The Golf Club series has certainly come a long way from its humble origins to now being on the precipice of taking the world by storm. Initially released back in 2014 by HB Studios, the series started picking up steam with its sequel in 2017 and then really struck paydirt in 2018. They were able to land a coveted deal with the PGA Tour to have official courses for The Golf Club 2019 Featuring PGA Tour, prompting 2K to then swoop in and take over publishing. Now that partnership with 2K and the PGA Tour has been fully solidified with PGA Tour 2K21 set for release on August 21.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual preview event for the game with members of the HB and 2K teams in attendance, as well as getting some hands-on time with the game on a beta PC build. Here are some of the biggest things I learned from those experiences, my thoughts on how the game has improved upon its predecessors, and areas where it could maybe still use some refinement either before or after the game’s release.
PGA Tour 2K21 Preview: Hands-On Impressions
Graphics & Presentation – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
What a difference a couple of years make. With all of that time to develop the solid foundation that was already in place, the visuals definitely jumped off the screen a lot more as soon as I got out on the course. This starts with the simple but vitally important look of the grass on the course itself. From the closely trimmed texture of the fairways all the way to the long blades of the heavy rough that can truly feel like a threat now to envelop the ball, courses have taken on a new life. The sands of the bunker, should you ever have the misfortune of encountering them, are also more realistic and therefore intimidating than they were in the past.
Presentation has evidently also been a focus in taking a leap forward at the start of this new chapter, with the emphasis apparently on making a round of golf look and feel more like a television broadcast. There are now some welcome views of your golfer as he or she lines up his shot or putt, and plenty of cutaways to his or her reactions after a particularly good (or bad) shot. These are bolstered by snapshots of the course to help feel like you’re actually there, as looks at the clubhouse and closer glimpses of some of the more prominent features of holes only help the immersion. Furthermore, the grandstands are noticeably filled with crowds and people congregate excitedly around greens and fairways to get a closer look.
The commentary has gotten a bit of polish too with Luke Elvy and Rich Beem giving the proceedings an air of authenticity. The developers expressed how impressed they were by what Elvy and Beem brought to the table themselves in their recording sessions, often finding that giving them prompts worked much better than trying to script them. They also hinted at a few Easter eggs hidden in the commentary that are only triggered by very specific situations.
In addition, John McCarthy is still on hand to make snarky comments after bad shots or lead you into thinking your shot will stay on the fairway when in fact it will not. Perhaps someday the game will feature the likes of Jim Nantz to make it truly feel like a big Sunday CBS broadcast, but for now, these guys do a nice job of making you feel the magnitude of the big moments.
The one thing that’s still lacking and hasn’t really seen the upgrade that’s sorely needed is the game’s replay features, which remain as basic as ever. The simple ability to play a clip and use features like slow motion would go a long way, as would the standard replay feature where you can take control and view a shot from absolutely any angle you desire. But at least the announcers will automatically pause when warranted to have another look at an impressive shot or putt.
Swing Mechanics – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
Though the fundamentals of the swing mechanics work essentially the same across all levels, there are now six different difficulties in the game, ranging from beginner to legendary (pro is the default difficulty in online modes) to make sure anyone can jump right in regardless of experience. Swinging a club in PGA Tour 2K21 hasn’t exactly been overhauled from The Golf Club 2019 so much as it has been clarified and expanded upon with a few nice additions.
Previously, there were two components that comprised the tempo of the swing: the backswing and the downswing. You would receive feedback on both of those on a spectrum of very slow-slow-perfect-fast-very fast, with all deviations from perfect affecting both distance and accuracy in myriad ways, including your shot being severely hooked or sliced.
Now you only receive that feedback (from the same spectrum as before) on your downswing (specifically, how fast you bring the club down). However, the backswing remains a critical part of the whole endeavor. It’s imperative to start the downswing at the exact right moment to achieve the desired power. If you wait too long, you risk a higher degree of difficulty, or chance losing some distance if you get antsy and don’t wait long enough.
The new addition of partial swings in the game allows for even more nuance and challenge to be introduced to the mechanic. If you have a distance that happens to be between clubs, for instance, and you need to take a little power off of a shot, you can do this by setting any percentage of your maximum shot that you want to hit. But you then have to be able to transition from your backswing into your downswing at the exact right moment and that’s easier said than done. You can too often leave a shot significantly short or end up flying over a green if you miss your mark by even a slight margin.
Shot shaping also has a few new wrinkles to allow you to have even more control of how your ball takes flight and comes in for its landing. Adding and decreasing loft work largely the same way they did in the past, allowing you to account for wind, put a few extra yards on a shot or take those same yards off depending on the need. But the newest innovation is the ability to change your attack angle on the ball, which can result in putting the kind of backspin on the ball that can really help in getting those approaches to stick on the green.
Splash is an entirely new type of shot that can serve you well in your short game, especially in situations where a chip won’t get you quite far enough but a pitch would be a little too much. It’s not all that different from a flop really, which is still at your disposal, but it seems to function better at shorter distances where a flop might require a partial shot that would be more difficult.
