It is almost impossible to remember how tragic a place this world is when one is playing golf. ~Robert Lynd
Game: The Golf Club
Developer: HB Studios
Did I Pay For it: No.
Golf is a game of mitigated triumph; a nice drive then a pitch that slices so hard it ends up in the thousand acre wood. Playing the round of your life, only to six putt on the final hole and end up with a score akin to a high powered NFL offense. Phrases like ‘beginners luck’ qualify the good play of newbies, and wind and lie and balance dull the sting of defeat.
So, the last thing a golf videogame needs is a frustrating interface and long loading times – both which serve to rub salt in the wounds of a bad round and break the flow of good one.
The current king of digital golf is Tiger Woods PGA tour. A franchise more omnipresent than spectacularly good. It’s a quality game of golf, sure – but between strange in-air spin, fade, and draw controls, EA’s classic far-too-long loading times, and a lack of any personality have rendered the franchise stale and lacking in a true identity. Lets face it, if the biggest feature of a new release is the option to play as a kid Tiger Woods, something has gone terribly wrong.
The Golf Club, a new, indie, golf game on Xbox One, PS4, and PC solves quite a few of those problems. Save for some first-week server jitters and several annoying bugs, The Golf Club may very well put a dent in the windshield of Tiger Woods’ interactive golf dominance – all for a discounted price of 39.99.
It’s reasonable to think the cheaper price point would result in a lack of polish, and in some areas that’s true. While the graphics are about as pretty as you can expect, golfer customization is bare bones, with several clothing options, but no way to modify the face or hair or girth of your character – which is fine considering you’ll be staring at his backside most of the game. Obviously the developers couldn’t afford Jim Nantz, and instead went with a sardonic, low-key caddy type figure who comments on your shots, sounding like a happier Norm Macdonald. There’s also no licensed golfers or courses present in the game, but thanks to the insanely powerful course creation tool, you’ll be playing on a proper approximation of Pebble Beach in no time.
You’ll also occasionally see graphical glitches, and to my chagrin, aiming a driver shot at a club house results in the ball sailing though like it’s a mirage or hologram, to the point where you could quite possibly end up swinging from inside of the hollowed out geography of a structure.
But those are small caveats as long as the on-the-course stuff feels right, and boy does it ever. Organic is a word that gets thrown around a lot for lots of games, and it fits here, too. Swinging, putting, slicing, lofting, all feel *right* after a touch of a learning curve. Right stick swings, left stick aims, hold a button to adjust loft and fade, one to change clubs, another to change shots, and a shot preview button that gives you a general idea of where the ball would land on a solid thwack.
Explaining this to a non golfer is complicated as you can see above, but put this game in the hands of anyone whose poured 6.50 in a Golden Tee machine or played any Tiger Woods game, and they will find the lack of clutter and straightforward approach refreshing. There’s no putt previews, or tapping a button furiously to ‘power boost’ your drive, and the game is tuned juuuustttttt well enough where after about 10 hours with the game I’m coming in at -3 on familiar courses.
Which is encouraging considering online tournaments and tours are a major component of The Golf Club’s package. If every tournament had a leaderboard of 16 or 17 under pars, not only would the game become something…broken, it’d prevent many players from any serious attempt at tackling (and winning) a tournament. Right now, high scores on courses range from the -6 to -9 under range, which is still inflated, but not outrageously so.
Part of this is due to the complete lack of golfer stats. There’s nothing worse than playing a game online, only to get schooled by folks who simply have more time to pour hours into the game and grind XP, to the point where they’re hitting 400 yard drives and sinking 50 foot putts with ease thanks to their 99 ovr golfer. Here, everyone is on an even playing field, permanently.
The mechanics are great, but the pace is the real showcase. You can play a lot of Golf Club in a relatively short amount of time. Playing an 18 hole round, followed by a 9 hole course, clocked in at a brisk 38 minutes. You’re in and out of holes quickly, with no loading, easily skippable hole introductions and leaderboard updates, and zero unwanted downtime from shot-to-shot. It’s wonderful.
But yeah, about those bugs. For starters, if connected online and disconnected while playing Adhoc with a buddy as a ‘guest’ under your XBLA gamertag, and you’re kicked from the net and bounced back to the main menu, resuming that tournament eliminates your friend and makes it a one-man show. Additionally, the game hardlocked twice, and on one very special night, prevented the second player’s controller from registering any input at all. These are only an issue when playing couch co-op, and I would imagine patches, updates, and server tweaks will render several of these problems moot in the near future.
Regardless, like a punch shot on a steep decline, when it works, it fucking rolls. In and out of a round and a half in under an hour? A round that felt challenging and fair, briskly paced but calming and serene thanks the musical score you half expect Enya to pop up on? And a feeling of confidence in my growing skill to keep me coming back for more even after this review is posted? Sign me up.
If you like Golf games at all, give this a shot. If you’re the kind of person who finds ‘real’ golf games boring, and finds Hot Shots Golf a little too silly, this could be the perfect game for you. It’s simulation of golf, but the stuff that gets in the way – namely the pretension the ‘majesty’, are happily gone in favor of pure golfing bliss. Is it the best golf game of all time? No. That honor goes to Kirby’s dream course or Lee Carvallo’s putting challenge. But it is the most refreshing game of links in quite some time. It’s intuitive and smart, and if you play it, and like a foursome with that a-hole who made you get up at 6am to get to the course early, there’s no going back to how it was.