadsheets. Because… well, that’s all they are. Spreadsheets and a bar filling up at the end of a round or event. There’s no engagement in the career mode, no sense that you’re actually doing anything.
This is compounded by an awful highlights system. It’s supposed to feel like a television broadcast but it, like the rest of the career mode, feels like a clunky afterthought. You can almost always predict when a highlight is about to take place — mostly they’re used to try and highlight your ‘rivalry’ with a person you’re never going to see onscreen otherwise. Happily, like the zombie spectators, you can turn off highlights if they’re breaking the flow of your game. You can also turn off the fiddle animations before each hole, because those get stale in a big hurry.
There’s a lot of other stuff to do, though, that’ll make up for the disappointing career mode and the obvious microtransaction grab that is the progression system. There’s local and online multiplayer, with a variety of versus and team games up for grabs. Knocking a ball about with some mates is as fun as it gets, especially since you can keep the commentators going during your Sunday morning foursome. Are we using that word right?
There are also a whole lot of player-made courses to explore — bringing shades of LittleBigPlanet to golf — and some of them are pretty good. If you’ve been missing venues from the Tiger Woods/EA Sports era of golf games, odds are you’ll find it in the search function. And if you don’t find it, you’re more than welcome to make it yourself. There’s a hugely detailed course editor available for the creative golfer out there.
PGA Tour 2K21 Verdict
This is a weird game to have to rate. It wants you to think it’s a big, flashy experience but it’s not. It wants you to think that it’s got a deep career mode but it doesn’t. PGA Tour 2K21, despite what the trailer wants you to think, isn’t an exciting game. At least, not in the normally accepted sense of the term. What it does well is it lets you play golf on a series of amazingly-rendered courses and if you’re a fan of the sport, that’s all you need.
But if you go into it thinking that the progression systems or the career mode are anything more than an excuse for microtransactions, you’re going to be disappointed. The PGA Tour itself could have been replaced by a series of holes separated by Excel spreadsheets and the XP and Rivals systems…? Well, how else are players going to watch little bars that don’t matter fill up (and possibly spend money they don’t have to)? But if you’re just here for the golf…? The golf is rather bloody excellent.