The Golf Club Review – PC/Steam

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It’s been ages since we’ve had a quality PC golf game.   The last time I can even remember playing golf on my PC was the 1997 release of British Open Championship Golf by Looking Glass Technologies, and a turn-of-the-century rerelease of Links.  Once consoles began to dominate the video game market the PC was all but forgotten when it came to golf.   Microsoft ported Links to the Xbox and never looked back, but even they would fall under the monopolistic reign of EA’s PGA franchise; especially once they pinned Tiger Wood’s name to the box.

HB Studio’s “early access” release of The Golf Club is perhaps one of the most strategic moves in recent video game history.  This is the first year EA has not released a Tiger Woods PGA Tour game since 1999; not that they were ever PC-friendly.   Their business model has always been to push out incrementally tweaked new versions every year and then double their money by having gamers repurchase their entire course library…year after year after year.

The Golf Club takes a new approach to virtual golf sims by returning the focus to quality gameplay that is all about draining the ball in the cup rather than draining you wallet.  To that end the game ships with an intuitive course editor that lets you create your own courses from scratch or even modify existing ones.  You can then share your creations as well as enjoy other people’s custom courses by accessing the growing library of user-generated content.    And if you don’t feel like learning the subtle nuances of the course editor, you can always generate a completely random course with just four clicks of a button.

The Golf Club already comes with several courses, so it could be a while before you have to go diving into the editor or the course library for additional holes to play.  The game itself is built around a very familiar foundation of what has become the industry standard for golf games, but then takes it several steps into the future.  The game features full controller support and works well with the Xbox 360 gamepad.  It even uses familiar button presses from PGA Tour so when you instinctively hit Y for the target view that’s what you get.   The analog swing mechanic is smooth and responsive and is designed more about “feeling” the swing rather than working the data and hitting an arcade-style power bar.  Ultimately, I found myself playing this game exactly like I do when I play real golf – choosing a club based on distance then adjusting for lie, wind, and anything else that might affect my shot.  I have a tendency to fade my shots using a gamepad, but I was even able to adjust for that in the pre-shot setup.

Visually, The Golf Club is both mind-blowing and loaded with all the oddities you’d expect from an early access game.  Glitches aside, I am totally impressed that this game looks as good as it does, especially when you factor in that courses take mere seconds to download and are lightning fast to load.  Your render time between shots is virtually nonexistent.    The fact that you can generate a fully functional procedurally generated (random) course with four clicks in the time it takes you to get a fresh beer boggles the mind.  The character models are nicely design and perfectly animated.

The audio is still in the early stages as well, but the music is pleasing, and the ambient sound effects bring the courses to life.  My only nagging issue at this point is that the ball sounds the same no matter what type of surface it lands on and that sound is very wrong…like dropping a golf ball on a mini-golf felt surface on top of concrete.  Even though I am sure it’s placeholder I love the current commentary.  After so many years of hearing ESPN sportscasters regurgitate the same dialogue it was refreshing to hear something casual, insightful, and even pertinent to the game.

The Golf Club has local multiplayer for up to four players or you can head online for a host of multiplayer options.  Every round of golf played is saved online so you can compete with your friends, strangers, or even the top players in the world by simply downloading their ghost data.  And for those who hate to have their game delayed by having to watch computer or ghost golfers go through the motions, ghost balls are all tracked while you keep on playing.  You can even turn off the visuals if you find them annoying and just compete on the score card.  The matchmaking is a bit off at this time as I was continually part of foursomes where the other three golfers would destroy me.  And if other people are currently playing on the same course you have selected you can watch their round live.

If you have been lamenting the lack of a Tiger Woods game this year and you want to satisfy that irresistible urge to put a tiny ball in a tiny cup over and over again then look no further than The Golf Club.   I’ve only dabbled with the course editor but found it intuitive and even enjoyable to tinker with, but even if you lack the design skills of a career course architect you can still have infinite fun just creating random courses or just head online to download the works of other gifted designers.  There is no shortage of content and it’s only going to get bigger.

Even in this Early Access phase I am already enjoying The Golf Club more than the last two years of Tiger Woods games, and I expect it is only going to get better and better as we approach the final release, which is not just coming to PC but also Xbox One and PlayStation 4, making this truly the first golf game for the next generation.

UPDATED – August 24, 2014

The Golf Club has officially released and we’ve been playing the finished version.  There have been numerous improvements to the game since our Early Access look and for hardcore golf sim enthusiasts you won’t find a better PC golf game out there.  Almost as much fun as playing the game is the ability to easily create your own infinite library of courses or sample the creations of The Golf Club community who have already published over 1,600 courses.  It might lack all the glitz and glamor of EA’s PGA franchise, but there is a very competent and extremely challenging golf game waiting for serious golfers.

You can check out our live gameplay from the finished version as we play 18 holes then check out the creation tool and even play a few holes from one of the top-rated user-published courses available.

Screenshot Gallery