Reviewed: March 18, 2008
Released: February 19, 2008
When it was announced last year that Bizarre Creations – the developers behind the madly successful Project Gotham Racing series – had been purchased by Activision Blizzard, and would be leaving the Microsoft-owned PGR license for good, it left many Xbox gamers perplexed.
And the Xbox gamers had reason to be confused, as Bizarre Creations had been with Microsoft from the beginning – having rebranded its Sega Dreamcast-born Metropolis Street Racer series as Project Gotham for Microsoft’s 2001 Xbox launch, Bizarre went on to garner nearly equal fame for the PGR packed-in minigame (and eventual Xbox Live Arcade launch release) of Geometry Wars. Up to the point of the announcement, many gamers were under the (wrong) impression that Bizarre Creations was a Microsoft entity – obviously it was not.
So here we are, nearly six months after the Activision Blizzard acquisition, and Bizarre Creations has come out of the gates with their brand new non-Microsoft IP, The Club, published by…Sega. Yes, I know this is all this videogame red tape is frightfully confusing, so lets just get onto the game.
First things first; upon searching the web, you will quickly find that The Club is receiving a very mixed reception. A majority of gaming sites are scoring the game in the “average” range – some slightly above, some slightly below. However, amidst the lukewarm reception, a few well-respected sites and magazines have scored The Club with to honors – calling the game “brilliant” and “excellent”. While most gamers would tend to side with the majority – The Club’s varied reaction is very reminiscent of an long forgotten Xbox classic that released a few years back called Deathrow.
Deathrow, like The Club, was widely panned by the critics – save for small handful of big-name sites which put the game in their best-of lists. Deathrow’s gameplay was an odd hybrid of Ultimate Frisbee and fighting game (hence the name’s intent to be death-throw), and while blending those elements might sound like putting soy sauce on your ice cream sundae, Deathrow was (and still is) a total blast. But given the unique game design, it just took a little time to get a hang of the high intensity gameplay – more time than most were willing to invest.
The Club is a lot like Deathrow; the gameplay is also an odd hybrid – this time a mix between arena-style shooter and racing game (yes, I said that right) – and like Deathrow, the game takes a hefty investment to get the hang of the high intensity gameplay.
The gameplay takes the form of a third person shooter, a relatively untapped genre on the PS3 thus far, The Club borrows heavily from the likes of Xbox 360 blockbusters like Gears Of War and The Outfit, as well as multiplatform titles Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and the recently ported Lost Planet. The main difference is that whereas the aforementioned games focus beyond the run-and-gun gameplay with design elements that encourages strategic planning and cautious advancement – The Club is all about throwing any caution there may be to the wind, and doing whatever it takes to run the gauntlet from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
The premise of the game is that a group of rich investors have formed a deadly underground contest called The Club, and each has “recruited” (generally not a mutually beneficial relationship to say the least) his own modern-day gladiator that is forced (for lack of a better word) to take place in their deadly game of points-based gunplay.
The Club features five different event types in all, but they really only boil down into two types; running events, and stationary events.
Of the running events, there are three – Sprint, Run The Gauntlet, and Time Attack. The Sprint event runs you from Point A to Point B, accumulating points and trying to get the lowest time to the Exit point. Run The Gauntlet is nearly identical to Sprint (using the same courses, in fact), except that the game has instituted an overall time limit, which must be met, or have the character be blown into chunks by explosives that have been implanted subdermally in their bodies. Time Attack has characters running a set number of laps around the courses against a very short timer (and yes, the very same explosive implants), gaining points and adding precious extra seconds to the timer by shooting enemies, collecting time clocks, and shooting time plaques placed on walls throughout the course.
With regard to the stationary events, there are two – Survivor and Siege. Both modes are basically your traditional King Of The Hill events, except that leaving the hill in The Club results in a very quick and explosive ending. Siege puts you in a smaller safe area fending off long-range attacks from all sides. Survivor gives a much larger portion of the map as accessible area, which results in closer-quarters melee combat.
Aiming is very incredibly forgiving, and very liberal at doling out headshots – which is good, because The Club employs a unique scoring method that emphasizes style, skill and accuracy. The game takes a number of measurable data into account when calculating score; everything from location of shot, to enemy type, to how many bullets were fired, to the number of bullets left in the chamber, all these things (and more) go into the calculation of score for each kill. It is quite a complex calculation, but basically boils down to the simple rule that quick headshots score the best, and adding flourishes like quick turnaround and spins add to the bankroll.
To add to the excitement – and further crank up the intensity – the game utilizes a combo meter that fills with every kill, and then quickly drains away until the next kill is made. In order to get a high placing score, gamers will need to keep killing enemies at a rate of about every 5 seconds or so. In some events, this is all but impossible – even with the Gear Of War-klepped sprint move – but the stationary Survivor and Siege modes are a bit friendlier on the combo meter. Maintaining the combo is crucial to placing in the final standings, and even the slightest hitch can ruin a great run – which is not made any easier by the game’s constant onscreen reminders using terminology like “combo bleeding” and “combo dead”.
