Golf is hard. It's built on fine margins of error and details that can lead to club-breaking mistakes but also some of the greatest satisfaction in sports when done right. Shot-to-shot, PGA Tour 2K21 encapsulates this brilliantly and offers a genuinely fun golf sim that scratches the iron-swinging itch, no matter your previous experience or loyalties.
Release date: 21 August 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
PGA Tour 2K21's main strengths lie in its solid and very enjoyable fundamentals, which nail the knife-edge feel of real-life play. It's simultaneously forgiving and challenging, too - delivering accessible gameplay that is straightforward to pick up, but also detailed and rich enough to cater to those looking for more.
You quickly discover that there's a strong emphasis on shot craft and swing management. Draws, fades, topspin, backspin, and loft; all are present to the best approach to every situation, but also increase the difficulty of your shot. What results is the right balance of skill and jeopardy, and frustration and satisfaction, with every swing. You also have to factor in swing tempo and rhythm. Perfect shots are possible but elusive, meaning that when you do execute one, it's exactly the kind of feeling that keeps you playing. Get it wrong and experience tough, but fair, results.
Thankfully, you're not left on your own to master all these nuances. Shot feedback shows your tempo, and swing lines are important aids and reference points, empowering you to improve stroke by stroke. On the green, alongside the familiar gradient colours and grid lines, a putting preview line is welcome – and limiting its use to, at most, one look per hole means that you're still reliant on your own technique (and eyeballs). Neatly you can play all your rounds like this by disabling the HUD – solely relying on your skills, your interpretation of the conditions, and the Yardage Book to further the immersion and realism.
Fairway to heaven
The character customization process is another roaring success. It's multi-faceted and provides myriad options to make your golfer look however you want, right down to height and weight, and there are lots of brands available to outfit your player with too. This is all housed under the MyPlayer section, a familiar element from 2K sports games, and the hub from which you manage all facets of your onscreen alter-ego.
Your golfer's career is where the most fun is had. From the off, you can jump straight into the PGA Tour, or begin with an amateur tournament where top placers get their tour cards and progress to the main tour. The latter provides a useful journey enabling you to hone your skills; while the PGA Tour proper comprises around 30 events. It's linear but very enjoyable across its 25 hours, specifically due to the moreishness of every shot, and offers a good mix of reward, and challenge.
Throughout your career, you earn experience points – but this is a largely underwhelming mechanic, with the points you get from tournaments only unlocking new clothes and clubs. Other career progression features are neat on paper but thoroughly undercooked. Sponsorship Contracts are career challenges that unlock clubs and clothes; in-round targets add some extra challenge; and player rivalries are challenge-based competitions, that are also quite baffling - why exactly do I have a rivalry with Jim Furyk? Given the lack of golf ability advancement, more purpose to the leveling-up of my player would be welcome, along with more reason to upgrade my clubs, too. You can easily do the whole season, successfully, with the default set.
Rough with the smooth
Wherever you go, you’re accompanied by disappointingly familiar golf game-isms: cringeworthy commentary that's been exhausted by your fourth round; boring crowds; goofy player animations; and skippable empty-camera shots between holes, and shots. Where PGA 2K21 does deviate from previous golf games, however, is in the difficulty settings, through which you can make career feel fresher by amending opponent ability, and course conditions to find a pleasingly challenging balance.
While career is great fun, it's too lean and simple to be a premise you return to month after month. Seemingly positioned as a route to get you playing a season quickly and easily, there is no opportunity to build a golfer up from hack to pro, investing XP in skills and abilities, and acquiring a repertoire of shots. This role-playing element of career modes is a successful staple of the genre, so given PGA 2K21's heavy emphasis on realism elsewhere, it feels like a missed opportunity.
However, this level-playing-field approach does have its positives: as the player base grows, online play should be great fun given no one can beat other players simply by out-levelling them. This means that the net-based options - 1v1 matchplay games, 2v2 alternate shot games, wager matches, and online societies (where you can play custom seasons with your crew) will be competitive, if the game attracts a large audience in the coming months.
Long live your noble green
Unfortunately, there are notable absences in career when it comes to famous courses and faces. Courses are limited to a few handfuls of PGA Tour locations and the famous players present are not playable, which is a huge miss. The Tiger Woods series would have been rubbish without the option to be, you know, Tiger Woods.
Where 2K19 makes up for this a little is with the robust Course Creator. It's intuitive, has helpful presets and easy options to manipulate terrain, and the option to playtest every hole. The creator also enables you to download and play courses other players publish. Given the community is likely to recreate famous courses not available in the game, this is a great means to keep things fresh.
PGA 2K21 manages to be a strong, less po-faced successor to The Golf Club games, while also channeling some of what made EA's classics great, and continuing to establish the series as the go-to golf game. Shot craft rarely fails to satisfy, but it is less successful as a career simulator. Further refinement and polish in that field - as well as more official courses and playable stars - would be welcome if the PGA branding is here to stay. For now, like one of Bryson DeChambeau’s post-lockdown drives, it’s on the right trajectory.
Reviewed on PS4. Code provided by the publisher.