Golf games haven’t grown up in the last 25 years. No matter how you look at it, the same systems that we used to control the likes of World Class Leaderboard on the 8-bit machines in the 80s are the same ones that we use today to control the latest EA Sports licence-fest. Everything has changed around the core systems of the games but because the systems themselves haven’t changed, the way we have to approach the games hasn’t changed. Sure, we’ve seen attempts at using analogue sticks to swing and we’ve now got the ability to change the positioning of your player’s feet, but when all is said and done, golf games have been limited by the over-provision of information.
Your standard golf game now tells the player whether a shot will fall short or fly long. It tells the player if the ball will end up in the cup, or miss by an inch. All the player essentially has to do is fiddle with some lines until they’re pointing at the flagstick, and then have dexterity enough to pull and push the stick straight or reactions enough to press a button two or three times at the right points. Sometimes the game makes an effort to disguise things a little so you have to use some common sense, but whether you’re playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour on the hardest difficulty or Hot Shots Golf on the easiest, the game remains the same. What stops a new player from winning the virtual PGA Tour his or her first time out are limitations on the power of your virtual player’s drive or how well they can spin the ball, both of which are slowly removed as you win championships. You aren’t actually getting much better at the game, even though you’ve gone from missing the cut to winning the cup – what’s happening is that your virtual golfer is getting better at virtual golf.
This is where The Golf Club steps up to the tee.
Our first round on one of The Golf Club’s more moderate courses ended with a score of 43 over par, because we approached it as we would a standard golf game. But, The Golf Club is genuinely a game that breaks the mould of its genre and does things differently. Take the way you line up a shot, for example. In other golf games, you move a crosshair that indicates where the ball will land, adjusting power and the amount of hook or slice you need to place on the ball until the crosshair is where you want it. In The Golf Club, you can only change your aim when you’re viewing the main “behind-the-golfer” camera. There’s no crosshair because in real life – strangely enough - there’s no crosshair. You aim in the same way as you’d have to if you were stood on the course. There is a “scout camera” that shows the general area that the ball will aim toward, but hardcore players can even disable that!
In fact, the only information you have to hand as you address the ball, is the estimated carry distance (not the total distance) that your club will usually be able to propel the ball, the wind speed and direction, and how far you are from the flagstick. You can also “shape” your shot, applying draw and fade, and making it fly higher or lower and subsequently spinning forward or back, but you can’t just move a cursor to apply spin. You have to judge power as you would in real life (sort of) as well, as there are no power gauges anywhere. The developers of The Golf Club realise that in real life, it is next to impossible to hit a perfect 90% power shot every time you want to – and have emulated that fact here. Swings are controlled with the right stick, and at times you’ll need to work out if you want to take a pop at hitting an 80% power shot, or whether it’s better to club up and hit a 50% shot, or club down and crank it to the max. Sometimes, it’ll be easier to play safe and not go right for the jugular, meaning that tactics are as much a part of this game as they are in the sport. You have to make real decisions. On top of that, players who truly learn the “feel” of moving the stick back just enough to hit the ball exactly as hard as they want to will have an advantage – just like players who can control their swing power on the course would have.
Once you hit the green, you get a grid that shows you the green’s breaks and fades, and you’re told how much of an elevation change there is between the ball and the hole, but your putter – as in real life – can hit a single maximum distance and again, there’s no power bar. You can putt up to about 150ft, so you need to be careful not to overdo it when you’re trying to sink that six-footer. Talking of putting, this is the first game that makes putting FEEL like putting. You feel like you’re softly pushing the ball toward the desired target, rather than smacking it at a clown’s mouth on a crazy golf course and hoping it follows the line you were told it would.
