The plan was a simple one. After a fortnight masquerading as Michael Portillo, return to this column's touchstone, virtual war, without passing Go or collecting £200. It wasn't my intention to swap driving for driving... bogies for bogeys. I never meant to lose my heart to a ramblewhack sim.
And yet here I am, thirty rapt hours into PGA TOUR 2K21, extremely reluctant to play anything else.
The infatuation isn't completely out of character. While I don't spend my spare time belting a real dimpled sphere from one swathe of buzzcut greensward to another, I am not averse to watching, via the old idiot box, others do so. I've dabbled with golf sims in the past, but this is my first experience of HB Studios' work, and the first time I can recall bonding with a golf game quite this firmly.
The blue-chip ball physics and agreeably physical swing shorthand are, I suspect, two of the main reasons why I'm hooked. In PGA TOUR 2K21 ball striking involves a fluid backwards-then-forwards mouse or thumbstick motion – three-clicking isn't an option. The system is similar but not identical to the one that EA Sports used in their last few golf-em-ups. In the newcomer the tempo, transition point, and the straightness of the gesture determines the power and accuracy of the stroke. A hurried downswing generally produces a hook, a ponderous one, a slice. To this vicarious golfist the mechanic feels very natural, very fair.
Mix in nicely implemented putting, fancy shot types (fades, draws, flops etc), variable wind and ground conditions, different lies, and the sim's profusion of courses, play modes and difficulty customisation options, and the result is a game capable of generating an almost infinite variety of manual challenges and tactical dilemmas. A game adept at converting leisure into pleasure, and - every now and again - making you feel like God's gift to golf.
I hit my first hole in one yesterday (admittedly on the decidedly short #13 at Ironfall) and the buzz was incredible - better than any I've experienced in a flight, sub, or angry house sim lately. Of course there was luck involved, but knowing that I'd picked the perfect aim point in view of the wind conditions and green contours, and executed a textbook swing, meant I was able to take pride in the achievement.
Of the numerous optional crutches available to new players perhaps the sturdiest after the almost indispensable Distance Control Meter (the GUI line, atop "35%" in the above pic, that indicates when to switch from upswing to downswing) and the Swing Difficulty setting (the determinant of how tidy and well-timed your mouse gesture must be in order to hit the ball straight) is “unlimited putting previews”. With this active, you effectively get to trial-run each putt prior to executing it.
A white line traces the route the ball is likely to take if struck smoothly. Missing the cup? Adjust power and direction to, hopefully, correct the error. The moment you start rationing putting previews or remove them altogether, the flocks of birdies vanish into the undergrowth (sometimes literally) and the short game becomes much more interesting. With all play aids deactivated, 2K21 is one of the most demanding, uncompromising sims you could ever wish to meet.
The fact that difficulty settings can be altered at any time means you should never find yourself locked into a tour that is either preposterously easy or spirit-crushingly hard. After winning my first two PGA events at a canter, I notched up Swing Difficulty to 'Pro Am' and halved my ration of putt previews to nine per round and, next time out, had to scramble to finish in the top 5.
The narrow win I secured in my most recent event suggests it may be time I tweaked things again. Finding that difficulty sweet spot may take a few days but once you've found it, you're guaranteed sweaty moments.
As I like my fairways wild, windy and furze-hemmed and the PGA Tour is dominated by lush, well-manicured US venues, I've spent as much time playing splendid user-made recreations of famous European links like Royal Lytham St Annes, St Andrews, and Royal Portrush as tramping the fifteen licenced courses. The choice and calibre of alternative topography available through the fully integrated browser/downloader is impressive.
Standalone "local matches" can be played solitaire or in the company of Steam chums, hotseaters, or 'ghosts' - player recordings selected from the 2K21 database. The latter is a lovely option if you fancy a little competition but don't want to spend half an hour swapping small-talk with a stranger.
Ringing the changes on a familiar/favourite course is a doddle. With a few clicks you can exchange stroke play for a different format (Stableford, match play, skins, four ball, alternate shot or scramble), choose new tee and pin positions, introduce handicapped scoring, and radically alter environmental conditions.
There are myriad opportunities for superficial titivation too. In-game activity generates XP and every few rounds your self-sculpted character automatically levels up, earning currency and unlocking new purchasable threads and equipment in the process. Want to make Ian Poulter look dowdy? Fancy roaming the fairways in an outfit Mr Toad would approve of? Believe that dressing from head to foot in puce on the final day of an event will boost your chances? 2K21 is the ramblewhack sim for you.
PGA Tour mode is populated by Tussaudian replicas of twelve big name male players (other stars appear on leaderboards but not in the optional action replays that punctuate rounds). Fashioning female club wielders is possible but sadly your creations will never find themselves sharing greens with the likes of Inbee Park, Nelly Korda, and Ko Jin-young.
The in-game commentary is worth a mention. Although the phrases uttered by the three or four pundits don't always perfectly fit the action there's a fund of them and all are beautifully delivered. The code that trawls the huge soundbite archive is smart enough to put files to one side once they've been used. Hearing a particular phrase twice in a round, or even twice in an event, is unusual.
Tellingly one of the most cutting things I can say about 2K21 is that I experienced dendrological disappointment on a few of its courses. Pine-straw producers with horribly angular/pointy branches... autumnal fairway shadowers that look like oversized plastic aquarium decorations... HB Studios need to take a virtual chainsaw to a few of their older (?) tree models.
I make this the eighteenth paragraph. An appropriate place to end this wot-I-think-in-all-but-name? I think so. If the £50 PGA TOUR 2K21 was less compelling - less credible - and had an EA Sports rival breathing down its neck, a few playoff paragraphs might be necessary.
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