In the two years since the release of “PGA Tour 2K21,” the team at HB Studios has not been idle. In that time, the Canadian developers have crammed a host of new features into their golf video game series, spanning from new shot types to new modes. At the moment, publisher 2K’s golf franchise is the gold standard golf sim on the market. Heck, Tiger Woods being emblazoned on the game’s cover should serve as an emphatic statement that this series, and not the former EA franchise that bore his name, wears the crown.
The question, however, is whether the PGA Tour 2K series can differentiate itself enough to remain atop the golf sim leaderboard when EA rejuvenates its golf franchise, “EA Sports PGA Tour,” in the coming year. With “2K23,” which releases Oct. 11, HB Studios fires the first shot, and it’s a fine one. It’s a long, serviceable drive into the center of the fairway. If this was your shot, you’d be happy with it every time — but you’d also be hard-pressed to remember one over the other. And that is “2K23’s” biggest shortcoming: It is a very good game, and does a great job capturing golf’s feel. It just doesn’t feel very distinguished. Even as the only major golf sim on the market, the game feels serviceable but not essential.
This is perhaps highlighted best by the tournament series featured in “PGA Tour 2K23”: the FedEx Cup. Golf enthusiasts will bluntly tell you no one really cares about the FedEx Cup, certainly not in the way golfers care about the Masters Tournament or the Open Championship. Those are the sport’s true majors — and you can’t play either in “PGA Tour 2K23.”
There’s no Augusta. No Pebble Beach. No St. Andrews. The courses found in “2K23” are all lovely, but TPC Boston is not particularly memorable compared to some of the sport’s most hallowed grounds. And so, while the career mode allows players to fine-tune their golfer and their equipment in extremely satisfying and granular ways, it lacks the luster of the sport’s premier events.
“PGA Tour 2K23” does add some new courses to its TPC-centered offerings, but even these seem to highlight the high-profile absences. All I can think of when I look at one of the three added courses, the South Course in Wilmington, Del., is the line from the “Wayne’s World” movie: “Hi, I’m in Delaware.” There is little that quickens the pulse about the course — or its home state, unless you’re looking to incorporate a company.
Given licensing agreements, no one will be playing Augusta or the Old Course or compete in one of golf’s four majors until EA brings back its golf line in 2023. (Its last installment was in 2015). So it’s best not to dwell on what’s missing and focus on what is on offer with “PGA Tour 2K23” — specifically, a fantastic engine that perfectly captures the feel of a golf shot. That is the defining characteristic of HB Studio’s games. But will that provide enough satisfaction when 2K once again faces real competition in the golf sim market?
It is, for certain, enjoyable in the meantime. With “PGA Tour 2K23,” players can craft a shot for nearly any situation, adjusting the loft, spin or speed. Need to carve around that dogleg to the left? Use the analog stick to shape the perfect draw. Trying to avoid a low-hanging limb? Punch it under the branches instead, a new addition this year. If players want to tune their game even more, they can utilize a skill tree to over-index on certain attributes, like shot distance, to enhance their strengths or help mitigate their weaknesses. I’ve been focusing on my short game since putting remains brutally challenging in the 2K series.
There is an array of other new features as well, including a Top Golf mode where players can virtually participate in the popular gamified driving range. Here too though, the addition actually highlights what “2K23” is lacking.
For those familiar with Top Golf, where you score points by hitting balls at different targets, the mode in “2K23” plays pretty much exactly as you’d imagine, which is to say, it’s not exactly a highlight. I can easily play Top Golf at one of their venues in real life. I won’t be walking onto the front nine at Pebble Beach anytime soon. Lacking the ability to do so virtually in an otherwise good golf game — moreover, the only PGA game on the market for the moment — is disappointing. Top Golf is not a salve for that particular itch.
Golf games have not evolved much over the years, and while “2K23” is definitely better than its predecessor, it’s not exactly by leaps and bounds. As noted when we reviewed “PGA Tour 2K21,” the game is good but does not really distinguish itself in any particular way (perhaps with the exception of its challenge on the greens). There is “more” to find in this release, but there’s not much that will drop your jaw. You can play as celebrity athletes like Michael Jordan or Steph Curry now. Neat. (Honestly, if they’re throwing in basketball players, it would be better if they added Charles Barkley and the crime against humanity that is his golf swing.) On the PGA Tour, you can earn bonuses by building a rivalry with an existing pro. Okay, sure. (Somewhat interestingly — to those following the PGA Tour’s heated battle for players with the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf — you can play with and against Bubba Watson and Harold Varner III, who both jumped over to LIV Golf.)
While “PGA Tour 2K23” delivers on the feel of a golf shot, it underwhelms when it comes to providing a feel for a major tournament or even dramatic moments. The broadcast crew is flat and often delivers inaccurate commentary. One putt was applauded by one commentator as it went sailing some 25 feet past the hole. That’s not a commendable putt, that’s a disaster. The presentation of the 2K PGA series has always paled in comparison to EA’s old offerings. “2K23” does not close that gap, even with its new bells and whistles.
At its core, “PGA Tour 2K23” remains a good, solid golf game that has benefited greatly from a lack of competition. I’m not too bothered by not being able to play St. Andrews at the moment because I simply don’t have that option unless I want to dig out “Rory McIlroy PGA Tour” on PS4. But when EA returns to the field, will the most enjoyable parts of “2K23” still hold up? Or will the appeal of those courses I badly miss pull me back to EA?