If you were to hear me talk for any amount of time you would think that I hate Sega. You'll hear me curse up and down about this once-mighty video game company; it will be an ugly mess of angry words, betrayed feelings and terrible games. Oh those terrible games. But believe it or not, I don't hate Sega; I've been a huge supporter of the company since I first hooked up my Sega Master System. I don't hate Sega; instead I'm just frustrated by their surprising inability to make great games. While Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and all of their third parties are churning out hit after hit, Sega can't seem to get their act together, and it's really bumming this long-time Sega-phile out.
But lately things have started to look up. Within the last six months Sega has managed to release a solid Virtual Fighter 5 port for the Xbox 360, offer up a competent sequel to NiGHTS into Dreams, and reminded us why Sega Rally was so damn cool all those years ago. As far as I'm concerned Sega is on a roll, those three games alone make up for my time with Alien Syndrome (but just barely). But all of those games came out last year, would Sega's 2008 line-up be as good as Virtua Fighter, Crush and NiGHTS? If The Club is any indication then Sega is a company worth watching this year.
If I were to say that The Club is nothing more than Project Gotham Racing meets Gears of War you would think I was insane. On the surface there's nothing in either of those two games to connect this weird analogy. But rest assured; all it takes is one small play session to see that there is no better way to describe this exciting, arcade-style action game. While the combination may sound weird, in practice it makes for the best third-person shooter Sega has made in years.
The Club was developed by Bizarre Creations, the team that is best known for their Project Gotham Racing and Metropolis Street Racing franchises. In a lot of ways The Club is a huge departure from what we've come to expect from this company, but at the same time Bizarre Creations has managed to take some of the best elements from their racing games and combine them with the twitch mechanics of a Gears or War-style action game. The result is definitely unique, but the game is ultimately undermined by its shallow game modes and repetitive gameplay.
Unlike most modern shooters, The Club isn't trying to tell some epic story or change the way you think about third-person action games. Instead this game is about old school action, sort of like an on-rails shooting range where you have to shoot them before they shoot you. This game isn't about ducking behind protective objects in order to methodically take out your opponents; instead you're rewarded for rushing through the levels as fast as possible trying to kill as many guys as possible without breaking your combo chain.
The Club's one big gimmick is this combo chain mechanic. The way it works is for each character you take down you will earn a score multiplier, so if you take down five characters in a row each addition enemy will be worth five times their value. Of course, you can't just wait around to increase your score, when you don't kill somebody fast enough your combo chain will start to bleed, so you will either have to kill another bad guy or lose your combo all together. While this mechanic is nothing new, the combo chain timer does give the game a sense of urgency that sets this game apart from the rest of the crowd. This isn't a racing game, but you always feel like you're being pushed to kill as many people and complete the level as fast as you possibly can.
The game is split up into eight different levels, each with six to seven events each (in total there are 49 events to play through). The different levels are nice and diverse; they range from an old rundown warehouse to an ocean liner to the dank prison cells to war-torn city. In these levels you will find a number of different events, each of which will take you to different parts of the level. For example, in the prison cells level you may see a whole part of the prison that is off limits to you in one event, but is open and ready to be explored in the next. That's not to say that you won't be seeing a lot of the same area, but like a racing game, you'll find that the various courses are different even if there are some recycled backgrounds.
Each of the 49 individual events in The Club can be beaten in under five minutes, which gives this game a pick-up-and-play feel that you normally only get with portable games or the stuff on the Xbox Live Arcade. The Club is not the kind of game you pick up and play for hours on end, but if you're looking for an action game you can tackle in short bursts, then this may just be the game for you. Either way, all of these different elements fly into the wind of modern shooter mechanics, which is both alienating and intriguing all at the exact same time.
The main single-player mode in The Club comes in the way of the Tournament, an eight-level sporting event that will have you playing against a cast of seven different sharpshooters. Now don't get me wrong, you aren't actually shooting at these different people, instead what you're doing is comparing the score you get in each of the level's six to seven events and then assigning points for each player. Obviously you want to earn as many points as possible so that you will be able to win the tournament and then move on to the next group of events.
The Club has eight different characters to choose from (six ready from the start, two that you unlock as you play through the single-player tournament), each with a crazy over-the-top look and tons of attitude. For example, one of the character's is Nemo, the scariest fisherman I've ever seen. You will also be introduced to Dragov (the most wanted criminal in Russian history), Finn (a high-stakes gambler who looks a lot like Brad Pitt in Fight Club), and Seager (an extreme sports jerk who is looking for the next big high). Like a fighting game, each of these characters has their strengths and weaknesses, so your choice is about more than just which one is the least obnoxious and annoying.
