HB Studios’ The Golf Club is a novelty on PlayStation 4. It’s the only next-gen golf game you can play right now, so if you’re desperate for something in the 2014 absence of EA’s licensed PGA Tour series, you can’t do better or worse than The Golf Club.
The game itself could have gone either way. The Golf Club’s simulation take on the storied sport understands its nuance and unpredictability a little better than the Tiger Woods series and its game-y precision. But with sorely lacking content and options, almost zero in-game guidance, and some course creator quirks, The Golf Club comes up well short of being the enthusiast fan’s dream package.
Let’s start with the good. As you point the right analog stick down for your backswing and forward for the stroke, there’s great potential for error. Ever-so-slight deviations in your analog stick motion could produce all manner of draws, fades, hooks, and slices. As with the real-life game, it’s sometimes easier to set your mind on a particular deviation, like a slight draw, than it is to plan for and attempt a perfectly straight shot. Coupled with not having an exact target indicator (The Golf Club’s shot zoom only shows the general area you’re aiming for), shots results can be quite varied. Rounds are more interesting for the unpredictability, and the game carries an especially strong notion of “easy to play, difficult to master.”
With putting, it’s more like “hard to play–don’t even think about mastering.” The diversity that less precise systems grant for fairway shots is rather intensely magnified on the green. You still get a grid with beaded lines showing the inclination of the putting surface, but with the game’s unforgiving analog aim and the lack of a distance reticle, it’s tough to make putts with much confidence and discern how bad strokes went wrong. The game is fairly accurate in its simulation of putting’s weight and push, and it’s possible to get just about any camera angle on the scene before putting, but I’m tempted to rely on my real-world instincts as a result and that’s tough to do without a more overhead angle during the stroke. Essentially, good simulation demands a more realistic view of the action, and my putting game suffered without.
Through all this links action, The Golf Club conveys plenty of information with a sleek, minimal HUD that stays out of your way. The same goes for the aesthetically pleasing tile overlay of the menus, which make it easy to quickly find the modes and content I’m looking for. But it wasn’t long before I started to realize there wasn’t much content to find. Three game types–Stroke Play, Match Play, and Four Ball–are all fine inclusions, but golf’s many variants are part of its rich tradition. Right next to rule selection is the character creator, but don’t expect to spend much time here. A few clothing options and gender/skin color presets are all you get.
On the course side, you may never run out of options. The 12 courses designed by HB Studios introduce you to what’s possible with the Greg Norman Course Designer, a full-fledged but clunky tool for procedurally generating courses and tinkering with the results. The procedural generation, with simple options for terrain type, tree density, and course difficulty, is great if you just want something new to play and don’t want to spend lots of time emulating your home course. That’s sort of at odds with the game’s simulation vibe, though. I was most looking forward to reproducing my home course in next-gen detail, but the baffling lack of tutorials made a clumsy menu hard to wrap my head around.
The Greg Norman Course Designer simply isn’t built like other creation modes in video games, where the full breadth of tools are always available and apply to all elements. Here, moving a reticle from fairway to green and everywhere in-between changes your menu of context-sensitive options. Once you get the hang of it, editing your course in piecemeal chunks becomes easy enough, and there’s a healthy amount of objects, animals, plants, and artificial constructs to add diversity. But I bemoan the lack of a paint-type tool, as every application of rough, fairway, and other surface textures is spot by spot. You can change the shape and size of application, but you’re still sticking the surfaces like dots, not brush strokes, on a canvass–and waiting a couple seconds for every change while the game loads the new information. This spot application makes land sculpting especially difficult. You’re forced to guess how the height you’ve set for a piece of ground will look, and how well it will mesh with surrounding land, before you apply the change. The changes are instant, and rarely what I’m hoping for, which requires more tinkering on that one spot of land before starting the same frustrating tug-of-war nearby. Ultimately, I gave up on recreating my favorite courses–without dynamic terrain adjustment and leveling, the notion is too intimidating.
The Golf Club does push the genre forward with social innovations like sharing courses and publishing custom tournaments, but it all basically boils down to playing a certain number of holes on one or more courses of someone else’s choosing. The asynchronous display of ball flights and scores for players who came before you is neat, but hardly a supplement for matchmaking or public matches when friends aren’t around. Neat ideas are sprinkled throughout. But the content, customization, and progression range from uninspired to nonexistent.
A bored and slightly sarcastic commentator aside, presentation holds up, with pleasant (though repetitive) menu music and serviceable visuals. Close details like blades of grass are quite impressive, but the distant horizon can look obviously fake with foliage that lacks depth and water that looks painted, not reflective.
The Golf Club’s less calculating approach to the sport injects surprises and errors–hallmarks of real-world golf–into the game smoothly. Elsewhere, The Golf Club feels incomplete, with bare-bones content and a clunky course editor that’s good for everything except purposeful simulation. I’m jonesing for a meaty golf experience on PS4. If that eventual title takes cues from The Golf Club’s gameplay, we’ll have the first worthwhile outing on hardware primed for golf’s natural beauty.