[20 May 2008]
For the most part, Bizarre Creations, a developer based in Liverpool, is known for the Project Gotham racing series. Over the course of several entries in the franchise, Project Gotham has remained enjoyable largely because of the “Kudos” system that rewards stylish driving, with points awarded for a variety of driving maneuvers, and accrued points used both to progress and to purchase in game items. By their very nature, racing games reward not only familiarity with the vehicles, but also memorization of the best possible lines through a course. What this amounts to, generally, is a balance between remembering what needs to be accomplished at every turn and actually pulling it off. In the case of Project Gotham, the “Kudos” system offsets the monotony of repeated play by allowing for more daredevil improvisation in any given race.
Many of these same mechanics are at play in The Club, a somewhat strange arcade shooter from Bizarre. The game puts you in the role of a highly stylized character, and has you running through courses, killing enemies for the entertainment of a shadowy group of individuals. The concept of human bloodsport has certainly been explored in a number of different titles, but the presentation and racing aesthetics serve to set The Club apart. In most games, films, or novels involving human beings hunting one another, the protagonist is typically the prey, made to survive in the face of incredible odds. Conversely, The Club puts the player in the role of the predator, running through a virtual shooting gallery of bullet fodder.
In keeping with the memorization aspects of both racing games and light gun shooting games, enemies pop up in the same locations. As such, completing each level is conceptually straightforward. Getting from the entrance to the exit of a level is not the only goal, however. Similar to the awards for stylishness in Project Gotham, score in The Club is dependent on a variety of factors including the difficulty of the kills, the number achieved in a combo, and so on. The fact, then, that the enemy actions are scripted, to some degree, allows The Club to encourage replay in an effort to find what, in a racing game, would be the best possible lines through a course. This represents the aforementioned balance between knowing the best way through a course and actually being able to follow it. Conceptually, the game represents an interesting step for Bizarre Creations, in that it’s clearly influenced by their strongest franchise, while representing an attempt to step outside of their comfort zone.
As interesting as the core concepts in The Club are, however, there are some details which keep it from being wholly successful. The courses offer some loose direction on which way to turn next, but they can still be disorienting on first playthrough, with hallways that don’t go anywhere. Given that the game encourages repetition in search of better scores, it seems artificial to promote early missteps on the first few playthroughs of a course. Another issue is the relative dearth of offensive options available, particularly since the game is encouraging stylish kills. The player can shoot while coming up from a roll or barrelling through a door, but beyond that, it mostly has to do with aim, distance, and the difficulty of the enemy (a mechanic that is entirely out of your hands). The system isn’t nearly as fleshed out or dynamic as the fighting mechanics in Devil May Cry, for example, and as such, rote memorization of the levels overshadows any sort of combat improvisation.
As has been proven by games like Portal, it is very possible to make a short, high-quality game that is based on a single, unique and well-implemented gameplay mechanic. In the case of The Club, however, the effective core of the game, the gunplay, isn’t as elegant and frenetic as it seems like it should be. Given the unique marriage of third-person shooter and racing game that come together to make The Club, it’s disappointing that the shooting mechanics are fairly standard. A deep combat system like Ninja Gaiden might not work, but something visceral and balletic like the gunplay of Max Payne would have been welcome.
Given the short single player campaign, the staying power of The Club is entirely dependent on an appreciation for its mechanics, and the desire to achieve higher scores. This is a purely arcade-driven aesthetic, and in the current gaming landscape, it is refreshing that with games like Project Gotham Racing, Geometry Wars, and now The Club, Bizarre Creations has chosen to unabashedly embrace arcade mechanics in favor of realistic narratives and heavy concepts. From that standpoint alone, The Club is a success, even if not quite an unqualified one. Bizarre is no stranger to sequels, and it will be interesting to see if they decide to continue with The Club as a franchise. For certain kinds of gamers, the premise is sound, but there is certainly more than enough room for improvement for another installment.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-club/