Developer: Bizarre Creations
Release Date: February 19, 2008
Judging it by the merits of its gameplay design, Sega's The Club is one of the best video games I've played in a couple of years. Others in this "club" include Burnout Paradise, Guitar Hero III, Portal (not The Orange Box as a whole, just Portal), Rock Band and Unreal Tournament III. You can throw in a few sports titles, but by my reckoning, they have an unfair advantage. The point is, The Club, and all other other titles, are games. They lack entirely, save the most timid nod, to narrative. They are games with no "stories," or "stories" so obviously tacked on as some sort of concession to a swiftly spent single-player mode in a multiplayer title, that they are tantamount to plotless.
Rock Band and Guitar Hero III both have weak, immaterial story elements; look past those, and what you are have in both titles, after unlocking all the songs on one of the career mode difficulty settings, are sandbox music games with the promise of new songs released for sale regularly. That's Rock Band, and almost never, that's Guitar Hero III. In the end, these two music games titles are just pure games.
Burnout Paradise and Portal both offer, via unseen announcers, humor and tips —Portal's mystery M.C. indiscriminately lies with those helpful hints — but nothing in the way of plot. Unreal Tournament III presents a gossamer narrative as a shell for what is essentially an offline training mode; coming from Epic, who wrote Gears of War, we can, I think, safely dismiss the notion of an actual intent by the developers in creating a "story."
Likewise, The Club, beyond peeks at a vague shadow organization running the eponymous Club, and some cookie-cutter background sketches for characters and environments, is devoid of all narrative. It's a video game, pure and simple. It's a shooter with a fighter aesthetic, progress and achievement based solely on speed, "combo kills," special moves and the like. Unfortunately, it falls short in some areas of HD current-generation candy we've come to expect from top titles, but it does a great job of presenting the art of the video game in its gameplay design, eschewing the more literary art of storytelling that some budding novelist or screenwriter on the development team has crammed into the wrong hole.
It should be lost on no one that at the recent GDC event, the convention held by and for game designers, Portal took the top prize over 2007's runaway fusion-shooter hit, BioShock, which grabbed some gold in other particulars, including art direction, audio design and writing. I suppose that's fair enough, as BioShock is at least tied with the best games of the year for the areas in which it was recognized. It still doesn't make it a great game, which ostensibly is the goal of making games.
The Club is a better game. BioShock is not a bad game, and it's one hell of an ambitious effort, but it does that thing many contemporary game designers seem compelled these days to do: create a game like a movie. Forget that its gameplay design is flawed by some unfortunate rule-breaking, its art direction is fouled by a misunderstanding of architectural periods, its audio design, admittedly outstanding in creating an almost endlessly chilling atmosphere, cheats on the particulars of audio design for a game, and its narrative is ultimately far too derivative of an innumerable number of screen and literary narratives just in the past century alone.
How in the hell can I claim an average "mindless" shooter is superior to one of highest-selling, most critically acclaimed games in recent memory? Because that average "mindless" shooter hangs its ambitions on creating a work that suits its position in art, while the superstar title languishes in medium-jumping. The Club knows its place, while BioShock aspires to excelling at a creative task for which games are not now, or ever, best suited. Good painters paint, and some of them write books or poetry; great painters just paint.
With that said, had someone married the gameplay design of The Club and the production values of BioShock, well, then you'd really have something. Every place BioShock beat all hell out of most of last year's competition, it doubly beats all hell out of The Club. Sega's new title is graphically deficient, and I'm not just calling out a dearth of gee-whiz special effects — for which I care little — but its art direction and visual design is wholly lackluster. The Club's audio production is weak, too: The weapons don't nearly go "boom!" enough, and the musical soundtrack smacks of, "Hey can we use this in the game? It's an eight-bar loop I did with GarageBand in just half an hour, if can you believe it." Yes, I can believe it.
In The Club's favor, although the game animation's pace seems more stuck in the mud than it should for a fast-paced action title, it's consistently mired throughout, and one becomes accustomed to it. In the context of that slightly sticky feeling, the controls are plenty responsive, not hampering the gameplay or in-game progression one bit.
Since we have no narrative premise, the only one to cover is the gameplay premise. The single-player "tournament" mode is all about hauling ass through various environment, racking up "kill combos" which translate to points and, hopefully, high scores. Some of the missions are straight run-and-gun affairs: move your tail, kill everything that moves, discover the secrets you can, find the exit (marked here and there by signs emblazoned with pointed arrows), and get on out of there.
Other mission goals are along the lines of a single-player, timed version of Last Man Standing, in which you're trapped within the confines of "walls" created by traffic cones and chalk lines — step outside too long, and you die by a remote-triggered explosive or some such nonsense — while a never-ending onslaught of opponents attempt to kill you, until the timer runs down. The progression system is pure arcade: You're handed a certain number of attempts to complete tournament levels made up of several missions in a particular environment; burn through all of those, and you begin life all over again, just as if you've been dropped on your head and forgot that you're a world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon.
Online multiplayer features a selection of different modes, all of which are fairly alike: kill solo or kill on a team, within a time limit or to a kill count. There's no "voice chat" support in the PlayStation 3 version of this title. I could care less, but it will bother some, even to the point where they may steer clear of the game altogether.
The most important aspect of The Club is that it tries to be what it is, and that's a video game, not an introspective look at the ethical ramifications of brutally murdering 52 people while charging full tilt through an abandoned factory. This sort of chin-in-hand pondering is best left to mediums that much better suit our deepest reflections. The Club succeeds in part, in that essential element of gameplay over lofty ambition — essentially, function over form, that most laudable of design goals ever — but falls far short of brilliance in presentation. I'm handing The Club a particular score for doing a fair job full within the natural boundaries of its medium. I didn't review BioShock, but I've played it and I'd have given it a similar score for an almost immaculate production of an errant goal, for sailing a near-pristine race along the wrong course clear the other side of the island from the scheduled regatta. Give me the purpose of The Club and the production values of BioShock director Levine's team, and without apology, I'd fight tooth and nail to slap a perfect 10 on that title. As it stands, the real The Club, as opposed to my conceptual The Club, will nicely entertain but hardly impress.
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