PGA 2K21 Review

Remember this? There was only one course, the graphic quality as compared to today’s games is almost as if it came from a different world. Still, if I I had this system and game in front of me right now I would fire up a round and the nostalgia would wash over me. It was in this spirit that I decided to return to my golf gaming roots for the newest golf title release, PGA 2K21. My golf gaming experience wasn’t only relegated to that old NES game, the Tiger Woods EA franchise was at the height of it’s popularity during my college years, and the competitions in the dorms were fierce. For a multitude of reasons,though, I had drifted away from golf gaming for the last several years. So, for me, in addition to reviewing this title, I also ask myself the question, am I ready to return and immerse myself in the world of golf gaming? I say immerse because I am not someone who fiddles around with a game, when I commit to a game I am someone who wants to explore every aspect, master it. There has always been a big following for PGA Tour games and even golf games in general. The last major published PGA Tour game was basically left hanging as fans were left reeling for a bit. Developer HB Studios came along and introduced a community-driven golf simulation with The Golf Club. Golf Club 2019 introduced a tie-in with the PGA Tour and a Career Mode. Now 2K has joined up with HB Studios and rebranded the franchise to PGA Tour 2K21. 

The Visual and Audio

Let’s start with the easiest aspect of this game to evaluate… it is stunningly beautiful and smooth. Playing in 4K, every detail of every course is perfect. The detail of the equipment, clubs, and player avatar is also deep, varied, and pleasing to look at. It seems like a bit more could have been done with the galleries, they don’t seem to have much life or animation to them, if the ball is hit near them they just stand in one place even if it is set to hit them straight in the chest.  I’m not expecting screams of “Baba Booey” after a drive, but this is one area of the visual/audio experience that feels a bit underwhelming. Still, this is only a minor note in the overall experience. I encourage players to stop and smell the roses, and just take in the visuals on the courses. Rich Beem and Luke Elvy are the two guys calling the match with John McCarthy doing the sideline reporting. They bring the proper sound to complete those special moments. It was mentioned that some dialogue would only be heard once, and while this might be true, a ton of dialogue is recycled.  You can tune out the actual dialogue as the voice levels all blend together to help create the perfect golf atmosphere, but some of the cringier stuff will stick out. The soundtrack, on the other hand, might be the best that accommodates a golf game. It perfectly captures the feel of golf while it feels a bit more modernized and upbeat.

Realism of Play and Difficulty Level

This is a complicated subject, because each individual has the right to enjoy the game the way they would like to. Pro level is the level of the Sim Sports gaming society, which you should search for and join immediately!  Pro level for me right now is probably exactly what many weekend warrior golfers actually feel like in real life playing the game they love. It can be mind numbingly frustrating, but at the same time so rewarding and fun when things go well.  The Pro difficulty is the default difficulty required for online matchmaking so be aware know if you’re not sufficient with Pro difficulty, you’re liable to not have a good time. Putting the clubs to the ball is a much more detailed experience in HB Studios games and that’s no different here.You will have the most fun playing on the easiest difficulty as you focus on swinging the club straight and judging your approach. As you begin to up the difficulty, other factors will come into play such as swing speed and swing plane along with attempting to judge a ball roll on the hole. If you try to start on Pro, however, this mode will punish you entirely too much. My first tournament in the Sim Sports Gaming Society produced a 4 round score of +100 over par!  Yes, you read that right. The good news is that if you count the fairways I hit… on adjacent holes, my fairway percentage would be great.Even when you feel your swing is consistent, the ball will somehow find a bunker or the rough. The wind will knock it way off course. The tiniest of details can ruin your experience and sometimes it is difficult to even realize where you went wrong.  Beginner level feels too easy, for me when I play any game, especially sports gaming, I want as realistic of a real life simulation as I can possibly get. The amateur level right now for me is probably my sweet spot, you can score but more realistic scoring.  I’m not 15 under every round which I like. The fact that you do hit bad shots from time to time if you’re not right on your take back and follow through I kind of like. There are different shot types and adjustments, but I didn’t find myself using the adjustments such as flop or splash, and there is an absence of a “punch shot” to stay under trees when you invariably head into the deep rough. You also have the option to put a fade or draw into a shot, but the physics once the ball lands don’t seem correct. This was good to get around obstacles, but for obstacles such as trees or brush, the game mostly lets you shoot through them. Bunker shots don’t feel any different than just hitting out of the rough and those should be the toughest to make. Lastly, the ball roll mechanic is either inconsistent or not enough information was provided on the tutorial. The way it works seems to change depending on the club. It isn’t as simple as EA’s games were and I feel there needs to be a better way to implement this. Ultimately, another quote from a consultant on this review summed things up perfectly when it comes to PGA 2K21’s difficulty, “Sports gaming is a great teaching tool. It’s how I learned about a lot of sports growing up. It doesn’t always have to be dumbed down to the casual fan. Set a high bar, and we as a community will reach for it.” Just avoid higher difficulties until you get comfortable is probably good advice and one I need to take myself.

