PGA Tour 2K21 Review: Gameplay Videos, Features, Impressions and Esports Appeal

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2020

Justin Thomas watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at TPC Harding Park Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

There's a massive hole in the video game market for a marquee golf franchise, and the rebranded PGA Tour 2K21 hopes to fill it by smartly walking the line between simulation and accessibility.  

It's only fitting that one of the game's biggest features is its career mode, which tasks players with starting off as an unknown. This year's game from developer HB Studios, published by 2K Sports, was previously known as The Golf Club and has undergone an overhaul in a few areas. 

Chief among those are better integration of the pro license, some familiar-feeling 2Kisms from other sports titles and a push to appeal to a broader audience. 

Built upon an already-strong foundation of fundamentals, 2K21's promise suggests the real beginnings of an unstoppable sporting-game force. 



Past iterations of this emerging golf heavyweight didn't have many flaws in the gameplay department. Controls were smooth, physics handled mostly well and the learning curve was rewarding for those who stuck with it. But that last point potentially caused some issues, as a simulation-based sports game that veers too far to that side is good for hardcore players but not necessarily great for wider audiences.  

Accessibility is understandably a massive theme of 2K21 and for good reason. Prior entries in the upward-swinging series went all-in on that "simulation" category and might have turned away some more casual pick-up-and-play players. 

Not here. That much is clear with the inclusion of at least three different difficulty modes. There are also racing game-esque assists players can toggle, including things like partial swings. And within those tiers of difficulty, players can flick through detailed options and tune them to their liking. It's a robust system players have come to expect from sports games, which is more of a compliment than anything else. 

But the accessibility pursuit isn't limited to menu items. Gameplay has been tweaked, too, with backswing tempo notably gone from the equation, meaning less for players to focus on for each swing. It doesn't feel like a great loss, either. 

Leaving the "casual" bracket doesn't seem to take long given all the help involved. There's even an error analyzer, which points out issues to focus on, furthering improvement. Past games could feel overwhelming upon first playing. That feeling has been reduced in a significant manner, and the lengths the game goes to help along the player are sure to help even the most causal among the playerbase. 

There's also a great training system that helps familiarize one with the controls right away. The voiceovers can drone, but the effect is important either way—a proper player onboarding process like this makes for a more enjoyable experience. 

As a whole, gameplay remains a joy, as masterfully cracking off a tee shot or sinking a long, angled putt feels great. Simply timing hits feels like a fun minigame in most instances, where skill and timing within those minigames separates players. There's enough complexity, though, that micro-adjustments don't rob this experience of its strict simulation feel. 

The Yardage Book is a superb development for the series, too. While the idea isn't revolutionary, per se, an aerial view of the course loaded with information is a nice tool to give players. The game certainly doesn't shy away from overloading the player with information (in a good way). 

Interestingly, the game has also seemingly found an answer for mid-tournament exhaustion. It presents players with certain challenges at each hole, which keeps things engaging. 

Call it all natural. There wasn't really any other way for the next game in the younger series to go gameplay-wise. Physics seem improved, and it's a smooth experience, but pushing things in a more accessible manner was the obvious route, and it's done well. 


Graphics and Presentation

Prior entries in the series didn't have many issues in the presentation department—maybe the biggest issue was the sheer lack of actual real-life courses, which were oddly counterweighted with a ton of fictional locales. 

But 2K21 takes predictable strides in this area with real-life courses such as TPC Sawgrass. The adaptions feature droves of detail thanks to course scans. Players who have attended events will notice the little things accurate to the actual courses. 

Paired with presentation, the courses really come to life, too. The broad-sweeping camera angles make a point to highlight the little things in what was clearly a love-letter to the sport. 

The whole package does a really good job on the immersion front. Crowds look better this year, and while they aren't amazing-looking, they smartly react to on-course happenings. Golfer models look realistic and mostly move like it, too. Like the last game, 2K21 lets the golfers say a lot while saying little through smaller mannerisms and body language.

Wrapping up a good broadcast feel to the proceedings is the commentary duo of Luke Elvy and Rich Beem. There are some repetitive lines that pop up over significant play time, but the overall effect is a good one. The team smartly points out details about the course and player performance. 

