Across the past two decades, Electronic Arts has become a dominant force in the arena of sports simulation. At one time, recreations of athletic competitions were single-shot efforts, until EA popularized a business model that favored annual iterations. While the initial cost of development was high, subsequent entries reused the core engine, updating key gameplay components every year. Apparently, the approach proved successful- with rivals succumbing either to exclusivity deals with professional leagues or just not being able to offer the polish, playability, or marketing push afforded by the EA juggernaut.
For those rare instances where Electronic Arts doesn’t have an annual update, opportunity appears. For Nova Scotia-based HB Studios, this chance emerged when EA was transitioning from its last-gen Tiger Woods series to its upcoming next-gen franchise, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. Lacking the coffers to compete with the publishing powerhouse, the release of The Golf Club concentrates on the fundamentals of the game, neglecting the career campaigns and customization components which EA has cultivated over the long haul. Unfortunately, a lack of aesthetic sheen and long-term incentive means that the title lands just a few inches off the fairway.
While Tiger Woods often straddled the space between simulation and arcade game, The Golf Club is focused on offering an authentic reproduction of the sport. As such, you won’t be able to adjust the trajectory of the ball in air, or see putting previews overlaid onscreen. Instead, The Golf Club doesn’t try to incorporate the abilities of a pro golfer, extending an experience that’s closer to the perspective of an average player by conveying an essential amount of data.
Before teeing off, you’ll have the ability to zoom in and assess the fairway and lie of the green, but gone is the customary translucent circle that illustrates the estimated driving distance of the ball. Likewise, using the right analog stick to swing delivers a modicum of information, so you won’t be able to land on the fairway with pinpoint accuracy. Just like real life, the speed and precision of your swing dictate the course of the ball, while the ability to adjust draw, fade and trajectory height is issued with a press of the left trigger. Putting and chip shots employ the same method, with greens exhibiting a grid to assist players with reading the topography.
Admittedly, there’s a fairly substantial learning curve and while The Golf Club will offer a handicap after five rounds of play, it’s going to take longer to really hone your game. As such, the game might not be the best fit for the causal player accustomed to three-button press swings and the ability to put English on the ball while it’s in flight. The Golf Club requires patience, as you sacrifice-shank a few dozen balls into the flora or overshoot a few textbook four-foot putts. But stick with the game, get a feel for swing speed, and carefully monitor the swing analysis meter and you’ll be soon be dropping the dimpled sphere with a bit of accuracy. Naturally, there’s a sense of accomplishment with that experience which doesn’t come when a golf game that offers an assortment of player aids.
This feeling of achievement will have to be the core stimulus for players, as The Golf Club does little for its long game. As such, tournaments are one-off affairs, awarding neither XP to enhance your player or money that can be used to purchase stat-improving equipment. Instead, a level playing field is favored for competition, allowing the game’s local, asynchronous, and online matches to be settled via skill rather than the number of hours spend character grinding. One thing that’s missed is the customizability of your avatar. While you can change clothing for the four male and two female character models, there’s little hope of creating your own doppelgänger.
However, customization does reign in The Greg Normal Course Designer. Here, players are given a toolset that balances accessibility and autonomy, allowing the creation of either real-life link or wonderfully fanatical country clubs. Although design seems suited for a mouse-and-keyboard combination, controller-based construction isn’t too unmanageable, only players acclimate to using the DualShock 4’s bumpers to move through different options. Design can start with players dictating the amount of foliage, water, and elevational variation, with the course designer automatically placing holes. For players who crave more control, the component allows budding architects to dictate every nuance, sculpting the landscape, adjusting the angle and width of fairways, and tweaking the greens. Pleasingly, it’s fairly easy to create realistic looking desert mesas, or jutting mountains within the game’s selection of nine environmental milieus.
While courses dispense an attractive appearance in the Designer suite, they tend to lose their luster during play. Built on the Unity engine, The Golf Club has a wavering framerate; while drops during ball flights only offer a visual impairment, during swings they can disrupt your rhythm. On top on that, screen tearing is a persistent issue, spoiling the game’s otherwise competent geometry and texturing. Diverging from The Golf Club’s straightforward take on the sport, the game’s announcer ushers in a bit of flippant charm. Unfortunately, his burns a majority of his quips after about five games.
While The Golf Club was first available as a digital download, Maximum Games has published the game on Blu-ray, with the Collector’s Edition adding amenities like Season mode, which stitches together a number of the game’s courses, a new environment and an e-booklet. The additions are welcome, but they do little to soften the game’s graphical woes and limited customization options.
With Rory McIlroy PGA Tour still several months out, The Golf Club is a worthwhile choice, as long as players don’t mind the absence of a meta-game. It’s the addition of a powerful course creation component that really makes the game a contender, and one that EA will most likely forgo, given their success with downloadable content. In an era when a handful of herculean publishers rule the sports simulation genre, it’s gratifying to see a scrappy underdog who demonstrations competitive potential.
The Golf Club was played on the PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4, also on Xbox One, PC
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: Maximum Games
Release date: April 28th, 2015
Price: $39.99 via retail