It is quite obvious that The Club was really designed with multiplayer action in mind, as the game features eight unique multiplayer modes ranging from the standard Kill mode (players or teams shoot it out purely for headcount) and CTF-style Team Capture. But The Club goes a bit further by offering up unique gameplay in the form of Score mode (players vie for best score using the game’s scoring system), and various hunted-player or KOTH modes like Hunted Killer, Fox Hunt, and Team Siege which tasks teams with protecting assigned teammates and/or turf against an enemy onslaught.
Where the gameplay suffers most is in the controls, which seem to have been developed using with the Xbox 360’s button layout and analog stick geometry in mind. More often than not, the game forces you to perform complicated finger yoga to maintain at least 3 out of the 4 L/R buttons pressed at all times (sprinting, aiming, and firing) – and the sloppy analog stick response only makes the matter that much more distressing. Thankfully, the game does employ a fairly liberal auto-targeting feature (as mentioned earlier), which generally results in better hit rates and headshot counts than actually trying to aim will.
I did not expect a whole lot of eye candy from The Club, simply because Bizarre Creations has never been a studio to NOT brag about their visuals months before a game’s release. Since I had not heard a word about “lifelike facial features,” “motion captured animations,” or “realistic environments”, I assumed that The Club would be a bit ho-hum on the visual spectrum.
No surprise, the Club is a bit bland on the eyes after playing the likes of Gears of War, GRAW and Lost Planet. But where those titles all suffer from severe framerate issues, The Club keeps the action pumping with few hitches. Really, only in the midst of the heaviest Survivor or Siege attacks did the screen hiccup offline, and although the online mode fared a bit worse it never really detracted from gameplay too much.
The environments look great – albeit a bit linear and sparse compared to some of the competition. I especially liked the realistic texture surfacing work that gave rusted steel and decrepit concrete walls pop out of the screen on the 37” HD review television at its native 720p resolution. All of this is made even sweeter using Bizarre’s trademark lighting effects perfected for their Project Gotham series. When the sun is out, buildings cast accurate shadows and all the right surfaces glow with warm fuzzy light. It’s really a sight to behold.
The character models are unique in that they try to blend realism and comic book design resulting in an almost caricature-like proportioning that straddles the gritty overblown models of Gears of War or Unreal Tournament, and the cartoony characters of Team Fortress 2. They are not the best models we have seen in gaming – but as far as characters sprinting at breakneck speeds with weapons in hand, I’d have to say they look pretty darn good.
With respect to the sound quality, The Club features a good amount of overlayed voice work from the boss character talking about the various locations, characters, game modes, and background stories. The actor’s voice is one of those classic disembodied British accented voices (think: Rockstar’s Manhunt), and the high production value put into the recording definitely adds to the eerie ambiance and overall presentation level of the game.
The soundtrack is comprised almost wholly of electronic and industrial tunes that have been crafted specifically for The Club by famed composer Richard Jacques. The music encompassing with its mix of high-intensity rhythm tracks and ambient sound samples and effects that give a unique feel to each of the eight levels. Watery filters give the Ocean Liner stage a distinctly wet feel, and the constant wail of emergency sirens gives the Backstreets level a touch of grittiness.
As for the effects themselves, they fall right in the middle of the quality spectrum – featuring cookie cutter weapon fire and the routine grunts and groans. Nothing spectacular, but given the excitement level, you will hardly be focused on how real a death cry sounds.
If there is one game that is absolutely screaming for an Xbox-style achievements system for the PS3, The Club is it. With the heavy emphasis on precision, style, and speed, The Club would be a perfect platform for challenging players to unique stunts and time records. In fact, the game does in fact ship with its own internal awards system, but with the awards not being tied to a larger omnipotent system, the competitive drive is not as strong as on the Xbox 360 versions of the game.
The Club’s multiplayer offerings are nothing to sneeze at, and really do more than just rehash the offline experience with the same or slightly modified gameplay. Kudos also go out to Bizarre Creations for utilizing an online system that melds as seamlessly as Xbox Live, without having to log onto third party servers (I’m talking to you, EA). It makes the play much less imposing when you can jump in and out lobbies freely and without having to sign away you inbox.
And not to sound like an ingrate, but after having become accustomed to Bizarre Creations packaging “hidden” arcade games like Geometry Wars in their PGR titles, it was a bit disappointing to not find anything similar hidden in The Club. Not so much because Bizarrre may or may not have set a precedence in the past, but because I was really hoping to see the next “big” arcade title that everyone and his brother would be copying in the next six months (Everyday Shooter is awesome, but far from original, folks.). Well, here is hope for next time.
The constant urge to achieve that “perfect line” through The Club’s courses and kick out the most stylish of kills – whether to one-up your own personal high scores, or the neigh-unreachable online records – is the true driving force that will keep gamers coming back for more long after all of The Club’s eight distinct locations and two unlockable characters has been realized.
Few developers know how to tap into this core compulsion better than Bizarre Creations, as they have been doing it for years with their kudos-inspired Project Gotham series, as well as their overly simplistic, but wholly addictive Geometry Wars.
Much like the famed Deathrow, The Club is not going to appeal to every gamer. But I’m willing to bet that if any gamer worth his salt were to give The Club a good honest weekend session, that they would find themselves hooked on The Club’s high intensity gameplay.