The Club Review (PS3)

As much as reviewers regularly decry the lack of ingenuity in modern gaming (and particularly within the shooter genre), every now and then it's nice to have our words smacked firmly into place, and that's clearly the chief goal of Bizarre Creations latest PS3 title, The Club. Following on from a stellar track record of racing and arcade releases, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the British studio's first attempt at an action game could have gone horribly wrong; fortunately for us, that couldn't be further from reality, and The Club has positioned itself as one of the most uniquely refreshing takes on the genre in recent memory.

If the widely available PS3 demo didn't spell out the formula clearly enough (and that has been a somewhat valid criticism), perhaps the following gameplay recipe might shed a little light. In order to make The Club, you need to take one part Gears of War, add in a dash of Street Fighter, blend with a good dose of Geometry Wars, and sprinkle liberally with PGR. Bake for around 2-3 minutes per batch, and it'll all come together surprisingly well.

Character design is fairly standard

The environments are a mixture of urban decay

As a plotline, the titular 'Club' exists as a sort of deadly millionaires playground. The worlds best gunfighters have been invited to navigate their way through several urban arenas filled with cannon fodder foes, in the hopes of making it out alive and traversing the obstacles with as much finesse and skill as possible. This is a game in which score multipliers grow with every headshot, and killing isn't simply a means to an end, it's all about the speed and the manner of death in which you deal.

At the outset of the single-player campaign, players are asked to choose from one of six available characters (out of a total of eight including unlocks), each with their own strengths and weaknesses across categories such as speed, strength and stamina. The structural similarities to the fighting game genre are clearly evident; each protagonist has a very short introductory video, and a suitably cheesy ending following on from victory across the eight short tournaments. As if to prove a point, the in-game announcer even shouts 'Fight!' at the beginning of each level, following a brief charicature close-up of your chosen warrior.

Initially, events are split into eight different tournaments, stretched across the same number of themed environments. Each tournament consists of six different events, with every one taking a matter of 2-3 minutes to complete. The key aspect here is replayability, and the entire design of the game is based around rewarding multiple playthroughs, tailoring tactics to suit each different fighter. Again, exactly like a modern or traditional fighter.

The basic action however (somewhat bizarrely), could best be described as a third-person humanoid racing game, with a control scheme that mimics Gears of War right down to the sprint button. Every level represents a linear course, with enemies popping up singularly or in groups, and in the same location on every playthrough. A single enemy kill scores a set amount of points depending on the range and body part aimed for, and also refreshes a short, ever-decreasing 'kill bar' represented on the HUD. If you fail to reach the next enemy before this runs down, the kill bar begins to 'bleed out', knocking points off your score multiplier as it drops. The action then, turns into a frantic dash between groups of enemies, with top scores coming from long-range kills, headshots, and other explosive combinations.

Weaponry is varied and fun to use

Venice is rendered unusually subdued and colourless

Each tournament usually contains a number of other events beside the basic sprint however, with each one proving to be just as addictive in practice. Siege mode is probably the most innovative here, with the player asked to stand inside a fairly small chalk square for a set period of time, facing off against waves of enemies coming from every direction. Other modes include timed sprints to the exit gate, and another in which the player is asked to complete laps around particular sections, stretching the racing theme to its logical limit. It's testament to the design team that all of these modes are suitably fun to play, with every one of them playing up to the adrenalin-charged action in a slightly different manner than the last, each enjoyable in its own right.

Once the tournaments have been completed, each individual event becomes available for freeplay on any of the four main skill levels. This, conversely, is where the meat of the game lies. The urge to replay each section and increase scores is the real draw here, as you'll undoubtedly notice quicker paths through the environment with each run-through, or a different place to hang back and snipe from a distance. Competing with your own top score (and those of the online community), quickly becomes excruciatingly addictive, and racking up a string of four or five headshots then dashing to the next corner becomes as satisfying as any score-based game I can think of.

Multiplayer options are taken care of with full spit-screen and online play, and bizarre's technical expertise and previous experience has led to a robust and seemingly lag-free environment to play in. The standard and basic deathmatch and team modes are all included, along with the ability to play the siege mode online, with one team constantly assaulting the other until a single frantic player is left alive. Whilst the multiplayer component suffers from being a little slow-paced compared to other shooters, and isn't likely to oust the genre favourites any time soon, it is certainly well developed and a good diversion for a few hours.

So, what of the problems then? Well, as so often in cases like this, the art direction is certainly hit and miss at best. Each of the characters generally falls into a broad stereotype, and most are instantly forgettable (with a couple of exceptions). The environments themselves are nicely modelled, with some good destructible scenery and level design, but again nothing particularly stands out as exceptional. Colours are bland and awash with grey and faded hues, and you just get the feeling that we've seen these environments before, and in some circumstances presented much better by other games.

Also, whilst the shooting mechanics are undoubtedly well developed at a distance, up close the combat tends to fall apart fairly quickly, with the sole melee attack difficult to use and unsatisfying in terms of connection. Compounding that, shooting enemies or skill targets from point-blank range frequently fails to register, and whilst this isn't a game-breaking flaw (it's rare to be that close as it is), it certainly annoys to a noticeable level from time to time.

Explosions are plentiful and satisfying

Enemy kills are clearly marked with a point and multiplayer total

The biggest barrier to entry however lies squarely with the design ethos. In making a purely competitive shooter, Bizarre has undoubtedly alienated a large portion of the potential audience, and those that don't enjoy score attack games will have seen everything they need to see within the first two minutes of play. Of course that isn't an inherent criticism of the game itself, as to dilute the premise and structure would be to strip away the core of everything that's right here. The Club is the very definition of a Marmite game for that reason alone, and I would strongly recommend spending time with the demo version before contemplating a purchase.

Overall though, the fact that a large portion of the shooter audience will be turned off by the core design doesn't alter the fact that Bizarre has undoubtedly accomplished every goal set in the original remit. The Club is an adrenaline-fuelled, addictive theme park ride with an all-day free pass. The very best qualities of several genres have been put to innovative and well implemented use here, and whilst I cant recommend it to everybody, if you enjoy shooting games and get caught up in the 'just one more try' mentality of Geometry Wars and the like, it's undoubtedly worth a look.

Top game moment: Racking up a huge multiplier with consecutive headshots, then dashing to the next encounter.