Monday, March 03, 2008

The Club Review

The Club, developed by Bizarre Creations and published by Sega.
The Good: Fast-paced combo-based gameplay, scoring method promotes replayability, robust collection of game types and weapons, detailed environments
The Not So Good: Can get repetitive, poorly balanced difficulty, fixed third-person perspective can get disorienting, uses Games for Windows LIVE, no truly original gameplay modes, zoom and crouch buttons must be held down instead of toggled, online games limited to only eight players
What say you? The very definition of run and gun: 6/8

The first rule of The Club is you do not talk about The Club. The second rule of The Club is you do not talk about The Club. All right, it was either that or a reference to a 50 Cent song, and I made my choice. The Club is another one of those console games we are so privileged to have made an appearance on the PC. There are obviously a lot of quality shooters available on our beloved platform, but there is always room for one more it seems. The Club is developed by a group known for their racing games, so no doubt The Club will be peppered with fast-paced gameplay. How will the game stack up against the collection of PC shooters?

The graphics of The Club are pretty good, featuring detailed environments and some nice effects. It looks like a lot of work went into making the dingy locales you will be killing people in, and the settings are varied: from prisons to ships to factories to real cities. The quality of the levels rivals Call of Duty 4 (and even surpasses that title in some cases). Parts of each environment are destructible as well; this is more cosmetic than gameplay related and the destruction seems to be heavily scripted, but shattering windows and destroyed balconies are still nice features. The character models are well-done, although there are some clearly canned animations (when jumping off stairs or performing dives, for example) that repeat themselves often enough to be quite noticeable. The explosions and death animations are decent enough to be plausible. Rag doll physics are present in the game, so making some kills on slanted surfaces or stairs and watching your target tumble is pretty fun. There is a good amount of blood in the game, making kills pretty obvious. One problem with the game, coming from a PC perspective, is the fixed third-person perspective. As a gamer who is accustomed to a first person view, watching all of the action from over the shoulder was initially very disorienting, as all of the characters’ big heads obscured a portion of the screen. Also, quickly turning around puts even more of the character on the screen. After a while, I did get used to the perspective, but I still want my first person view. The graphics grew on me over time, as I increasingly became more aware of the detail present in The Club.
The sound is typical for a shooter: gunshots, appropriate background music, and scattered voice acting. This game is rated “M” (for mature) and there are some unnecessary naughty words peppered in the game, though if I was being shot at, I’d probably cuss too. Each of the game’s weapons has a distinct sound and the chaos of the game comes through in the sound design. Overall, The Club features a pleasing presentation.

The Club is a very fast third-person (*sigh*) shooter where you must kill people quickly. The game is clearly designed for the Xbox as all of the in-game controls refer to an Xbox controller. There aren’t any toggle settings for crouch or zoom, so you have to keep the button held down, something that may work on a controller but not so well on a keyboard layout. The Club comes with both single player and multiplayer gaming modes, and the single player tournaments and single events actually have replay value thanks to the scoring method employed in the game. You get points for kills, and the more kills you string together, the bigger the multiplier. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a shooter that’s emphasized high scores over simple survival so it’s a nice, fresh take on the genre that actually makes you want to play the same level over again to try to perfect your technique.

The first thing you’ll need to do is pick a character. There are eight to choose from, each of which is rated in terms of speed, strength, and stamina. The characters are balanced as each avatar has a total of ten points spread across the three attributes, so there are no imbalanced characters. Everybody will be able to find at least one character that fits their style; I excelled with the slow-moving but high-damage Russian guy (I think his name was Yakov Smirnov). Each of the levels are really short (two minutes max), which also promotes the whole replay thing. Most of the levels are clearly marked with where to go next with plentiful arrows and such, but some environments are more subtle in their directions. While you are trying to earn the most number of points over six levels in a single environment to earn medals (bullets in The Club), you don’t need to place in order to unlock the next set of levels: just survive. You are given five attempts to clear a level; if you don’t, you must start over at the very beginning of the tournament; this can be quite annoying if you are on the fifth or last level.

There are five game types in the tournament mode, although they fall into three categories: untimed, timed, and defense. In all cases you are striving to attain the highest score. Sprint mode has you just going towards the exit, but you can take your time in disposing of the enemies. Time attack is a lap-based mode (there is a racing influence) where you must kill and collect clocks to extend the time limit; it’s pretty easy to have plenty of time remaining at the end. Gauntlet is a linear level with a time limit that can’t be increased. Siege involves lots of enemies that spawn really closely that you must fight off while staying within a marked area, and survivor is essentially the same thing. The overall score you earn during a level is placed against pre-determined AI scores (you never fight directly against your seven opponents) and uses a points system (there’s another racing influence) to determine the winner over the six levels in a tournament location. The difficulty changes very drastically over a single tournament: while the time attack modes are fairly easy, siege and survivor can be quite difficult and require many reattempts in order to pass. There could have been better balancing done here.

