The Golf Club review (Early Access)

Early reviews offer our preliminary verdicts on in-development games. We may follow up this unscored review with a final, scored review in the future.

Golf is not the sexiest sport in the world. It's not glitzy or glamorous, and it doesn't draw the kind of crowd that the World Cup gets. It does, however, often make for an interesting videogame, especially if you're playing with a group of friends. Like the real sport, videogame golf should be technically interesting, social, and let you wear funny pants. The Golf Club accomplishes some of those necessities, and has the potential to be even better. But a couple of its design decisions might mean it's not the golf game for you.

There are two styles of control for most golf games. Either you use a power meter, clicking at various points to determine the speed of your back and front swing, or you control the swing speed and power in real time. The Golf Club uses the latter option, which means that I pull back on my gamepad's thumbstick to make my golfer raise his club, then push the thumbstick forward to finish the swing. This analog control gives you a more “emotional” experience, according to the developer. I interpret that to mean that, when you push your thumbstick to the right during your forward swing and end up slicing your shot hard, it's okay to break your controller.

The difference in shot style is not for everyone, but I find that it gives me responsibility for my shot. I have to factor in not just my aim, club selection, and wind speed, but also a certain amount of physical control. If I'm not patient—and I rarely am—I'll hit the deep stuff almost every time. Holding the left trigger lets me adjust the loft of the shot, while giving me a percentage of what i'll lose or gain in distance. It's a control scheme that should be intuitive for beginners, while requiring a decent amount of effort from pros to master.

The downside is that it doesn't translate well to mouse and keyboard controls. To swing, I click and hold the left mouse button, draw the mouse toward me to start my backswing, and then move the mouse forward past my starting point to follow through. In theory, it should give me finer control over the power of the swing. In practice, I slice every drive and overshoot every putt. There is, to my knowledge, no button to throw my club in frustration.

That isn't to say mouse and keyboard won't work for you. The Steam Community forums for The Golf Club are split between people who prefer the mouse and those who use a controller. There is zero chance that developer HB Studios will add a power meter, however.

Once you're used to the sensitivity of the swinging mechanics, playing a round is pretty effortless. Switching clubs shows you the estimated distance you'll send the ball, and you can easily switch from a normal to a punch swing, which keeps the ball closer to the ground. Once on the green, putting works much like normal shots, and gridlines will show you the various dips you'll have to navigate. Putting is hard—as it should be—but fair, and sinking a 25 foot birdie feels glorious.

One nice touch: there's no loading between holes on a course. Once in a round, my golfing experience is seamless. I've played a lot of games where I have to sit through a loading screen after each of my bogies, and it's a nice improvement. Also of note: the game's announcer, HB senior audio designer John McCarthy, may be my favorite part of the experience. Initially he sounded too folksy, but I've laughed out loud numerous times at his reactions to my shots, both good and bad. Kudos for including an announcer with a surprising amount of personality.

The Golf Club's signature feature is its course creator, which is surprisingly easy-to-use. It's that course creator that gives the game the most potential. Courses are generated based on specific criteria—difficulty, locale type, hilly or flat—and then manually adjusted and tweaked using an easy drag-and-drop interface. HB includes a number of official courses, but it's the focus on community-built content that will keep the game interesting. I'd like to see some more variety in the course design—EA's next PGA game will include exploding battleships, for fuck's sake—but there's a lot to play with here now. Courses are shared in-game, instead of using a system like Steam Workshop. Theoretically, that means courses can be shared between the PC and console versions.

My whole interest in The Golf Club comes down to playing with friends, but unfortunately it's not a great experience yet. The game supports live and turn-based play online, and the game defaults to the live experience. Me and my opponents take our swings at the same time, seeing each other's progress through shot trails, but that means everyone's clipping at their own pace and not interacting much. Toggling the turn-based mode on means you stop to watch everyone's shot, but there's a large amount of delay between a player's turn and what you see, and the two are often not in sync. HB is aware of the issue, according to posts on the game's Steam Community, but says it won't be fixed before launch because turn-based play was not originally a planned feature.

That leaves multiplayer in a strange spot for me. Live rounds feel chaotic, but turn-based rounds take much longer than they should. Neither are what I want from a round with friends, and I worry that the developer's focus on ghost play in solo rounds will trump its desire to refine the multiplayer experience.

The Golf Club is pretty close to a final release, according to posts from the developer. The game is feature complete, and HB is focusing on optimizing the PC version (while continuing work on its planned console editions). The game chugs on moderate system specs: courses look beautiful in the Unity engine, but not enough to justify the framerate dips. I averaged 50fps on a Nvidia GTX 780 Ti, and 25-30fps on an Nvidia GTX 750 Ti, both at high settings. HB has updated the build on a steady, regular basis, so I'm hopeful the performance issues will clear up.

What isn't getting better is my scores. My last tour performance was a +16, pretty far off from the top. For every 300 yard drive, I also slice off into the deep stuff. Clearly my game needs to improve. But I find myself coming back to The Golf Club every evening for another round, trying different courses and working to improve my short game. Like my putting game, HB has some work to do on its approach to final release, but I'm feeling good that it'll make it under par.

Verdict

It's rough around the edges for multiplayer, but The Golf Club is still a great golf game. There are plenty of courses to try, and HB gives you the tools to make your own. If you aren't picky about control schemes, this is your best bet for golf on the PC.

Outlook

Good. HB Studios is updating regularly, and the community's feedback is largely about niche details.

Details

Versions reviewed: Version 0.8 and 0.9

Reviewed on: Intel Core i5, 16 GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 780 Ti

Recommended: Intel Core i5, 4 GB RAM, Nvidia 660 or AMD 7850 w/ 2GB

Price: $35 / £27

Publisher: HB Studios

Developer: HB Studios

Multiplayer: Four-player local or online

Link: http://store.steampowered.com/app/269730/

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