I absolutely love golf. Golf is challenging and engaging while managing to be easy-going at the same time. Golf is an exact science, while allowing for an infinite number of pathways toward a goal. And most importantly, golf is the supreme individual challenge, while offering an unrivaled opportunity for socializing with others. With The Golf Club, HB Studios aims to capture these intangibles in a straightforward, no-fluff package. And priced at just $34.99 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and coming in the form of a download that’s only a few GBs, it’s certainly accessible to the masses. But even at a budget price – is it any good?
The Golf Club comes at a very appropriate time. Those of us who love golf games have been starved for a long while now, without a simulator to scratch the itch. Sure, we’ve had some quality fun with the likes of the Hot Shot Golf series and others, but these do not fill the “simulator” void (though they are great arcade fun). It’s for this reason that I got so excited when I first heard about this game, and the interview we at Stealthy Box did with the game’s Executive Producer, Pete Garcin, only fueled the fire.
First, let’s talk about what this game is not. This is not a Tiger Woods game. There are no licensed players (or any various players at all, for that matter). There are no licensed courses. There is no career mode or tour season mode. And most importantly, there is no skill progression system. And this is where we’ll start.
The Golf Club’s calling card is that it is true, organic, streamlined golf. When you start, you’ll be the new owner of a golfer, simply named after your PSN or Xbox username, who will be as “skilled” at the game of golf as he or she ever will be during your time with the game. There is a limited set of clothes, shoes, and hats to choose from, but that’s all. There is no skill progression, attribute changes, or power-ups. The only reason you’ll score lower over time is because you’ll get better at playing the game. Though some are sure to miss the concept of an RPG-style progression system, I found the setup to be a refreshing take on the game. All players are equal, both at launch and a year from now, and we all have the same chance of hitting a great shot – but it’s about who executes better, period.
This simplified mindset also translates to the modes of play. When you jump into the game, you’ll be greeted with a simple but elegant single-screen menu, containing options to Tee-Off, Play, Create, or change various settings. Tee-Off lets you jump into a random round, put simply. Within the Play menu, you can play a round, play a tournament, or go on tour. These are what they sound like: a single round, a tournament against other players, or a set of tournaments with ongoing standings. And they are all tied-in to the game’s excellent social platform.
As you play golf, you are assigned a Golf Club Rating that will follow you throughout your career and fluctuate with your performance. This is determined by your tournament and tour finishes, scores relative to par, and statistical analysis of your play, including fairways hit, greens in regulation, and more. Most importantly, you’ll always be playing against “Rival,” which means that any time you play a round, tournament, or tour, you’ll share a leaderboard and course with comparable players to yourself. You’ll see their scores, but more importantly, you’ll see their golf balls flying around the course. This leads me
to the social play aspect of the game – one of its strongest accomplishments.
The Golf Club’s multiplayer scheme is based on a “ghost ball” system. This means that, if you play a multiplayer round with 3 friends, you won’t watch the other 3 hit while you wait your turn. Instead, you’ll all play each hole together, meaning that while you progress through your 2-5 (or 6-7?!) shots, you’ll see a live golf ball with a color-coded symbol above it for each of your 3 friends. Though this does remove the opportunity to rib your friends while they’re teeing off, in this reviewer’s opinion, there is much more upside than downside here. A par-4 hole takes the time of 4 shots instead of 16, meaning that a round might take 15 minutes to play instead of an hour. The timesaving aspect of this mechanic is extremely valuable. And after all, you can still rib your buddy when your ball stops dead, 2 feet from the hole, and his or here red tracker dribbles into the water off the side of the green.
The game’s most touted feature, however, is its course creation tool. The game does ship with a number of developer-created courses, but they are, again, unlicensed and standard fare. So, HB Studios has left it to the gamers to populate courses long into the future. The creation tool is fairly easy to use, if you want it to be. Creating a course can be as simple as choosing a type of land (i.e. desert, mountains, forest), a difficulty level, green sizes, and a few more template options, and the game will randomly generate your unique course. On the flipside, if you’re feeling hardcore, you have the ability to place every single tree and hazard, resize every green, and shape every fairway to your liking. In the first few days after launch, the game’s user base has responded in a big way, filling the course listings with everything from the straightforward to the crazy. I’ve played a quite well-designed mountain course with lovely views, and I’ve played a circus course that included having to ricochet the ball off of cliff faces, chip over monster truck car obstacles, and hit a par 3 tee-shot off of a plateau down to a green 1,500 feet below. You can sort the courses by number of times played, community ratings, and more, so it’s always easy to find new courses that creative members of the Golf Club community are churning out.
Most importantly, among these features, is how the game actually plays, and it’s no surprise that the same organic approach is applied here as well. An analog stick swing mechanic is applied to all shots, from the tee-box to the putting green. To achieve a perfect swing, you must pull the right stick back, and push it straight forward in a good golf rhythm. Rush the swing, and you’ll lose a bit of power. Follow through to the right of the left, and you’ll hit a slice or a hook – the severity of which will depend on your movements. The mechanic itself feels excellent.
At first, the game WILL be very difficult, due to the fact that very little feedback is provided to you, relative to past golf sims. There is no landing grid, no swing meter, and no in-air spinning of the ball here. Prior to the shot, you’ll know how far it is to the cup, and how far the club you’re holding will carry the ball, assuming a perfect swing, no wind, and flat land. You’ll then have to take club selection, roll after landing, elevation, wind, terrain, and loft into account. Your pre-shot options include the type of shot with your chosen club (regular, pitch, punch, flop, etc.), your contact point on the ball to control loft, and whether you want to affect a fade or draw on the ball and to what extent. All of these items turn every shot into a tremendously engaging match against the course.
The Golf Club is not without its shortcomings, however. Visually, this experience doesn’t exactly scream next-gen power. It doesn’t look bad, but it simply doesn’t have the flair that we are used to in sports game in this new generation. It also does suffer from slowdowns from time to time, screen tearing, pop-ins of the environment, and other visual issues that, while they don’t take away from the gameplay most of the time, are just enough to pull you out of the experience. The commentating, while entertaining at first, is worthy to be muted after a few rounds due to its repetitive nature – although you Canadian folks will appreciate the accent (“Maybe a paaaar then?”)! We’ve also experienced some more severe technical issues such as controllers ceasing to control the golfer mid-round, crashing, and freezing, but to the developer’s credit, they seem to have ironed most of these out since launch and things seem to be running smoothly now.
In the end, it must be stated plainly that this is a game that is aimed at actual golfers. With the lack of a progression system, licensed players and courses, multiple game modes, and overall flash, The Golf Club will simply not hold the attention of casual gamers who don’t appreciate the game of golf in reality. But, that should not take away from what HB Studios has accomplished here – a true simulation, at a budget price, that allows golfers to play the game organically, by themselves, with strangers, and with friends, and to see how they stack up, improving as they go.
If you are one who loves golf, and games, you should absolutely give this game a look. The social integration, solid mechanics, and prospect of infinite, creative courses of all levels and kinds are plenty to warrant the $34.99 purchase.