The Club also features multiplayer, like any good shooter should. I should mention that my retail copy of the game did not come with a CD key (the appropriate area of the back of the manual was left blank) so I could not play multiplayer until I got one from Sega tech support. There are at least some other people having this problem (according to the message boards) but I don’t know how widespread this problem is. Suffice it to say The Club features very good copy protection: even people who own the game can’t play it! The Club’s multiplayer features a good assortment of game types derived from most shooters that have been released in the past five years. Simple deathmatch is always an option, but you can introduce the game’s scoring method to reward chained kills. There is also hunted (from Unreal Tournament 2004), team siege (assault from Unreal Tournament 2004), team capture (the flag), team skullshots (kind of like Domination from, oh, Unreal Tournament 2004), team deathmatch, and team fox hunt (one person on each team is the designated target). I guess the timed modes from the single player tournaments did not make a good translation over to the multiplayer realm, but The Club still features a nice assortment of gaming options for those of us who like to frag online. Unfortunately, like Sega's previous game, The Club uses Games for Windows LIVE (the source of the CD key issue) for Internet matchmaking. Not having a Gold subscription still lets you play online, but you can’t join ranked matches (boo-hoo). The game also divides games over three menus: ranked and player matches for Gold LIVE members and list matches for everyone else. Why do I need to search through three different menus to find a game; shouldn't every game type just be listed on one page? All of the online matches I have played have used the non-Gold browser anyway. The Club is also limited to eight players maximum, a travesty on the PC when we are used to at least (at least) double that quantity. The maps are a bit too large for only eight players, but there is still some fun to be had gaming online in The Club. The fast pace works well online and the matches only last a couple of minutes; it’s certainly a change of pace from the more calculated combat of Call of Duty 4. The game boils down to not having to reload, as the quickened tempo will do you in. It’s not quite Unreal Tournament and it’s not quite Call of Duty, and being somewhere in the middle is fine with me. Plus, I'm pretty good at The Club online.

The Club is all about killing lots of people in a short amount of time. Most of the levels involve constantly running, though when you meet a group of foes taking cover is a good option. The reason why you want to keep moving is The Club uses a combo-based score system. Every time you get a kill, the multiplier goes up; if you get another kill in the next five seconds (or so), the multiplier goes up again. Obviously, you can rack up the points if you keep moving and keep killing; expert players will be able to get a multiplier equal to the number of enemies present in a level. There are also “skullshots” scattered around each map that maintain your current bonus. You can receive bonus points by getting head shots or killing someone on your last bullet as well. This really emphasizes the speedy nature of The Club and the breakneck pace of the game is fast but not too fast for my tastes. The weapons in the game are semi-realistic: they fire faster and kickback less than their real-world counterparts, but the tweaks make it possible to run and shoot. You have the usual assortment of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades to choose from. Ammunition and health packs are scattered around each map. At the end of each level, you receive bonuses for the amount of health you have left; there should be (but isn’t) a bonus for finishing timed levels early. The AI is heavily scripted (otherwise scores from repeat runs would be invalid) and always spawn in the same locations, although after you engage them their basic intelligence comes into play. The game is tough when you encounter lots of enemies at a time and no health packs are to be found, but for the most part the game isn’t that big of a challenge and The Club is more about dispatching enemies quickly. Trying to best your score from a previous attempt is reason enough to play earlier levels, which is something that can’t be said for almost all shooters. I mean, sure, you could play Bioshock or Half-Life again but it's going to be the same; The Club offers incentive, in the form of scoring, to play the same levels over again.

If you are in to fast moving shooters, then The Club will appeal to you. The fast-but-not-too-fast gameplay makes The Club a refreshing shooter in today’s PC market dominated by realistic (or unrealistic but crappy) games. The scoring system makes replaying the same level worth the effort, and the addition of multiplayer, with several modes to choose from, is certainly welcome. The graphics are also highly detailed, presenting worn-down locations in which to kill people. The game, of course, it not without its issues: Xbox port artifacts, a fixed third-person perspective, Games for Windows LIVE, and restricted multiplayer populations. The fast, arcade pace will definitely have a polarizing effect: there will be people who really like this game and people who really hate this game. But I liked it and I don’t usually like twitchy shooters, so there you go. The Club does take a racing mentality and applies it to the shooter genre with generally decent results, producing a distinctive take on how to cause humans to die. Virtually speaking, of course.