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It's no surprise that Bizarre Creations, the people behind Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars, developed The Club. Few other developers know how to put together such a tight game that has the presentation to match its addictive gameplay. At its most basic The Club is a run and gun shooter that scores your performance, but look beyond the surface and you'll see a game packed full of style, brimming with replay value and demanding of the most skilful players around. This is an arcade shooter like you've never seen before.
There is a backstory of sorts to The Club, but it's pretty inconsequential and only really there because it's a video game and video games need a story. You play as one of eight characters (although two are locked at the start) as you battle through the world's most lethal bloodsport. As the game points out: "Kills earn scores. Scores bring success. Success means survival." Add to that the little nugget that is "Kill quickly because in The Club, if you stand still you're dead..." and you should have a pretty good idea of what The Club is about.
As a third-person shooter The Club plays as you'd expect. Your turning speed isn't really up to par with something like Unreal Tournament though, so you've got a 180-degree turn button to help you target enemies attacking from behind. Other than that it's pretty standard third-person shooter stuff, with the left trigger giving you a zoomed aim, right trigger firing, left bumper for melee attack and right bumper for sprinting. You run through each level, shooting people and earning points before, assuming you make it through alive, moving on to the next level or location.
The Club features eight locations, each with a series of challenges brining the total number to 49. They're not really levels in the traditional sense, with each taking no longer than around five minutes, and you'll be competing in one of five challenge types: Sprint sees you racing to the exit, Siege asks you to defend an area against wave after wave of enemies until the time runs out, Time Attack has you running laps against the clock while trying to stay alive, Survivor places you in a marked off area and has you fighting off enemies until the timer ticks down, and Run the Gauntlet requires you to run through a large area and reach the exit before time runs out.
In the Tournament mode you're always competing against the other seven competitors, and you're awarded points depending on where you finish. Achieving a top three finish after all the location's challenges are complete will see you winning a bullet, but that's easier said than done. Your place on each challenge's leaderboard is dependent on your score for that challenge. Run through the level and you'll progress, but you won't get a high score, making for a somewhat shallow feeling as you open up the next location without troubling the leaders of the pack.
You can progress through the game like this if you choose, consistently coming in the bottom half of the leaderboard, but that's just not the point. After a while it's almost impossible not to care about your score and the ways you can go about increasing it. The simplest is to build up a combo, which as you'd imagine is when you kill one guy after another within a certain time. The time you have between kills is shown by your Killbar, a meter that starts to drain as soon as you kill someone. The higher your combo the faster your Killbar drains, so it's far from easy to rack up high combos.
Markers placed in the levels called Skullshots can be shot down to replenish your Killbar, and these become essential as you progress from being a beginner to someone trying to achieve a new high score. Once you think beyond surviving and focus on earning points the game reaches a whole new level of skill and strategy. For example, it's pointless shooting out every Skullshot you see, especially when running laps. You'll need to learn which you need to shoot in order to replenish your Killbar and reach more enemies, and which you can save for your next lap. The same is true of health pick-ups. It's unwise to use them all on your first run through as you'll then face severe trouble later on.
In order to get the most out of The Club you need to stop seeing it as a standard third-person shooter and look at it like you would a game like Tony Hawk or Skate. You certainly have to be good at shooting people, but the real skill comes in linking everything together. More points can be earned by linking together headshots, taking out goons with your last bullet, making a 180-degree turn and instantly killing a guy, targeting and killing someone straight out of a roll, and more. Before too long you'll be worrying about when to reload and which weapon you should be wielding in order to most successfully tackle each area.
Just as Geometry Wars excelled at making you have one more go in the hope that you'd get a new high score or beat the top score on your friends list, The Club offers leaderboards for everything you'd want. Playing through the game's eight settings on the hardest difficulty is challenging enough, but competing against the world for a place at the top of a leaderboard makes The Club as addictive as games can get.
For a game so focussed on high scores and gameplay best suited to a solo experience, the multiplayer offerings in The Club are surprisingly plentiful and good to boot - assuming you have enough players in the game. Playable with up to eight players online or using System Link, and for up to four players split-screen on a single console, the game has three free-for-all game types and four made for team play. While split-screen is nice, we found that four players just isn't enough for the size of maps and game types on offer. Hunter/Hunted provided the most thrills during our multiplayer escapades, but the team game types should provide plenty of action once the game is released.
In addition to the main Tournament mode, tackling single events and playing with friends, The Club also offers GunPlay. Essentially it lets you create playlists out of levels, so you can play as you want. Fancy taking on a series of Siege events from four different locations, with your main weapon as the Punisher shotgun and the difficulty increasing as you move from level to level? No problem. The game obviously keeps track of high scores for these GunPlay events but also lets you pass the controller around so you can play with friends, taking turns to set the high score.
More surprising than the depth to the gameplay is the impeccable presentation. Quite why I wasn't expecting this from the studio behind the stunning Project Gotham Racing series, I'm not sure, but it's got something to do with how the game looks in motion compared to screen shots. When the game's moving it brings back memories of arcade games of old. Your main character is big and insanely detailed, the movement is smooth and fast, and there are enough next-gen graphical effects to please the pickiest of gamers. The whole game is bathed in the kind of polish you just don't see across the majority of games and to our eyes the Xbox 360 and PS3 games are nigh-on identical - save for the odd bit of slowdown in the PS3 version.
In most games I'd argue that the use of swearing isn't necessary, but it works in The Club. The fact that the guys you're trying to gun down have a few bad things to say to you seems perfectly normal. The music fits perfectly, keeping you pumped as you race from kill to kill and the level design is brilliant - although it can seem a little awkward at first. You could argue that eight different locations isn't enough, but they are greatly varied and large enough to make each challenge feel unique, despite the re-use of locations.
Given how polished the whole game is, the lack of replays seems hard to believe. In the PGR series the ability to download a replay of the best drivers made for great viewing and they acted as the best way to learn how to play the game properly. GunPlay events can't be shared either, which seemed like an obvious tool to include in a game built around the concept of competing against other gamers. While both omissions are us being picky, they would have rounded off the package brilliantly.
SEGA has a bit of a dilemma on its hands. The Club is the last game developed by Bizarre Creations that won't be published by Activision. Given how brilliant The Club is it's going to be hard for anyone else to pick up where Bizarre left off. That's all in the future though. As it stands The Club is one of the finest examples of bringing the essence of arcade gaming to modern consoles and a game no adrenaline junkie should pass up.
Don't forget to check out our The Club video review, where we show the game in action for over four minutes.