Genre: Arcade Shooter
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Release Date: Fall 2007
Sega had the opportunity to shower journalists with a whirlwind tour of their 2007 titles this week, but probably the most stand-out game that could offer a live gameplay demonstration was Bizarre Creation's The Club. Coming this fall for PC, PS3, and the 360, The Club is a curious attempt to bring an arcade-style, action-movie shooter into the next-gen library.
It's curious largely because Bizarre Creations is known for their development of racing titles like the Project Gotham series, and The Club is about as far from that as you can get. Bizarre didn't even license out software tools like Unreal Engine 3 or Havok Physics to make generating a stylish third-person shooter like The Club easier. All of the software was created in house, and apparently fueled by the team's enormous passion for action movies. As Bizarre's Nick Davis said repeatedly at the demo session, The Club was about trying to make an entire game out of the "best three minutes" of a Van Damme or Schwarzenegger flick. By that, he presumably means the sort of movie both actors churned out in the '80s, with highly stylized violence and writing that seems charmingly straightforward in retrospect.
This sensibility certainly permeates the character selection screen that awaits a player after pressing the start button. Unlike most third-person shooters, characters in The Club aren't ciphers, and the concept is considerably more unusual than being part of some futuristic paramilitary outfit. The Club takes its name from a grim criminal deathsport in the future, where desperate people hunt each other down in closed, private arenas so that wealthy patrons can take bets on the outcome. The sport is completely closed and hidden, a sort of Fight Club with guns, making it hard to trace the deaths and associated disappearances.
The nature of The Club is that it can draw very different kinds of people into competition, reflected in the eight colorful game characters. For the demo, Davis played as Renwick, The Club's heroic figure. Clearly inspired by the Danny Glover role in Lethal Weapon, Renwick is a cop who competes in The Club with the intent to take it down from within. So he runs around levels with police-issue guns and riot gear, with solid all-around stats a player can easily exploit.
Other characters in The Club are not so balanced, and instead have certain strengths and weaknesses a player needs to cope with. Characters were often highlighted too quickly to make it easy to catch names, but the select screen showed off archetypes like the strong, slow Russian gangster; the speedy, endurance-oriented extreme sports junkie; a desperate down-on-his luck gambler with offense born of desperation; and some other characters with truly outlandish designs that Davis refused to let us discuss or look at for long.
In the game's various levels, you can find yourself fighting the eight story characters or one of a startling array of generic combatants, with a variety of fighting styles and skill levels. Level selection influenced the nature of the action enormously. For instance, to demonstrate Renwick, Davis put him in the claustrophobic and sterile prison level, where enemies frequently lurk in cells and wait in a huge open area at the center of the building to pick you apart. Winning the challenge involved making it through this part of the building while killing most of the enemies, and then emerging onto the building's room to take out the last few enemies laying in wait.
The shooting action was fast, and although stylized, wasn't stylish to the point of abstraction. Players are tasked not just with achieving the objective of the current event, but challenged to rack up the highest score possible for that event, on that map, on that difficulty level. Similar to Project Gotham 3's numerous racing challenges, this gives The Club an enormous density of leaderboards to compete on and possible personal goals to set. Points were gained by defeating enemies in quick succession, which drove up the player's combo meter. Special kills like headshots, quick turn kills, or set piece kills also granted point bonuses. There are roughly 10 such special kills in all, and of course, a complete list wasn't described for us.
In the demo game, we saw Davis rack up about 400,000 points, while he described the methods that truly advanced gamers could use to rack up scores of half a million or more. Players were invited to use every aspect of their level, from dropped enemy weapons to environmental features, in the name of killing enemies. The violence of the game conveyed a sense of brutality while still being relatively "clean," another stylization likely inspired by '80s action films. For instance, while shooting enemies resulted in small bursts of blood and a painful-looking physics crumple, there wasn't anything in the way of the giant gibs and bloodsprays that have become all but standard features of the modern shooter. It helps emphasize The Club's arcade spirit that enemy deaths, while copious, are all relatively clean and almost harmless.
The Club features 50 small levels, most designed to be completed quickly. In addition, each level can be played as part of one of six different events. The event demonstrated a simple "race to the end," challenging the player to make it to a level's exit after amassing a certain set number of points. Other challenges involved trying to hold out for a set amount of time while waves of enemies attacked a location, an actual physical "race" where players had to run laps of a given course while killing enemies as necessary to advance, and free-for-all arena challenges.
A challenge's nature could be further tweaked by making a difficulty level selection, which altered placement and type of enemies for a stage's challenge. The difficulty levels officially demonstrated were Easy, Medium, and Hard, although we caught a glimpse of a fourth difficulty level we clearly weren't supposed to see.
Further extended gameplay comes from online multiplayer, which supports up to 16 simultaneous players for most every map and event type. Leaderboards will track a player's individual online and offline score Achievements, giving a huge range of possible boards. As Davis puts it, it means that everyone stands a chance in some aspect of the game, and has incentive to improve their skills and become better. Replay is, in fact, one of the intended cornerstones of The Club's gameplay experience. Players are hoped to be so interested that they work to complete the game on every difficulty level, and then work harder for improved scores and superb online skills. Given the often obsessive nature of 360 gamers, and especially online 360 gamers, this is a game design that is likely to find a receptive audience.
The visuals for The Club were attractive and well-polished. Character models were large and featured a somewhat exaggerated, caricatured sense of anatomy. The eight main characters all had incredibly distinct, memorable appearances that perfectly communicated their basic concepts, while generic opponents were suitably, well, generic. The music for the game was a sort of generic throbbing techno, which if nothing else set a good fast pace for the action. Predictably, though, the music was turned off fairly early in the demonstration so sound effects could be heard more easily. The game seems to feature voice acting, although few tracks were in place during the demo. There was little mention made of whether or not the game featured a proper story mode, but it would seem to be a waste not to include something like that to go with The Club's eight feature characters.
There's no shortage of shooting games on next-gen hardware, thanks to the towering influence of Halo. As a result, most shooters lately have skewed in the direction of FPS and science fiction, with even third-person shooters like Gears of War handling basically like FPS. The Club's style is a bold step in the opposite direction and promises to bring next gen gamers a more polished arcade experience than, say, Earth Defense Force 2017. For the PS3 and PC platforms, it'll be essentially the first arcade style shooter for the hardware.
While Bizarre is not a studio most gamers would associate with shooting games, much of the crowd-pleasing style of Project Gotham has still managed to make itself felt in The Club. This shows every sign of being a fine-tuned game accessible to many different types of gamer, with polished graphics and a focused, distinct gameplay style to set it apart from the pack. Sega has clearly been trying to branch out into more Western genres as publisher, and the The Club is one of the titles emblematic of that shift. It proves that Sega can publish quality titles regardless of developer origin, and more importantly, that a quality developer can successfully create any kind of title that strikes their fancy, regardless of their former track record.
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