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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Golf Club

By on 6:20 PM

Nice try." As a dedicated hacker too stubborn to pack the clubs away once and for all, I hear this a fair bit out on the golf course. Now I'm going to use it myself for a change, this time to describe The Golf Club, an inspired new golf simulation borne out of clear affection for the grand old game that we all alternatively thank and curse the Scots for inventing. But as much as the developers at HB Studios have their hearts in the right place and their heads wrapped around the ins and outs that make golf an addictive pastime, they falter in key areas like control sensitivity, modes of play, and system optimization. The final product is a lot like one of my approach shots, which always look fantastic right up to the point where the ball somehow winds up buried in a sand trap.
The Golf Club is a pure simulation, all about recreating the game itself. This is golf, golf, and golf, in that order., so anyone coming to this game from the Tiger Woods series will be shocked at the absence of frills. There is no PGA support, there are no pro golfers, and there aren't any gimmicks like being able to golf with toddler Tiger Woods or shooting targets on a driving range. You take on rounds in stroke play, match play, or four ball. Matches can be played solo, against other live players, or against ghosts, which allows you to see the past shots of other players (and yourself in previous rounds) and compete against their scores without the delays of waiting for these rivals to hit their balls. Tournaments are also available, as are player-created tours linking multiple tournies and courses.
I appreciate the old-fashioned approach here, as it reminds me of a simpler time when golf games were just about getting out on the links to drive for show and putt for dough. But the lack of options eventually becomes a problem. There is no way to develop your golfer, for instance, through playing linked tournies or a pro tour. So forget about climbing the pro rankings, or earning cash and experience points that help with longer drives, more accurate putts, and so forth. Everything here is centered on building your personal ability with the game, which is only quantifiable on the scorecard, not on a character screen loaded with skill points. This cuts out the artificial glitz that sometimes gets in the way in sports games, but the realism comes at a cost, as the game isn't as engaging as it would have been had it offered up a role-playing career option.
That same design philosophy is also present in the swing mechanics. The Golf Club offers only one way to play. You swing by mimicking a real stroke using either a mouse or a gamepad. With a mouse, you move back for the backswing and then push forward to swing through the ball. With a gamepad, you pull the right stick back and then shove it forward. There are no other options, such as the usual two- or three-click swing. The game doesn't feature a power meter or even any sort of graphic on the screen to let you know if you're swinging straight and true or if you're wobbly enough to get you up close and personal with some poison ivy. A pop-up appears right after you make contact to tell you how you made out in terms of your approach to the ball and the power of your swing, but it's too late to be of any assistance other than giving you some tips on how to do better next time.
Limiting players to these rigorous swing mechanics is a great idea in theory. And it would be a great idea in reality, as well, if it had been pulled off properly. Unfortunately, swinging is the most irritating part of the game, due to the lack of precision when moving your club. The mouse controls are particularly clumsy, with a slight hesitation every time you pull back to take a shot. As a result, you never move a club in real time. I made a lot of mistakes because of this lack of fluidity, particularly when putting, as I would frequently either put way too much on a ball and sail well past the cup, or get scared and wind up barely tapping the thing. Gamepad controls are better, with the club moving with the right stick almost in real time. Still, having to go to a gamepad for a PC golf game seems sacrilegious, and using the gamepad comes with an accuracy cost, as it's harder to swing straight with the little analog stick than by rolling the mouse back and forth.
Thankfully, control issues are not a constant irritation. Games would be more rewarding if you were able to wield a club in real time with your mouse, or adjust your power easily through more precise control. But you're usually able to get where you need to be by going up or down clubs or by cutting down on distance when needed by modifying shots to hit high lofters. The latter is particularly effective with approach shots under 100 yards from the pin. I shoot super high in real life on approaches with anything shorter than a seven-iron anyhow, so this actually makes the game seem somewhat more authentic to me.
In spite of its drawbacks, I still found the detailed and challenging nature of the swing simulation to be satisfying when using the mouse. The game cut me no breaks. I'd get a little offline with my swing and it would always show up as a slice or a hook of varying severity depending on how bad I was. Ball lie dramatically affected shots, and I always had to compensate for odd lies in the rough. I found that I really had to study courses to have a shot at besting them, or at least have a chance at making it back to the clubhouse without throwing my mouse against the wall. Every time I went on automatic and fired away with the suggested clubs and shot direction, I would inevitably wind up in big trouble, often consisting of H2O, which is quite plentiful on many courses.
Courses are also one of The Golf Club's biggest strengths. Thanks to the game's superb Course Designer, there are dozens and dozens of top courses available, and many of the homebrewed links are better than the eight official ones that ship with the game. I played a number of top ones, including a spectacularly tough take on Egypt and a deep woods course named after the Yeti. Expect the number of courses to explode after the game's official release, when even more players try their luck at design. The course design program is extremely easy to use, too. You can whip up a generic course based on rural, alpine, desert, and autumn themes, in just a few clicks. There is an option to delve deeper, as well, allowing for detailed customization of greens, hazards, rough, and so forth.
Another big plus is the in-game commentary. To go along with the general keep-it-simple philosophy that underpins the entire game, all of the play-by-play and color commentary is provided by a single guy who mostly chats with you like a buddy or caddy. Every line is informal, chatty, and encouraging. In an age where sports games typically beat you down with incessant broadcast booth inanities, it's refreshing to just smack around a golf ball with a guy that you wouldn't mind having a beer with back in the clubhouse.
The review build that I played--and was certified as reviewable by the developer--suffers from a string of technical problems that may or may not be fixed prior to launch. Improvements apparently are on the way, but The Golf Club is a serious system hog at present, stuttering even when you lower the settings to make the game more manageable. To add insult to injury, the game isn't so good looking that the performance issues seem reasonable. Golfer models are a little blurry, the generic background scenery lacks the picture-postcard vistas seen in other golf games, there are no frills like crowds along the fairways, and the camera occasionally winds up directly behind a tree or in some weeds. You get hot-air balloons floating on some courses by as a tribute to Links, but overall, the game looks dated. Nevertheless, I expect the visual impact of the game to improve as users begin crafting more courses with the editor: some player-designed courses look more impressive than the official ones.
The Golf Club falls short of the green in its current state. There is a tremendous amount of potential here, and the game is immensely satisfying at times due to the demanding nature of the simulation and the wide variety of courses available to play. Off-kilter swing mechanics and noteworthy performance problems have to be addressed, but this is a game to watch. Many key fundamentals are already in place, and The Golf Club's creative community is likely to keep the game alive for years to come.


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