Game Modes and Features

“PGA Tour 2K21” is likely the deepest golf video game you’ve ever encountered. This comes from the concept of giving an online community access to a custom course designer. The rest – the official Tour, course and player licensing that’s been so heavily pushed in the marketing – is nice to see and have access to, but the real strength of this game lies in the online community. Having spent the better part of the last week playing around with 2K21’s career mode, I can tell you that, judged as a PGA Tour simulation, this title returns golf gamers back to the EA sports heyday. But if you take what gamers had before as a simulation and combine it with a full-blown course designer, then you have something else entirely. “PGA 2K21” is best judged then as the marriage of two features that had been previously kept separate. During all of those EA Sports years of dominance in the golf gaming market, one weakness was the inability to create your own courses or to recreate courses that EA simply couldn’t license. Then “The Golf Club” game series was missing the tour branding, tour pros, and tour courses. This game has the best of both worlds. PGA Tour 2K21 features 12 of the top PGA Tour professionals and this lineup is headlined by current FedEx Cup leader Justin Thomas, who is also the cover athlete. You will also encounter other known names such as Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter and Jim Furyk. As for courses, there are fifteen officially-licensed courses that include TPC Sawgrass, Quail Hollow and TPC Scottsdale. These are recognizable courses by pure golf fans, but lacks the big name attention. The implementation of the PGA Tour remains about the same as The Golf Club 2, as it feels minimal and disconnected. Names that you won’t see in this game included Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson. What’s puzzling is when you play a tournament and look at the standings, you’ll see names like Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. These are all big names. These golfers aren’t featured in the listing for the top professionals because those twelve actually have player models in the game. One of the best things any sports game has done in recent times is incorporate real-time highlights from the match. PGA Tour 2K21 will interrupt play to show a full highlight of some of these players on other holes making great shots. This actually brings a sense of relation as to what’s going on in the match rather than just showing a score card. Imagine if other sports games had this to help tie in the season or franchise? The replays are simply wonderful.

Career Mode

Players have the option of four different tours: Q-School, Korn Ferry Tour, Korn Ferry Tour Championship and the PGA Tour. There will be no player highlights on the other tours where there aren’t any PGA Pros, so jumping straight into the PGA is the best experience. Players will accrue FedEx Points in the PGA Championship with the FedEx Playoffs closing out the season. This is all a good introduction with MyPLAYER, but leaves something to be desired going forward. You encounter these elements by working your way through career mode. You play events, you earn in-game currency, you spend that currency on clubs and apparel to develop your create-a-golfer. If that sounds familiar, it is a return to the career mode players received from EA Sports. The advancements, however, come in  making the golf courses look like they do during Tour events; so you’re getting a digital replica of the stadium built around the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale, just as one example. The Tour pros featured in the game fall slightly short of the mark, they don’t really feel like rivals.  Also, in what is on the surface a big miss and a difficult to understand omission, you can’t play rounds as the featured pros.  I don’t understand all of the legalities behind licensing or use of a likeness, but why put these names and likenesses in the game but make them unavailable to play as. I, for one, would be just as excited or more to take a real golfer through a PGA Tour season as I would be my create a player avatar.  Back to the positives, the create a player mode is subtle and organic. One fan of the series shared this observation, “I love that the game doesn’t cram a card-trading mode down my throat every time I log on, and I truly hope this game’s success leads to other gaming studios back towards realism and to stop selling out to the casual gamer.”

Course Designer

Separately, the course designer is difficult. There’s a steep learning curve if you want to get good at it, and that’s because it is the same designer the design team uses to create the game.  Here’s the good part, you get to beg, borrow, and steal from the work of others. This is the important part – the part they can’t really advertise.  No, Augusta National, Pine Valley, and Cypress Point are not officially in this game. Users can, will, and have, recreate these layouts – tee for tee, green for green, bunker for bunker, down to the very yard, down to the very tree – and upload them to the game’s servers. You can find all sorts of real-world recreations, from major-championship venues like Merion and Oakmont and Pebble Beach and St. Andrews to even your local municipal courses.  

Online Play and Societies 

I actually think being able to play online and  in societies, being able to set up tournaments, weekly courses, etc. is PGA 2K21’s best asset. Even if career mode falls flat for some users, the ability to compete virtually with others around the world playing the same courses at the same difficulty level is a huge draw.
Despite any of the issues mentioned in this review, PGA Tour 2K21 successfully brought me back to my golf gaming roots and has me fully invested in improving and simultaneously enjoying this game. Much like the previous Golf Club title, this is a golf game with elements of the PGA Tour tacked on it.  A season that is mostly full of fantasy courses with some mid-tier PGA Tour courses thrown in and those expecting a full on PGA experience will be disappointed. What matters the most here, however, is the golf and the proper representation of a golf broadcast.  Also, the online community societies and user designed courses more than make up for any shortcomings one may find in career mode.  In the end PGA Tour 2K21 is a great game of golf and a promising start to the new franchise, and with 2K onboard, we should continue to see more of the PGA positively implemented in future iterations of the title.