Developer: Bizarre Creations
Release Date: February 19, 2008
The club referred to in the game's title is a collection of obscenely rich, powerful and highly anonymous members who get their kicks watching people like you gun down assailants in arena matches while gambling away the GDP of small countries on the outcomes. It's a lot like the modern-day equivalent of a Roman gladiator show, only the thrill is derived from guns and underpaid bullet sponges instead of swords and Christians.
With its blend of bullet-riddled, third-person shooter action and run and gun mechanics The Club plays like an arcade shooter on wheels. Speed is essential if you're going to make it through the enemy-filled gauntlets with a score you can brag about. How you wipe out your opponents matters, too, because you'll receive extra style points for headshots, long-range shots, ricochet kills, and slaying opponents as you come out of a dive or roll. In addition, for every enemy you slaughter, your kill bar increases, multiplying the total number of points you earn for kills. But when you're not shedding blood, the kill bar gradually diminishes, and if you don't get another kill quickly to replenish it, your combo will vanish. All of these gameplay elements place a premium on being a speedy killer and ensure that there is never a letup in the pace of the violent onslaught.
You start this bloodbath by choosing one of eight unlucky characters. Exactly how each of them has been blackmailed into this kill-or-be-killed predicament is not made explicitly clear except through a brief style-over-substance introductory cut scene. What is obvious is that they all graduated from the Steven Seagal school of badass. With names like "Killen" and "Finn," their one-line bios sum up everything you'll really need to know about these mono-dimensional action heroes. Each has different gameplay ratings for speed, stamina and strength, but realistically, there's very little that separates any of these characters from their third-person perspective avatars, which is one in the rapidly diminishing pile of reasons you have for playing the game a second time from the beginning.
There are a total of eight different arenas all over the world that have been sealed off from the riff-raff for the benefit of entertaining rich folk. These range from the canals of Venice, to an abandoned steelworks in Germany to the rusty hulk of a ship beached off the coast of Africa. To complete each arena, you'll play through five different gameplay types. Sprint mode is a simple race from point A to point B via a bullet avalanche. Time Attack consists of running around in laps against a ticking clock. Run the Gauntlet is identical to Sprint, except with a time limit. Siege involves holding your ground against continually spawning bad guys until time runs out, while Survivor mode is so similar to Siege that I didn't even realize they were different until I read the manual.
Each level lasts only a maximum of a few minutes, and the problem is that despite the claim of having five different gameplay types, they are all so fundamentally similar that the overall experience quickly boils down to a repetitive exercise. Without enough to differentiate the gameplay modes, there's nothing to really hold your interest for very long. Maybe it's a good thing that the entire tournament option, which is the bulk of the single-player game, can be completed in less than three hours, depending on which of the four difficulty settings you select.
The actual killing part is fun for a while, in a similar way that playing online Flash games can be fun in short bursts. The action is furious and unrelenting, and it's presented in a way that can get pretty intense at times, particularly in Siege mode, where wave after wave of enemies close in on your position. There is a decent range of weapons including sniper rifles and bazookas, but compared to the standard sub-machine gun, these more exotic weapons tend to be fairly useless when you're speeding through levels facing off against multiple threats. Throughout each level, there are targets hanging on walls that can be shot at to renew your kill bar, as well as extra hidden targets for bonus junkies. The payoff for doing well is beating out the other virtual competitors, and if you excel, you might even get a gold bullet accolade. This is even less worthwhile than it sounds on paper.
To really milk the game for all it's worth, you need to actually care about statistics and scoring points in the same way that gamers did in the golden age of arcade, when seeing your three initials on the high score screen actually mattered. If this sounds like you, you can play and replay levels, memorizing spawn points and pulling off impressive headshot combinations in your quest for the perfect run. For the less obsessive gamers, there is very little reason or appeal to replaying the levels.
On the plus side, The Club looks decent, especially at high resolutions with graphics options maxed out. The screen is often filled with score pop-ups indicating your most recent kill award, but they never feel like they get in the way, and they add a great deal to highlight the arcade experience that the designers are going for. Other things that work include the just-gory-enough blood particle effects, excellent depth of field and high-speed motion blur, and the smorgasbord of destructible objects. The different ways in which the HUD elements animate is also great, but the way gameplay works means you'll rarely be paying attention to all these neat little details because you'll inevitably be focused on trying to get through these spaces as fast as you can.
Various multiplayer modes exist to make up for the short-lived single-player experience, but it uses the horribly convoluted Microsoft Live system so you'll need a Live ID before you even start. This is made 100 percent more complicated, if, like many PC gamers, your game didn't come with a product key that you need in order to register the game online. Sega has acknowledged the issue, and gamers in need should contact them for a solution, but in the meantime you might have a hard time finding online competition. To add to the raft of problems, the retail build isn't entirely stable either, with instances of crashing to the desktop and no sign of a patch on the way.
As if that weren't enough, even more points are dropped by way of a sloppy port from the Xbox 360 console to the PC. No effort was made to remove Xbox controller graphics and interfaces from the game, and PC gamers are bound to feel like an afterthought when the first thing they see on starting the game is "Press [Start button graphic] to begin." Thankfully, though all is not lost, as they did allow PC users to change the things that really matter, such as screen resolution and keyboard assignments.
Despite some tightly tuned gameplay, the problem is ultimately that The Club comes across as a cheap and hollow experience, a lot like that empty feeling in your change pocket once you've spent all your quarters on an arcade machine and you come away poorer, with the adrenaline thrill starting to fade, wondering if you could have somehow spent your money better. This game is short on features, monotonous and over way too quickly; on top of that, the PC version feels a lot like the publishers were just trying to make a quick buck by making a postscript to the console version.
You can't fault The Club for trying to do something different in a market full of mostly cloned shooter games. The combo point scoring system is fairly unique, and it works well as an old-school arcade shooter with better graphics. The high concept of reality blood sports shows is fairly cool, but they didn't develop it far enough. I'll admit that sometimes all I want to do is shoot a lot of things at great speed without a pesky story line that feels the need to meditate on man's inhumanity to man. For these moments, The Club is a good fix, but unfortunately these cravings tend to pass quickly, and once you scratch beneath the game's glossy surface, you'll find there isn't any long-term appeal.
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