On a smaller side note, there are some nice HUD options permitting the removal of information and feedback from the screen, helping to give off a more realistic, broadcast-style feel. And it's nice to be mid-tournament and see the camera and announcers jump to key moments for other competitors, just like real broadcasts. 

Looping back to the accessibility front, the presentation helps massively in this area. There is a ton of feedback on the screen at all times (should players want it there), including shot analysis. Ditto for when lining up shots, including elevation numbers and more. Most of it is customizable in terms of showing up or not, but making the transition from relying on the information to hiding some of it from the HUD feels and plays great. 


Esports and More

Another game in a series backed by 2K is bound to make some big tests in the esports scene. 

There was some testing of the waters with the last game, and this year's release won't be any different. In fact, it's probably better positioned than prior iterations to make big waves and get a steady competitive scene going. 

For one, the online suite is robust. Two, the broader march toward greater accessibility could mean a much bigger playerbase and player retention. That lends itself to bigger competitive numbers online. Add in the heavyweights of a PGA license and 2K itself—which isn't a stranger to esports—and there is plenty of appeal here. 

On a more individual level, the new PGA Tour career mode starts humbly enough at Korn Ferry Tour. It works through the expected paces, with players creating a golfer and having the ability to earn sponsorships, which lead to gear unlocks. There are roughly 30 events to work through, and players can establish rivalries with actual pros. 

Those rivalries feel like the meat of the experience, and eventually overtaking the rival of the moment gives a feeling of accomplishment. 

Perhaps the only drawback is the game includes just 12 top pros. They aren't playable, but 2K21 tries to massage that fact by giving each big-time rival exclusive, rare unlockables which you earn by besting them. The rivalry system uses a points comparison to determine when the player "defeats" the pro. 

The process of actually creating a player to get all of this going feels like home for those who have played other 2K Sports games. The MyPLAYER experience isn't as robust as what players have come to expect from the NBA2K series just yet, but players can fully outfit their golfer in a strong customization system, pick out sets of clubs and work through a dizzying amount of attire. It's quite handy to throw five outfits as selectable presets, too. 

As it should be, the player's created character can golf across all modes, including multiplayer, which is where the unlockables come into play to help players show off their in-game accomplishments. So far, 2K's Virtual Currency hasn't thrown out any red flags. 

It's fun in the early stages of developing a character to decide whether to be a powerhouse off the tee or a more balanced shot all over the course, sacrificing some tee-power for more finesse elsewhere. There aren't positional distinctions like other sports, but the game does a nice job of still making player choice feel impactful while representing it well on the courses. 

Speaking of courses, there's nothing simple about the simply-named Course Designer, which was also a highlight of the prior release. 

This isn't some half-baked feature so the game could feature it on the back of the box. There is a robust set of tools thrown at players. Picking a backdrop for the course quickly transitions into a staggering number of options—including being able to throw in alligators, of course. 

To top it all off, players can download user-created courses online. It seems some of the best creations from the community from the last game are included here by default, which provides just a little more incentive to dive in and make a course. The community should again be plenty robust with longevity, and its more creative elements will probably once again shock with what they can create given the tools at hand. 

And when it comes to multiplayer, both local and online are well represented here via game modes like Alt-Shot, Stroke Play, Skins and 4-Player Scramble. The grander Online Societies provides a leagues-feeling environment where players can group up and run full seasons and tournaments. 

The expected suite of online features, as mentioned, likely equates to a healthy online community, even for something that could be considered more of a niche sport. While it's important to note all of the expected modern sports games features are here in this area, it's even more important to point out they all function well and should help keep the playerbase happy for the long-term. 



PGA Tour 2K21 naturally progresses the series in a smart manner while still managing to make the on-course action feel impactful at a good tempo. 

On the course, the broadcast feel and consequential nature of a player's actions pairs nicely with a more accessible, welcoming overall experience. Veterans will feel right at home and notice some of the smaller tweaks, while an entirely new audience might stick with it longer than past games. 

Painting with a broader brush, the wider range of official PGA inclusions still feels small, albeit important. The laundry list of modes, options and longevity to be had via career and online modes suggests the title has serious staying power. 

And staying power is what it's all about. The quick rebrand and all the above makes up one of the year's sneaky-good sporting releases that can presumably become a staple of somewhat-annual releases from here while continuing on a clear upward trajectory.