By taking out just a handful of the more game-like features of the golf game experience, the developers of The Golf Club have come closer to simulating the sport of golf accurately than anyone else ever has. Your virtual golfer doesn’t have stats or limitations, other than a maximum distance on each club, which never changes. You can’t suddenly blast the ball an extra 20 yards off the tee because you won a tournament or paid for a booster pack. If you want to get better scores, you’re going to have to actually play genuinely better and more intelligent golf. And playing golf is what you’re doing, given that without a mass of indicators everywhere, you’re going to have to actually plan shots in advance and hope that Lady Luck smiles upon you at times when you need a fortunate bounce to avoid the rough. It sounds as if you don’t have control of anything, but the fact is that you have control of EVERYTHING. If you aim for the left of the green in one of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour titles, you know to within a tiny margin of error that as long as you hit the indicators on the swing meter, the ball will land there. If you aim for the left of the green in The Golf Club, you need to have skill at judging your aim, judging the required power, judging the effect of the wind, judging the required draw, fade, and loft, and then getting a straight and true strike on the ball. At times, you’ll even need to look at the overhead view of the hole and employ a little math to work out whether your club of choice is going to cause you to hit an obstacle – just like you’d do in real life.
And it’s rewarding. Oh wow, is it rewarding. When you look at your daily stats and see how you’ve gone from scoring an average of 6.6 to an average of 6.2 on par 5s, it’s rewarding. When you come in 14 over par as opposed to your previous best of 18 over par, it’s rewarding. You’ll be punching the air triumphantly the first few times you perfectly plan the line of something as trifling as a six foot putt with a minor break to the right, using the slope to get your distance as opposed to raw propulsion, and finding that the ball drops in the middle of the cup. And the middle of the cup is where you’ll have to put it, given that the hole isn’t four times as wide as the ball and isn’t generous if you hit the edges, as it would be in other games.
All manner of your skills will improve as you play on. This is the golf game that people have been waiting 25 years for when it comes to the actual mechanics of the game. Nothing has come closer to making you think the way you have to when you’re playing real golf.
But despite this admirable approach and the lofty praise, there are problems that prevent The Golf Club from being a must-buy. The most obvious of these is the graphical performance. Everything looks relatively good - with shadows and lighting being a particular high point – but the framerate can be atrocious. Before every single shot, the camera swings round from far away to be positioned behind your player – which negates the development team’s work in eliminating between-hole loading times - and it seems to be missing every other frame during the worst occurrences. When you putt and the ball jumps and jerks wildly across the surface because the engine is having trouble rendering everything, that’s a huge issue. Admittedly, this is worse on certain courses and course types, but there are at least small frame rate drops during every single round. There are also – unbelievably in this day and age – popup issues on courses featuring lots of trees. What’s even more surprising is that this is the case even though the game doesn’t feature crowds, stands, or the general course-side additions that you’d usually find.
The entire front-end of the game seems to have similar issues. Often, you’ll hear the “select” sound play in a really juddering manner when selecting something, and the game seems to be struggling to keep up with your inputs. Fortunately, this doesn’t extend to the excellent Greg Norman Course Designer that is as in-depth or as hands-off as you wish it to be. You can spend seconds creating a course from a set of simple options, or tweak every little thing about every hole on your course, to the point that you could feasibly recreate any golf course in the world, within reason. Once created, you can publish the course so that others can play it. Essentially, this means that The Golf Club is home to an infinite number of courses.
What many people will put down as another bad thing, is the lack of a defined single-player career. The fact is though that the improvements in skill that are required in order for you to be any good at the game cause the entire game to be your career mode. Whether you’re playing an online tour or tournament, dashing off a quick single round, or playing local multiplayer, you’re always improving and learning more about how to play or lower your score.
The Golf Club is going to be a game that splits opinions. Some will relish the challenge and appreciate the approach that the game has taken to simulating golf. Others will get about 4 holes in and be close to lobbing the controller out of the window in despair, probably writing it off there and then as a bad lot. It really will depend on the type of player you are as to how much you get from the game.
To assign a score to The Golf Club is tough. On one hand, you have a practically unlimited sandbox in which to enjoy the development team’s genuinely revolutionary approach to a sport that has been simulated the same way a thousand times over. On the other, you have a game that has some quite disturbing graphical issues and that is in dire need of a stability patch. The fact that we can say that true fans of golf who are looking for a new challenge might well have found their new home in spite of those technical issues, is a testament to how brave and revolutionary the game really is.