Thursday , October 1 2020

PlayStation 4 Review: ‘PGA 2K21’

I was several hours into playing the review copy 2K sent for the new PGA 2K21, and on my fourth try getting through the Q-School Qualifier Tournament, the lowest entry point in the game’s Career Mode. Heading to the 18th tee, I knew a birdie would allow me to successfully complete the tournament and move forward. Just as in real life, I managed to miss the green in regulation, with my approach shot landing on the fringe. I was resigned to having to play the round again (I had chosen to set tournaments to be only one round, not four), in hopes that I would be luckier on my fifth try.

Still, to get to my next attempt at the qualifier I had to finish the hole, and that meant a chip shot. Working my way through the shot setup, which will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a golf simulator on a console at any point in the last 20 years, I prayed that my caddie wasn’t lying to me. With my fingers metaphorically crossed, I pushed back the left analog stick to start my backswing (those who prefer the right along stick to swing can select it), and when the power bar hit the right spot, I started the downswing.

In that moment, I said another prayer – PGA 2K21 had already proven itself to be a little finnicky with the analog stick controls on the default settings. I previously learned that if I didn’t pull back hard enough, the swing stopped and reset; if I pushed through too fast, I hooked; if I pushed through too slow, I sliced; if the angle of the stick was off at any point backwards or forwards, bad things could took place. Worse, while I understood the technical side of the mechanics having gone through the simulator’s tutorial, my actual performing of the action registered as inconsistent. Multiple swings in a row which “felt” the same to me would produce different results and no amount of practice swings ever seemed to iron out the issue.

When the wedge made contact with the ball for my chip, I watched with baited breath. The round white ball rose into the air, came down moments later on the green and, by some miracle, rolled on into the hole. My joy was palpable: I had chipped in from the green and birdied the hole. I would be allowed to advance to the next stage in my virtual golf career – the Korn Ferry Tour.

The four attempts to get this far, even if I hadn’t advanced beyond this qualifier, had been truly enjoyable but I was happy to hit the next level. Getting out on the virtual greens may have been great, but I wanted to feel as though I was getting somewhere. Maybe now I was.

The smile on my face quickly turned to scowl as the announcers stated that I hadn’t achieved the required threshold. With no small amount of disappointment in their voice, they proclaimed that I would be forced to wait another year and required to go through the Q-School Tournament once more.

Okay, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment in playing the round and hitting that last shot, but I had to wonder — had I miscalculated? The scoreboard heading into hole 18 seemed to show everyone else already back in the clubhouse and me needing to only gain one stroke, but I had misread something?

Looking at the post-round summaries, it seemed as though I should have been eligible to move on. What had gone wrong?

The answer…

Foolishly, I had trusted the announcers to tell me whether or not I had accomplished a goal. As I advanced through the post-round information, PGA 2K21 congratulated me on making the Korn Ferry Tour. I had been right – getting a birdie on that last hole was enough to move on.

Having played a myriad of golf titles (and other sports sims) through the years, I knew full well not to believe the play-by-play analysis when they liked a shot (or hated one) off the tee. However, to not know whether I had advanced to the next level once all the data was in front of it? That was not good. It was also eerily reminiscent of a problem I encountered with The Golf Club back in 2015 (for what it’s worth, this game is a part of the same franchise, it features the same developer, HB Studios, and there are repeated references to The Golf Club in the game itself, none of which isn’t to say that the issue is in any way necessarily related).

PGA 2K21 has, as I hope is becoming clear, so much good going on, but it is not without problems. It is a complex game with lots of screens and tons of information being thrown at the player. There is much through which you have to sift, and it is sometimes quite difficult to figure out how to find and adjust things. There may not be a steep learning curve to be able to shoot a decent round of golf, but there definitely is one in learning how to use the menus.

For me, sports sims are about creating a character/team/dynasty/etc. They are about the long game (no pun intended), and it’s nice to see that this golf title has a good one. Working through a career is wonderfully enjoyably.

This area all starts with character creation. While not insanely deep, it is a good time and relatively easy to use. That said, the character who actually appears as your player in career mode doesn’t look quite the same as the one in the creator which, after you spend a lot of time defining a look, can be frustrating.

On the course, the holes are certainly pretty to look at, but when there’s tall grass or a tree or a rock or a building or whatever between the camera and your player, there’s not necessarily a way to fix it. The angle at which you view the player standing over the ball can be adjusted, and you can go to another view to adjust your shot, but you may still have to actually hit the shot not being able to see the player. The meters are still visible to let you swing properly, but not being able to see the player is a definite annoyance.

