The Golf Club Steam Early Access Impressions

TheGolfClub_001.jpg

A Tiger Woods-sized void has opened up in the video game golf market with EA Sports deciding to part ways with the declining superstar athlete late last year. EA will continue to make licensed PGA Tour games, but without Tiger’s name and playable presence it’s hard to believe the franchise will be able to maintain the incredible success it achieved over the past 15 years. Just look at the way TV ratings rise and fall based on whether or not Tiger Woods is playing in a tournament.

In the meantime, there is a clear opportunity for a developer to swoop in and potentially seize control of the genre with a brand new golfing sim. The Golf Club from HB Studios may just be that game. The Golf Club, which is set to tee off sometime this year on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, is available in Early Access on Steam right now, and even without a number of key features in its bag the game is already pretty damn great.

At this very moment, The Golf Club offers Stroke Play, Match Play and Four Ball game types, minimal avatar customization (there are a few different player models as well as apparel options for changing hats, shirts, pants, gloves and shoes), five official courses made by the developers, a robust course creation toolset, and the necessary online infrastructure for user-created content sharing and asynchronous online competition. The current Early Access build is somewhat barebones as far as not yet having a tour/career mode, tournaments, stat tracking, video replays and so on, but the existing content is more than enough to deserve your attention.

TheGolfClub_002.jpg

What’s most important is that the game plays phenomenally well. Using a controller, the swing system works by pulling back on the right analog stick to set power with the backswing, and then flicking the stick forward to follow through and set the shot accuracy. Or, using the mouse and keyboard scheme, holding down a left-click while sliding the mouse backward, and then forward to complete both acts of the swing. Swinging a club is similar to what you may be used to from a recent Tiger Woods game, but The Golf Club cuts out a lot of the unrealistic fluff to focus the game on being a pure simulation experience. That means no more mid-air ball spin control to magically correct poor shots. Instead, like real golf, shooting down pins and striping drives down the fairway demands careful pre-shot planning to adjust aim to account for wind direction, up- or down-club based on lie and the elevation of the landing area, add sidespin for draws and fades, and make loft adjustments for more precise distance control. The controls are intuitive — and the HUD is clean — but it takes a lot of practice and patience to grasp the realistic nuances of shaping shots and controlling distance. Once everything clicks, the sense of accomplishment that swells up inside after pulling off a great shot is unlike anything I’ve felt in a golf game before.

Putting is by far the hardest part of the game to get comfortable with. For one thing, green speeds vary so drastically that from course to course it is difficult to get into a groove of how hard you need to be hitting the ball. On slow greens you can crush a putt and somehow it will come up short, while on fast greens striking a putt maybe a foot too hard might result in the ball damn near rolling off the green on the other side. For the most part things work just fine, but sometimes the math just doesn’t seem to add up. For example if I have a 30 foot putt and the HUD tells me that at 100% power my putter will hit the ball 145 feet, if I hit the ball at 50% power (which should equate to a distance of 72.5 feet) how does it still come up 13 feet short? To me the root of the problem is how putter distance is set at a fixed level. Being able to make pre-shot distance adjustments for putts like you can for regular shots would help with this a lot. Like if I have a putt of around 15 feet, it would be helpful to be able to switch to a putter scale that maybe has a maximum distance of 50 feet. That would make distance control a little easier to gauge without removing the feel and finesse of stroking a clean putt.

One of the best things about The Golf Club is how seamless the game plays. Holes flow together without a hitch thanks to a complete lack of loading times. At the end of hole a scorecard will appear to display your progress, but after clicking a button the card disappears and the next hole begins, no interruptions whatsoever. This lack of downtime means it is easy to finish an 18-hole round in roughly half an hour, even if you’re hitting balls all over the lot. The pace of play is just so brisk and smooth. I wouldn’t mind having an optional fast-forward button during ball flight to speed things up even more, but it’s really not something that the game needs.

TheGolfClub_003.jpg

This seamless gameplay flow also carries over into online multiplayer, which HB Studios has implemented in a remarkably clever way. Rather than seeing each player’s golfer model and having to watch every player hit their shot one at a time, the game asynchronously shows the shots of rival players in real-time as you are playing your shots. This might seem like something that could become a distraction — and there is an option to turn the feature off if it ever does — but, for me at least, it doesn’t. All that you see are the ghosts of the other players’ balls, so it feels like you are competing against other people only without having to take turns. Supposedly the game is constantly recording your performance on a course to use as a rival ghost for other players, in addition to friends list integration which allows for live competition.

Another helpful design element is the game’s persistent auto-save. Progress is saved after every shot, so even if you have to quit suddenly the next time you return you will be right back exactly where you left off. Better yet, the game bookmarks progress on a course by course basis, which means if you start one course and then go off to try another, when you come back to the previous course you can choose to tee off from the first hole or resume from your previous session. All of this is done in the background without ever requiring a manual save. This is smart game design, folks.

Last but not least, is the course editor. With so many games to play and a general lack of creativity, I’m not one to dedicate a lot of time and effort to game editors. It’s just not my cup of tea. Thankfully, The Golf Club‘s toolset offers the perfect balance for all types of gamers. Procedurally generating a new course is as effortless as choosing a landscape theme (Rural, Alpine and Autumn are the current options with Desert and Links themes still to come), toggling radial wheels to set the quantity of trees, water hazards and hills, setting the layout difficulty and number of holes, and finally giving the course a name. Within a matter of minutes you have randomly created a brand new course to play on! Should you want to dig deeper into the creation process, from this randomized starting point you can manually landscape each individual hole pretty much down to the last blade of grass. This system is the best of both worlds. The modding and user-creation community can build custom courses to share with everyone, while players without the game design acumen to create masterpiece golf courses on their own can enjoy the work of others or randomly generate new maps with a few button/mouse clicks. The course possibilities are seemingly endless, and so far the community is putting together a lot of fun courses.

At $35, The Golf Club is one of the pricier games in the Steam Early Access catalog. From what I’ve played so far, I’d say it’s totally worth it for any golf game fan. Obviously the game is incomplete and as such still needs to be polished, tuned and filled out with all of its features, but the core mechanics work great, the Unity engine graphics are crisp and nicely detailed, and the course editor alone provides limitless replay value.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!