PGA Tour 2K23 Is an Enticing Challenge, Almost Despite Itself

Games Reviews pga tour 2k23
PGA Tour 2K23 Is an Enticing Challenge, Almost Despite Itself

When it comes to golf, for more than two decades, the most notable athlete has been Tiger Woods, who is the cover athlete and executive director of PGA Tour 2K23. This is a natural extension of his legacy—he was the cover athlete for every EA Tiburon-developed, PGA Tour-branded golf videogame from 1998 to 2013. The only release without him on it, Rory McElroy PGA Tour 2015, was the last in that series. PGA Tour 2K23 is just the second golf game released with 2K branding—the third overall that HB Studios has published—and, unlike most sports games, this one isn’t an annual release. Be it due to patience and prudence or fear and insecurity, HB and 2K haven’t (yet felt the pressure to flood the market with golf videogames.

Like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K, part of PGA Tour 2K’s job is to advertise and inform the public about a sport. Unlike those three and MLB: The Show, though, it’s not representing a sport that historically markets itself as “for everyone.” There are barriers to entry to any sport—starting with natural talent, extending to local opportunities for school and club teams, and, especially in America, increasingly including money for private tutors. Golf is a sport known for exclusivity, a sport associated with business meetings between captains of industry or middle-class people on vacation.

It’s one where the “clubs” are often country clubs with memberships so full of the obscenely wealthy that during major events they can sell the food for cheap to the public while keeping opening rounds of their biggest tournament off television because they really don’t need the money and want to maintain an air of sacrosanctity around the competition. It’s a sport played on giant courses that some people think would be better off reclaimed and used as public parks; some, like Audobon in New Orleans, are very approachable, but that’s not their popular reputation. This videogame has lower barriers to entry than becoming a professional golfer, but it seems—more than other sports games I’ve played this year—like one whose audience is built-in before arrival rather than built-up through the release.

Golf is usually associated in this country with the white upper-middle class set, but its biggest star for the past two decades is a man of color, which is mostly notable here because PGA Tour 2K has even less default options for hairstyles than Elden Ring. Unlike in that game or Saints Row, I can’t design my character to look like The Hulk or Papa Smurf to make up for it because this game strives toward realism. At least I can put my character in the goofiest shorts and bucket hats possible to maximize fun. Perhaps those options are things to be unlocked with coins earned through grinding in MyCareer mode, a place where you can also unlock gloves and other accessories for looks, and ball types that actually modify your play style. And, much like Elden Ring and Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, you can change your character’s design and gender whenever you’d like. So that’s a point in favor.

Surely, you think, such a prestigious endeavor as a golf videogame, knowingly attracting a much smaller audience than its genre peers covering more popular sports, doesn’t need to juice its audience for microtransactions. But I suppose if you want to make up for the investment needed to create the game, you can do little better than squeezing every penny out of your players. To the game’s credit, Virtual Currency feels less crucial without a MyTeam component, and therefore building it up the old fashioned way (grinding) rather than outright paying for it seems viable. Maybe Clubhouse Pass is analogous to The City, but that feature wasn’t available yet on release, so it’s hard to say. Alternatively, perhaps adding in the combination trading-card/RPG aspects of the larger sports game franchises helps create a broader appeal, or at least addiction-adjacent replayability. PGA Tour 2K23 also ties into NBA 2K beyond similarities in exploiting the customer base. It’s a game where you can play as Michael Jordan or Steph Curry, noted fans and celebrity players of golf.

And how about that gameplay? Well, it’s difficult and consistently makes a player’s own output feel inconsistent because it is finely tuned and precisely designed, therefore making me wonder how much of the problem is my own concentration and whether there’s something wrong with my controllers. Imagine the analog stick Madden kicking minigame from 2006 to the mid 2010s, then multiply the difficulty by one thousand, with options for changing shot types, angles and distances, and of course clubs (from driver through the woods and the irons on to the putter). It’s so difficult, in fact, that you might initially be unsure if there’s any way to calibrate your technique on release, though it’s likely the game is just intentionally hard to simulate real golf, and that hours and hours of practice can turn you into a star. But that mastery is evasive; it’s not going to come within a couple of days for a casual player—even on the lowest basic difficulty with the lowest competition and condition difficulty, your results may yo-yo. And the humor of driving balls into the rough loses its charm when you’re calibrating for wind, changing club and shot types as instructed, and still end up off the fairway. Though there’s a lot more humor in bailing yourself out of the sand trap than seeing the camera get wonky as the ball bounces off the cliff face adjacent to the course into the sea.

While I still haven’t figured out why I was so unsuccessful at the Top Golf-branded driving range (probably the low skill of my MyPlayer—for whom you pick an archetype and then upgrade skills with experience earned in MyCareer matches), the thought one puts into the special geometry of curves and slopes during the putting minigame is at least fun. The near-misses feel more bittersweet up close. Sinking a putt from 40 yards out is never automatic, so it feels incredibly triumphant whenever you pull it off. However, the replays are weird—sometimes they’ll just look at the player instead of the ball, which is usually what you’re looking for on a putt replay.

Much like the soundtracks in Madden and NBA 2K, the soundtrack in PGA Tour 2K23 communicates the vibe of the sport—or what those of us not deeply steeped in it might assume it to be. The music makes me think of the Masters on CBS (a tournament the game does not have the license for). While those games boot up into special modes highlighting the history of their sports, PGA Tour 2K23 introduces you to the sport a different way—via tutorial. It’s a smart design choice by HB Studios to not assume everyone that plays their game has played their golf game, or any golf game, before. But, I’ll tell you what, the confidence I felt after that introduction completely evaporated over several rounds of MyCareer golf. It certainly doesn’t help that my MyPlayer starts out limited in his abilities, but I did scarcely better with the combination of Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, and Tiger Woods (3 of the 14+ pros hitting the courses)—it will not surprise you that Woods was the standout among them. PGA Tour 2K23 feels like the sports game equivalent to the From Software games reputational mantra of “git gud.”

It is also of note that, in contrast with PGA Tour 2K21, the pros are playable rather than just selectable as rivals, and women are included. That’s a big step up, and in the right direction.

If only there were more game modes. Would the integrity of the game be hurt by minigolf? Perhaps. Would it be hurt by a career mode you could play offline with multiple save files? I think not. For whatever reason, my Xbox seems to have trouble staying logged in to 2K’s network. Perhaps this has to do with jumping in and out of games—the Quick Resume works very well, except that it throws off the analog detection on the shot stick. Notably, players can design their own courses, which is a wonderful feature.

As aforementioned, part of the point of a sports game is to market that sport to the public. You bring in new customers and enthusiasts to the real life game, who in turn become repeat customers of the simulation. Difficulty notwithstanding, it’s not a game—at least in its early stages—that gives players over-the-top, in-your-face reasons to be particularly intrigued or enticed by the sport of golf. There aren’t historical eras, you’re not led through the career of any particular player (including the legend gracing the cover), and the historical majesty of the 20 courses in the game isn’t something that will impress you in a weekend. Alternatively, players might be drawn in by the challenge, the unwillingness to be bettered by a videogame. And, moreover, there are lots of difficulty/accessibility settings, though the game will still require your focus. Like golf itself, PGA Tour 2K23 is deeply challenging and requires a great deal of patience; like every good golf videogame, it’s a technically competent recreation that captures the spirit of the real thing.

PGA Tour 2K23 was developed by HB Studios and published by 2K. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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