In a videogaming world where first and third person shooters are so realistic you need counselling after playing them, and enemy AI is so disturbingly intelligent that soldiers in Call of Duty 4 can now do Sudoku between skirmishes, I was quite excited by The Club’s back-to-basics premise; strip the gameplay back to its barest essentials and change the focus from absolute realism to pure arcade fun.
Such is its simplicity, The Club often feels like a time attack bonus mission from a much larger game; most levels require little more than a sprint from point A to point B, scoring as many points as you can. And that’s it – no complicated maps, no exploration (most levels are conveniently peppered with arrows) and no puzzle solving. Enemy AI is minimal, and each NPC will spawn at the same point and behave in the same way in every game, so The Club is as much an old-school test of memory as it is a modern 3D shooter.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simplistic games (personally, I love them), but if you’re going to create a game with as few play elements as The Club, those elements have to be absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect – what should be a breathless, arcade-style pace (and I assume this is what Bizarre was attempting to create) is sometimes hamstrung by some questionable game design – foes are often obscured by your character’s hefty frame or even the huge text that frequently splatters all over the screen, and the levels themselves are pretty generic, sparse places.
This dreary atmosphere isn’t helped by the graphics – The Club draws from one of the muddiest palettes I’ve ever encountered. It’s strange, in a game that wears its arcade heritage on its sleeve, to find such dismal, uninspiring visuals; The Club presents a world of grimy prisons, steel mills and warehouses full of crates. The enemies are the same vest-wearing, taunting meatheads we’ve all blown away a million times in a myriad other games, and crumple unspectacularly to the floor when shot.
Even the sound isn’t particularly scintillating – instead of spectacular shootout sound effects to rival Heat we have some oddly muted phutting noises more akin to paintball guns.
The Club’s success really depends upon your own personal regard for high scores – every goon you gun down adds to your Killbar, with extra points for headshots or long range kills. To keep the Killbar rising, enemies have to be shot in rapid succession to score Combos. While this sounds like it should create a rush of adrenaline to rival Burnout’s boost chaining or Project Gotham’s Kudos points, somehow it doesn’t provide the same level of satisfaction – scoring more points seems too abstract, and it’s a pity the Killbar couldn’t affect the gameplay more directly, by giving you increased firepower for example.
In terms of presentation, everything about the game seems oddly familiar – from the box artwork that resembles a Gnarls Barkley video, to the in-game graphics, which recall other, older third person games such as Max Payne or Manhunt. Even the plot – such as it is – seems to have been lifted from the 1932 movie The Most Dangerous Game, or the more recent Jean-Claude Van Damme mullet-epic Hard Target. While there’s nothing wrong with this, The Club often feels like a game struggling to find its own identity.
You might assume from what I’ve written so far that I didn’t particularly like The Club, but you’d be wrong. Bizarre’s attempt to make a game that supplies quick thrills rather than long term immersion is admirable, and for the most part it succeeds; once you’ve learned where the enemies are, it’s possible to blitz through each level, rolling past enemy fire and scoring head shots in a quite satisfying way.Sadly, despite the fun to be had (and the game delivers plenty, if you can stand its repetitive nature), The Club remains a missed opportunity. I couldn’t help playing the game and thinking: if only the graphics were more colourful; if only the deaths were more spectacular and over-the-top; if only the Killbar could have a more tangible effect on the gameplay.
If The Club were a budget title, its faults would be forgivable, and I’d happily give it an extra star – but its current price (RRP £29.99) puts it dangerously close to The Orange Box or Crysis territory, and while it’s quite probable that the game’s various faults will be ironed out in a sequel, for now The Club doesn’t ultimately do enough to justify its hefty price of admission.