PGA Tour 2K21 Review – IGNAugust 20, 2020
PGA Tour 2K is the new name for The Golf Club series, which could have just as easily been rebranded as Dark Holes for its uncompromisingly hardcore simulation of the sport. In its previous incarnation, it showed its players all the forgiveness of a FromSoftware game. But with its latest evolution under the 2K sports banner, PGA Tour 2K21 has layered a raft of more traditional videogame guides and aids on top of that focus on realism in order to make it more approachable to a wider audience. As a result, PGA Tour 2K21 facilitates a members club that anyone can join, yet like all good golf courses there’s still some rough around its edges.
I opted to play PGA Tour 2K21 in the ‘Pro-Am’ preset, which effectively equates to a medium difficulty setting. Pro-Am certainly skews more towards the gaming side of things, with on-screen indicators for the intended flightpath of your ball and a distance control meter that helps you measure what percentage of your backswing is required for each shot. Yet there’s still enough of PGA Tour 2K21’s simulation underbelly peeking through to provide a challenge, so you’re still expected to nail the tempo of your downswing lest you invoke a nasty hook or slice, and adjustments to your aim have to be made for whether the ball is lying above or below your player’s feet. A significant amount of concentration is required to make every stroke count.I particularly enjoyed the experience of mastering windy conditions in PGA Tour 2K21. The first time I encountered winds pushing 15 miles per hour I struggled to four over par for the tournament (it was the Waste Management Phoenix Open and I appropriately served up my share of trash). This was because, despite the fact I had wind direction and speed indicators to assist me, I still needed to get a feel for clubbing up into a headwind or effectively using draws and fades to negate or ride more lateral gales, which eventually came through practice. Playing PGA Tour 2K21 on its medium difficulty ultimately felt like a really well balanced experience to me, someone who’s played almost every golf game released in the last 20 years, but it’s worth noting that all of the guides and timing windows can be adjusted or disabled according to your personal preference or aptitude level.
Not only does PGA Tour 2K21 present you with a very flexible and satisfying game of golf, it also lets you put your skills to the test across 15 of the best courses in North America. Famous parklands like TPC Scottsdale, Copperhead Course, and the Riviera Country Club are as pretty as a postcard – although admittedly they’re also just as static. It’s a shame that wayward shots hit into the gallery don’t send members of the crowd running for cover, and nor are extreme winds really reflected in the movement of the trees surrounding each hole. Aside from these atmospheric shortcomings, though, PGA Tour 2K21 certainly provides some beautiful backdrops for every round you play.
Overall, I enjoyed my journey through a single season of PGA Tour 2K21’s career mode, which took me about 20 hours playing single-round tournaments across a varied mix of licensed courses and fictional links. However, I must admit that the methods used to reward and incentivise progression come up shorter than a lazy chip shot. There is XP to be earned by winning tournaments or successfully completing course-specific challenges, but the XP just levels up your character in number alone – you’re not given the option to spend points enhancing your player’s shot power or spin control, for example. This may make progression more realistic in the sense that the only way to get better is by actually getting better at the fundamentals of club selection, shot shaping, reading greens and the like, but it also means that the leveling system is utterly meaningless and I felt the same level of investment in my created player at level 1 as I did at level 21.
Screens – PGA Tour 2K21
In between competitions you can sign up for performance-based sponsorship deals with licensed clothing and club manufacturers such as Adidas and Callaway, and while it’s certainly a bonus to gain a shiny new TaylorMade 3 wood every once in a while, the contract requirements of these deals can often be patronising if not downright insulting. Midway through the tour I was ranked number one with several tournament wins under my belt, yet the terms of my contract with Malbon stipulated that I had to finish in the top five in two upcoming tournaments in order to receive… a new bucket hat? Who negotiated this deal? If PGA Tour 2K21 had in-game managers, I certainly would have fired mine.
In fact, PGA Tour 2K21 seems to put an enormous amount of currency in polo shirts and sunglasses as rewards for completing its various career objectives. Admittedly it shouldn’t be a complete surprise since it’s a game about golf, after all, but I dare say that most players would be less concerned about getting their hands on yet another pair of grey khakis and more interested in earning a green jacket. Sadly, due to the lack of a Masters license, that’s one piece of clothing you can’t actually win.Meanwhile, the Rivals system, which measures your performance against that of the 12 licensed pro golfers in PGA Tour 2K21 as you progress through the season, ultimately proves to be almost as completely arbitrary as the leveling system. It may have provided an interesting subplot to my season if, say, Ian Poulter had narrowly beaten me in a tournament and thus became my rival as a result, but sadly the system just isn’t dynamic in that way and fails to inject any sort of spice into the mix. Instead, you’re automatically assigned a rival until you’ve sufficiently outplayed them in a handful of tournaments, and then you just move on to the next in the predetermined queue. Perhaps proving just how superficial the Rivals system is, by the end of my first career season I had yet to technically ‘win’ my rivalry with Justin Thomas – this despite the fact I had almost 30 tournament victories to his one. I’m sorry, exactly what rivalry are we talking about here?
Both the sponsorships and the Rivals systems just exist in the background while you focus on racking up birdies, so they certainly don’t do any harm to the career mode overall. But I wish they did a better job of rewarding my achievements in more meaningful ways, or accentuating the drama of each tournament. Speaking of which, while the commentary from Rich Beem and Luke Elvy is generally of a high standard, there’s a real lack of pageantry surrounding the events out on the greens. If you manage to take home the main prize there aren’t any presentations or press conferences that follow, just a splash screen with a picture of your trophy to blink at for a few moments before you move on to the next course. You know the dinky little pop-up overlay you get for earning in-game achievements? It’s like getting one of those after winning one of the most prestigious tournaments in world sport.
Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden
It’s also disappointing that there’s no women’s tour option in PGA Tour 2K21. While you can certainly use the MyPlayer tool to create a female player, your only option for a career is to tee off against the exact same all-male field as the men since there are no licensed women golfers or tournaments included. When you consider that the LPGA license was included in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 more than half a decade ago, not to mention the major inclusive strides made in other basketball, soccer, and cricket games in recent years, it makes PGA Tour 2K21 feel considerably out of touch by comparison.
Even the 12 male professionals that are included in PGA Tour 2K21 aren’t actually playable; they simply exist as opponents in the PGA Tour mode, which seems pretty odd. I can’t really think of many other licensed sports games that prevent you from stepping into the shoes of your heroes, and I can only assume it’s down to some quirk in the actual licensing agreement. I hope 2K at least got a branded bucket hat out of the deal.
But I really must stress that despite these shortcomings, the actual golf in PGA Tour 2K21 is quite possibly the best the virtual game has ever been. The supremely scalable nature of its difficulty settings has meant I’ve been able to enjoy games of skins with my kids, who’ve never played golf games before. And now, after a week of playing regularly, I’ve started stripping back a number of the assists as I’ve developed a more intuitive ability to read the conditions, and I feel even more invested in each hole as a result.
And, despite the undercooked career mode, there’s still enough golf packed into PGA Tour 2K21 to exhaust a sitting president. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test them prior to launch, but the online societies should lengthen PGA Tour 2K21’s tail by letting you create your own tournaments or participate in official competitions curated by 2K. Similarly, the overhauled course creator should generate more enticing links than a Geocities homepage, assuming PGA Tour 2K21 is embraced by creative fans in the way The Golf Club games have been in recent years. I don’t personally have the time or the talent to get too deep into course creation, but I certainly look forward to seeing what other members of the community can come up with.