The Golf Club (Video Game Review)


Golfing game fans won’t be caring much about the lack of a new Tiger Woods title this year, at least not if developer HB Games have anything to say about it. Filling the void left by EA Sports skipping their annual PGA Tour release for 2014, The Golf Club – making the leap from PC Early Access joint to Xbox One/PS4 downloadable game – offers up the first “real” golf sim for next gen consoles (Sure, Xbox One owners got Powershot Golf as a launch title, but the cartoony, arcade-style approach was quite far from the realism you might want.) It one-ups Tiger Woods in some big ways even if it feels slightly unfinished, as ambition and sheer content just about manages to trump disappointing presentation.

Sadly, The Golf Club doesn’t exactly make the most of the performance power under the hood of the Xbox One and the slightly disappointing lack of visual finesse becomes almost immediately apparent. As the preview camera swoops around to give you a look at the chosen course before you tee off, tree shadows and textures awkwardly and slowly start to fade in, casting an unfortunate light on the game’s unpolished edges. Along with the texture pop-in, there’s a noticeable lack of physics animation, too – no grass chips up as you fudge a shot and if you accidentally knock your ball into a bunker, the ball instantly and awkwardly clomps down almost magnetically without kicking up a single grain of sand. A V-Sync option in the menus definitely helps smooth out the performance a bit, and generally it’s a nice enough looking game, it’s just unfortunate that – visually, at least – the first real next-gen golf game still has one foot planted firmly in the past.

Where The Golf Club does push the boundaries of what console golfers have come to expect, though, is with its Greg Norman-branded course designer tool (don’t worry if you had to Google the name, I know I sure did.) It comes with a couple of big ways to build your own custom course to share with others. By default, the designer gives you the option to procedurally generate a playable landscape quickly and easily, cranking a tonne of variables up or down (from amount of holes and the background landscape style you want, to the number of hills, trees and lakes dotted around) and then letting it magic up a course for you to play through, fine tuning it to your liking after if you see fit.
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There’s the potential to built a limitless amount of unique courses with minimum effort just there, but the real fun is in taking the reins and building your course from the ground up. You can shape the terrain, change the length and size of the fairway and green, build course features or shove bunkers, buildings, trees and wildlife wherever you want. The bare tools and options are incredibly versatile and whether you want to recreate your favourite real-life course, throw together a crazy, oversized miniature golf-style layout or cook up a nightmarish, unfinishable hellscape of endless bunkers and alligators for folks online to slog through, you can do it all quickly and pretty easily.

The natural downside is that the game’s jump from PC to console makes the course editing menus a little less intuitive and comfortable than you might like. It takes a bit too much digging to do rather obvious things (like erasing items) while the designer doesn’t often cut out obvious, unnecessary inbetween actions (when trying to place a preset-shaped putting green on a lake, for example, the editor won’t think ‘there needs to be land under this, I’ll add it and save the player a step’, it simply makes the ‘I placed the object!’ sound without actually doing anything, leaving you to start altering terrain to put the green where it needs to be.) It’s a little disappointing that the heavy focus on creative customization doesn’t extend to your player avatar, too, with only a handful of choices for character and wardrobe. Those caveats aside, the course designer is a fantastic addition and one that opens up a level of replayability that you’ll likely never get from a Tiger Woods game.

All that course creating and tinkering wouldn’t mean a whole lot if the gameplay underneath it all wasn’t up to scratch and, while it certainly has a learning curve to overcome, the mechanics at the heart of The Golf Club offer a rewarding approximation of the sport itself. It forgoes the more immediately accessible ‘push buttons at the right time on the meter to dial in the power and accuracy of your swing’ control scheme that’s become the norm for golf games in favour of something similar to that of the Skate franchise; cranking the right analogue stick back pulls the club back and pushing it forward swings at the ball. It’s simple in theory, but even the slightest fraction of movement left or right when swinging can make your ball sail off at awkward angles. That can be frustrating at first, but – as with the real-life game – practice pays off in hugely satisfying ways as you get to grips with the controls, start adjusting for the curve of the swing and begin shaving points off your handicap.
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Disappointingly, there’s no traditional career mode to play through to reward that learning curse with some added trajectory and purpose, but the sheer amount of user-created content means you’ll still have tonnes to keep you entertained. You can pick from a wealth of user and developer-created courses, play tournaments and long or short games, while the well-integrated social aspect means that other players’ performance is constantly being added to “ghost” leaderboards so you can compete against them and easily see their scores and shots alongside yours.

It’s a shame that the game’s visuals and performance betray its Early Access PC game roots and cast an ungainly shadow on its impressive, rewarding core. The Golf Club sometimes feels a little unfinished and unpolished, but if you can look past the slightly plain, occasionally clunky exterior, you’ll find a solid, satisfying golf game in The Golf Club, with an endlessly enjoyable and versatile course designer tool that makes it a must for console golf game fans.

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The Golf Club is out now as a downloadable title for Xbox One, PS4 and PC.