It’s not always a good sign when a relatively stable developer branches out to try something new, and in the case of Bizarre Creations it seemed downright strange to attempt a third-person action game so closely on the heels of releasing one of the best driving titles yet seen in this generation (PGR4). However, the British developer rarely disappoints, and The Club successfully represents a unique take on the modern shooter, blending a fusion of various elements from previous titles into one cohesive package. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, that’s for sure, but for those who get regularly addicted to beating high scores and enjoy shooting people in the face on a daily basis, this is pretty much an essential purchase.
At it’s heart The Club is a third-person shooter, mechanically along the lines of Gears of War; but to describe it as such would be missing the point entirely. Bizarre has taken all of the elements that regularly get panned in the genre (static enemy spawn points, large directional arrows, linearity), and gleefully built the entire premise around these very concepts. It’s a game that ends up technically more akin to a racer than a shooter as a result, and as strange as that may sound, it works fantastically well in practice.
The premise of the narrative is fairly simple. ‘The Club’ refers to a shady group of rich playboys, bored of conventional entertainment and needing to take the love of competition to the next level. As such, the worlds best gunfighters are assembled to compete in various individual tournaments, running the gauntlet against a barrage of technically inept foes across different cities and urban environments. If you make it to the gate, then you survive. If you make it to the gate in style, then you just might win.
The above may well remind you of the plot of a Tekken, Street Fighter or Dead or Alive, and with good reason. Structurally, The Club is very much inspired by modern and classic brawlers, with a selection of eight different protagonists (all strong in different areas), eight different stages, and an announcer that gleefully shouts “Fight!” shortly after the introductory caricature sequence at the beginning of each level. Short story videos compliment each fighter at the beginning and the end of each campaign, and the ’bouts’ generally last between 1-3 minutes each.
The single-player tournament mode takes shape around the eight different environments (ranging from manor houses to oil tankers), with each one holding a total of six different challenges to overcome. Every single event is scored independently and ranked online, and a running points total is kept until the end of each section, at which stage the awards for first to third place are handed out and the next chapter unlocked. If you fail any given challenge you have four further attempts to complete it, or else it’ll be back to the title menu to begin the arena again. Replayability is key here, and the familiar drive to complete a fighting game with each character factors strongly into the mix.
Every standard challenge in The Club boils down to running a linear course through the level, with enemies popping up at predetermined locations. Kills are scored according to factors such as distance, cover, weapon choice and style, with the score accumulating at the top of the screen. Every successful frag replenishes the timed ‘kill bar’, and as long as you reach the next group of enemies in time, further shots will accumulate a multiplier bonus on top. If you end up going too slow, the bar will eventually deplete and begin to ‘bleed out’, meaning that the multiplier drops every second or so until the next kill. This lends the game a frenetic run-and-gun pace, with the best tactic being to sprint from one group to the next to avoid depletion of the bar, then hanging back to take foes out from as far away as possible.
There is a bit of variety on show however, with several other addictive game types filling up the roster. The timed mode takes the racing analogy to it’s logical extreme, with the player asked to complete a set number of laps around an isolated section of the environment, each kill adding three seconds to a depleting game clock. Siege mode on the other hand inverts the game design completely, tasking the player to stay within the boundaries of a fairly small chalk-lined square. Enemies proceed to besiege the location in waves from all angles, and simply surviving until the timer runs down becomes the key goal. Scores count across all events of course.
Indeed the scores are the only thing that really matters in The Club. Each individual event from the campaign can be replayed once unlocked, and it’s here that the game design really shines. Free from the structure and order of the main tournament mode, every scenario becomes available to individually conquer at the highest skill level, and beating high scores (both online and off) becomes as addictive a challenge as any title in recent years. Competition is this games’ raison d’être, and it fulfills that remit with aplomb.
It wouldn’t be a modern shooter without a multiplayer component of course, and whilst there isn’t anything to write home about here, the suite of options and game types are nevertheless well fleshed out and relatively lag-free. Siege mode particularly shines online or with local split-screen, with the besieged team slowly being whittled down to one solitary and frantic figure, beset on all sides by superior numbers. It’ll never oust the genre favourites, but nevertheless there is value to be exploited here.
In a field full of positives there have to be some negatives however, and as so often tends to be the case with this type of game, The Club’s art design is eventually the main culprit. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with the character or environmental design, nothing ever stands out as truly unique, and the bland colour palette and washed-out post-processing will simply remind you of other, better-designed titles. Close combat is another area of contention, with the one simple melee attack fairly hard to utilise, and point blank shots regularly failing to register correctly.
Of course the biggest gamble here is the score-chasing mechanic itself. As a component built directly into the core of the experience, it’s undoubtedly a success, but for those with little interest in continually perfecting the gauntlet of courses, there really is nothing else to fall back on. One run-through of the campaign mode unveils everything that the game has to offer in single-player, and without any story elements or fleshed out alternatives, it is conceivable that some people will be finished in little over an hour of play.
But, at the end of the day, it would be unwise to hold such a decision against the design team. This is a title aimed squarely at the competitive shooter market, and it succeeds in delivering a heady and adrenalin-infused cocktail of originality. There might not be a massive audience for it, but for those of you that love this type of game, it cannot be recommended highly enough. Give the demo a half hours worth of play, and see if grabs you. One things for sure, it’s impossible to sit on the fence with a game designed in this manner.