At first the events seems diverse, but it won't take long before you realize that you're essentially doing the same few game types over and over again in multiple levels. The basic game type is Sprint, which involves you shooting your way through dozens of enemies while searching for the level's exit. There are also a couple of variations on that theme, including a timed mode that makes you rush through the level before time expires.
Oddly enough, that's not the only timed mode found in The Club. Another interesting mode is called Time Attack; it involves you running laps around a level, similar to how a traditional racing game works. As you are running through the course you will need to shoot objects on the wall, kill enemies and pick up stop watch icons in order to extend your time and live to see another crazy lap. Is this mode realistic? Not in the least, there's no reason why you would be running through the level three times in real life, yet as a crazy arcade-style action game it seems to fit in just fine.
Another event is the Survivor and Siege modes, which give you a small chuck of land that you need to stay in until the time runs out. These modes feel the most like the traditional target practice shooting range, you basically stand with your back up to the wall shooting any object that pops up, runs at you, or looks like a threat. If you need life here is usually a small health item found in the level, but it will require you to run out of bounds and get back in before time runs out. Not only is the object to stay alive until time runs out, but you will also want to rack up as many points and combo chains as possible.
Regardless of what kind of event you are playing, The Club's objective is always clear. You want to come out of each of these events with as many points as you can, which means that you're going to have to rerun these courses multiple times so that you can memorize where all the enemies are, find the hidden objects, and get to the exit with a huge combo chain. What's more, you get more points depending on how you kill an enemy, so it's imperative that you try for head shots or environmental kills (gas cans, etc.). It's this combo-based scoring system that is the most appealing part of the game, which is probably why it's so tightly woven into the fabric The Club.
When you aren't competing against the other members of The Club, you can try and beat your score (and maybe even your friend's scores) in the single event section. This is where you can play all of the events you've unlocked, constantly upping your score and practicing for the next tournament. When you're not doing that you can set up a playlist so that you can play all of your favorite events in whatever order you want.
Unfortunately that's about all there is for a single person to do. The action, while compelling, is extremely shallow and repetitive. It won't take long before you realize that you're doing the same sorts of things level after level, which can get old if you're trying to play it for hours on end. Adding to the problem is the relatively short tournament, something that can be beaten on multiple difficulties in one afternoon. That's not to say that you won't have a good time going through The Club, but there's not a whole lot of meat on this animal.
For some people the very idea of going back and beating their scores will be enough of a reason to keep playing the game, but I suspect that there are just as many people who would be completely turned off by this simplistic gameplay mechanic. This is definitely a throwback to the arcade mentality we had a dozen or so years ago; it is not meant to be played for huge chunks of time, but rather in those moments when you want to play a game with a lot of action but don't have a lot of time to devote to your favorite shooter.
On top of the 49 single-player events, The Club also comes with a very average online multiplayer-mode. Not only does this game offer all of the standard (read: boring) game types, but it also gives you nice and large levels to fight in. Actually, that's the problem, the levels are entirely too big for this type of game. To make matters worse, the game's controls are not set up for an online shooter, what is passable as a single-player set-up does not cut it in the world of multiplayer shooters. Another problem is that this game is essentially competing against the likes of Halo3, Call of Duty 4, Team Fortress 2 and even Gears of War, whereas the single-player feels so fresh and new that it's hard to compare it to any other shooter on the market. There's just nothing in the multiplayer mode that will keep you coming back for more, which is sad when you consider the potential this title had.
At first the game looks pretty good, but the more you play The Club the more you'll start to see where the developers cut corners. The backgrounds are nice; they are richly detailed and generally look good. On the flip side, the enemies you fight are rather plain and ugly, not to mention that they aren't as detailed as the backgrounds and your character. As you start to see these characters constantly in your face you realize how average the game looks, even with the spectacular background graphics.
The Club is a game of good ideas, but Bizarre Creations just wasn't able to wrap it up in a deep enough package. I'm sure there will be people who can't wait to replay these levels again and again trying to beat their high scores, but I'm not sure there's $60 worth of content here. Having said that, The Club is definitely an exciting game that takes the shooting genre in a completely different direction. Part of me really likes the fact that there are companies trying new things, even if this is not a complete success. The Club is worth checking out, but I'm not sure you'll want a lifetime membership there.
While The Club is one of Sega's best action games in years, it's marred by a lack of depth and repetitive gameplay. If you can get past some of these shortcomings then you will find that The Club is a worthwhile game that tries to do something different with the third-person shooter genre.