As for actually making shots, HB Studios has included a plethora of fine tuning options so that you can make it easy or hard to hit the ball correctly. You can alter aspects of the swing difficulty, adjust the number of putt previews you get, and more. All of the decisions here affect your “XP Multiplier,” XP being used to gain levels and unlock equipment/clothes, with the more aids you turn on lowering the multiplier. Again, the amount of time you can spend going through the entire set of options and adjusting them to your whims is impressive. All of these fine adjustments really do provide an incredibly wide ranging experience, allowing you to make hitting a shot hugely easy or terribly difficult.

At some point in my playing, I opted to tilt towards easier, not harder, and I love it. Sure, I may earn less XP, but the finnicky analog control stick issue disappears… or at least, it stops making a difference. I still have to consider clubs and approaches and putting lines and everything else—there are no gimmies—but the game is just more fun, more relaxing.

laying in online mode, at least the one available and where I could find another player before the game’s release, the skill level is automatically placed at “Pro” level, despite what it may have been set at in an offline round. While that may be okay (there are certainly other ways to adjust players to make a fair fight), going back to play the PGA Tour offline results, at least in this reviewer’s test, in the difficulty remaining at the same Pro level. In order to fix this, I had to close the game and reopen it. No amount of adjusting things in the menus worked without closing the title. Additionally, at this time, while the game did correctly keep track of the points in the online match (again, for the one I played), the scoreboards displayed during the match were wrong.

The online mode allows for matches to take place either in a private or public setting. There are even “Online Societies” available which seem to be, essentially, virtual clubs. How any of this works will be more apparent post-release.

The skill challenges that pop up during play (online and off) are a way to earn some extra XP and ask you to accomplish various tasks, like making a par with one putt or fewer, hitting a fairway or green in regulation, etc. They change things up during a round and adds a good dynamic. Getting that XP, however, for placing a ball in the fairway off the tee because you actually put the ball out of bounds and had to rehit the tee shot and the tee box counts as fairway? That’s clearly a mistake. Another of these challenges requests that you drive the ball “x” yards. It actually means “‘x’ or more,” which is a minor issue, but may matter to those who prefer a more precise use of language.

As you progress through Career Mode, you get to rack up FedExCup Points to make the playoffs and there are some tournaments you can only get invited to if you’re doing well enough overall. Once you hit the PGA Tour, you can also choose a sponsor and have to achieve various goals for them to get XP and equipment, and beat rivals (assigned by the game) as well. The XP is used to level up, but that, in turn, does not affect how your golfer plays. It does unlock equipment and clothes, but there are no power/control/spin/etc. points to gain as you move up in level.

Cloths and clubs and accessories to buy (it doesn’t appear to be as extensive as EA got through the years, but there is no lack) are present, too. There is a tiered, color coded, system for the items, and while years of playing other golf games might convince you that the colors indicated some sort of impact on one’s game, that is not the case. It is, instead, just a way to denote price and (as I was told by the devs. via the PR team) a set that might be considered more “pro” may, generally, allow you to hit further, but could also have less forgiveness. There is no club that maxes out all categories, so the clubs still have to fit your play style in order to work for you.

Turning towards the course creator, it is fun (available at launch to those on PS4 and Xbox). PGA 2K21 has enough of a setup menu for course design that a basic course is easy to create and can still be an enjoyable 18. Then, it is possible to go into exceptional depth with the design as well, allowing for some truly unique courses.

If you’re looking for additional nitty gritty details – there are 15 licensed courses and 12 PGA Tour professionals included in the game. The clothes and clubs feature licenses from the likes of Polo Ralph Lauren, Bridgestone, TaylorMade, Callaway, Adidas, Jack Nicklaus, Puma, Ben Hogan, and more.

While it is not perfect, what PGA 2K21 gets right is really that which is most important – the feel of being out there on the course. This is a simulator not an arcade title and it really does reflect that. After all, in real life, I chipped a ball into the hole on a course last week and then proceeded to knock my next tee shot one fairway to the right of where it was supposed to be. That is something I can definitely make happen (accidentally) here as well.

However, I choose to not go that route. It was only after adjusting to an easier setting that I truly fell in love with this game – and I have fallen in love with it, warts and all. From this point forward, I’ll be leaving the swing level at relatively easy and just enjoying myself as I progress on the PGA Tour, assuredly bad words will still be said on some greens, but the real world is tough enough. Now if they can just squash some of the bugs.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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