Even putting has been given some slight tweaks. It’s now important to set your intended distance prior to each putt and then, just as with partial shots, you’ll try to hit that percentage exactly when starting your downswing. This is definitely an improvement upon the previous mechanic because that involved much more quick math and guesswork to determine how hard you should be hitting each putt. In short, it wasn’t nearly as intuitive as it is now. Of course, it can still be difficult to read the break of the greens at times, but that just makes it all the more fulfilling when you’re finally able to sink a 20-foot birdie putt. On the other hand, it’s probably best not to talk about the frustrations of missing a 5-foot par (or bogey) putt.
Of course, there’s always the familiar struggle of trying to hit any shot straight by moving your control stick up and down in a precise manner and not allowing your shot to leak one way or the other, but that’s been the concern of practically every golfer who’s played the series. While there remains no way to customize a personalized swing for your MyPlayer, at least PGA Tour 2K21 now offers people the opportunity to calibrate their swing in a new training feature.
MyPlayer Customization & Progression – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
It’s clear how important it is to everyone involved in making the game that customizing your own golfer and making him or her feel like a unique creation is integral to the experience of playing the game. Whether you’re in career mode or online against others, having the ability to get creative with your golfer is part of the fun and there are a ton of options to make sure you stand out from the pack.
That all starts with the vitals like height, weight and nationality, and branches out into the finer details of the face. You can select from some pre-made heads if you don’t want to get too into the weeds, but for anyone who needs to make sure every freckle is in the right place, the creation suite is more robust than it has been in the past and should satisfy most in terms of how much you can manipulate.
The progression system is fairly straightforward, with a modest amount of XP earned for every round you play in any mode. The accumulation of that XP will lead to moving up levels and you’ll unlock different rewards at each new level. Throughout a round, some holes will have a specific goals (for example, hit the fairway with your drive or hit the green in regulation) that will give you the opportunity to earn a small amount of bonus XP, which can really add up over the course of a round if you’re playing well.
One of the biggest ways you can separate yourself from others though is with your golf bag. It seems as if the developers have stayed true to the ethos of the series by making sure that leveling up with your MyPlayer does not mean that you will get better attributes. In fact, all microtransactions in the game are for cosmetic items only, although selecting which clubs you want in your golf bag is more strategic than anything else. All the clubs you unlock or purchase have different attributes, and they are balanced in such a way that they all come with their own pros and cons. You’ll want to try your best to make sure you don’t have any big gaps in the distances your clubs can cover while also finding what works best for your own strengths and weaknesses.
The volume of clothes and accessories available for purchase is sure to please those who feel like you can’t hit the links until you’re looking the part. With many clothing brands from which to build your wardrobe, including Ralph Lauren and Skechers to Under Armour and Wilson, you can make sure you’re dressed your best for every round.
Courses – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
With 15 licensed TPC courses now in the game, it’s the attention to detail on all of them that’s truly astonishing. HB senior producer Shaun West talked about how closely he had worked with the terra-mapping team as they used drone cameras to make sure that artists were able to accurately capture the look of every hole, right down to the specific shapes and sizes of certain vegetation.
Aspiring designers will be excited about new developments in the course creator, where so many people have showcased some exquisite creativity throughout The Golf Club series. Though there aren’t actually any new course themes in the game, the development team was quick to point out that any creative building block is now available across all themes and that there are hundreds of new objects at your disposal when putting together your dream course. They even say that, while they didn’t exactly have the concept in mind when refining the creator, it will be easier than ever to make a serviceable mini-putt course. Once courses are finalized and published, they will be available to play across all platforms.
PGA Tour Career Mode – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
It wouldn’t be the PGA Tour unless you were competing against some real-life pros, and PGA Tour 2K21 has you covered when it comes to that. You’ll compete against 12 accomplished PGA members, including cover star (and recent champion) Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia and Patrick Cantlay. While the HB team admitted they didn’t have enough time and resources for anything more than cursory head scans of these golfers, they maintain that wasn’t the focus for this game — but hope they’ll have more additions in future installments. Of course, someone like Tiger Woods would obviously be a big target but they also had some more outside-the-box thoughts on who could be included, like Charles Barkey (can you imagine scanning his swing into a video game, would it break the scanner?), Tony Romo or legends like Bobby Jones.
Your career starts in Q School and eventually progresses to a PGA Tour season that carries over the course of more than 30 events. As you’re vying to win these events, you’ll also develop rivalries with some of your opponents and have the chance to earn more XP by outperforming them. Your career doesn’t end with how you do with your clubs either, as part of the mode involves managing sponsorships with different brands like Taylor Made, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan.
Quick Hitters – PGA Tour 2K21 Preview
- Shaun West and creative director Josh Muise emphasized that they hoped to bring golf back into the limelight with PGA Tour 2K21, and they believe this game is arriving at a time when it appears ready to do just that with interest in golf on the rise.
- There are still ongoing discussions about whether the game will become an annual title, with West indicating how it did feel good to have the extra time to make this game.
- Both West and Muise praised working with 2K, saying how it took the bulk of the marketing off of their shoulders and allowed them to focus on making the best game possible. It’s no surprise to hear them say that e-mails get answered a lot faster with the 2K name in the address. They spoke in similar glowing terms about collaborating with the PGA, with everyone having the shared goal of getting golf exposed to more fans.
- They decided to stick with an orchestral score by Christopher Tin for PGA Tour 2K21. Muise described him as an “absolute visionary,” citing his award-winning work on Sid Meier’s Civilization and his ability to come up with the perfect musical pieces as needed.
- You’ll have the ability to buy in-game currency, but once again, it won’t make you any better.