Better late than whatever.
Many weeks back, I recorded a Rev Rant wherein I touted The Club demo as a badass mix of old-school and new; the demo took the third-person shooter aspects of modern games and combined it with a hardcore, arcade-style combo system which kept the player in a constant rush to kill more baddies in progressively stylish ways in an effort to get (literally) millions of points.
Well, the full game has been out for a week. Did it live up to my expectations? Does the game's mix of old and new still work over the course of an entire package, and not just a demo? Does its old-school sensibilities make up for its new-school missteps, if there are any?
Hit the jump for the review.
The Club (XBox 360 reviewed, PS3, PC)
I've been wringing my hands and furrowing my brow for the last twenty minutes over how to write a review for The Club. It's a reasonably niche title combines old and new sensibilities in an entirely new and utterly satisfying way, but it still includes some really obvious, irritating problems.
If you're looking for a story in The Club, you're in the wrong place. A thirty second cut scene introduces all the characters and the game's premise (basically The Running Man with more guns and less Richard Dawson), and absurdly odd two-second cut scenes serve as the ending to each character's campaign. The Club is about undistilled gameplay, and makes no attempt to distract the player with unnecessary narrative.
This may sound disheartening to those who were interested in the story possibilities of The Club's premise, but don't sweat it: the gameplay is quirky and intense enough that you don't really need a story. As odd as it may sound, The Club, despite being a third-person shooter, has a lot more in common with Burnout than, say, Gears of War. Upon loading the game, the player can choose from one of six characters with different stamina, strength, and speed attributes (cars), play through very linear, fast-paced shooting maps with slightly differing victory conditions (race tracks), competing for the best score (time) and ultimately trying to do better than his rivals in a multitude of different events (GP). The Club is about fast-paced combo building and stylish mass murder, not survival or bullet time or use of cover.
Speed is the name of the game, and what a fast game it is: from the moment a level starts (each round commences as the Club's announcer enthusiastically growls, "FIGHT!") to the second the player crashes through the exit gate, the gameplay never slows down for a second. The player earns points by quickly and stylishly killing baddies throughout the course of a level. Killing one enemy starts your combo bar a-tickin'; if the bar diminishes before you get a chance to kill another baddie, then your combo starts bleeding and the bonus eventually disappears. If you do manage to kill another enemy, however, your combo multiplier increases and you get more points for every subsequent enemy killed while the combo remains active.
The more enemies you kill and the higher your combo multiplier gets, the faster the combo bar ticks down; because of this, the player is forced to constantly sprint from area to area, searching for enemies to kill to keep the combo going. In The Club, enemies aren't antagonists who prevent you from reaching your goal; they are the goal. More killed enemies means more combos mean more points, and The Club is all about getting high scores.
In the game's main tournament mode, the player must achieve a high score on the six or seven events on each of the eight maps in order to progress. Kill bonuses are given for stylish kills -- head shots, death rolls, last bullet kills and the like -- and these bonuses and multipliers eventually add up to huge, multi-million point scores. There are many, many layers of nuance to getting a high Club score (a well-placed headshot at the right time with the right multiplier can literally mean the difference between 500,000 points and 750,000), and the intuitive-yet-deep mechanics do a lot for the game's arcade-y, old-school feel.
There's always a constant drive to outdo your top score, to get higher in the worldwide leaderboards, to constantly improve and refine your technique. The Club isn't just a game you play, beat, and forget -- if it was, players would be extremely angry at the short length of the singleplayer tournament campaign -- it's something you constantly go back to and practice at. The Club is a game of competition.
With that in mind, then, why the hell is there no option to compete online? Sure, the game automatically uploads your scores to the worldwide leaderboards. Sure, you can engage in one of a half-dozen equally underwhelming multiplayer deathmatch scenarios. But, given the fact that the singleplayer tournament is structured exactly like a racing game grand prix, where placing in specific events boosts your overall circuit score, why the heck can't players do that online? In the tournament mode, the competing AI scores are predetermined, and it's just up to the player to beat them.
The potential is there for some really exhilirating online matches, where each player individually gets to take their turn running through a level and racking up a high score as his competitors watch and strategize: The Club is a pretty competitive game, but the lack of true online score competition serves as a painful instance of missed opportunity. You can still compete with other gamers, but you're only competing against a faceless score assigned to a gamertag; you don't get to see how they achieved the score.
While we're on the subject of flaws, let's talk about the controls. For a game based on precise shooting and incredible speed, the aiming controls could use a heck of a lot of work. Regardless of how high I set the free-look sensitivity, my characters never seemed to turn fast enough; I'd constantly find myself slamming the right stick as far as it could go in one direction, only to wait a couple seconds for my character to finally turn 90 degrees. Additionally, The Club suffers from a case of Gears of War-itis derived from A button usage. The A button rolls and serves as the action button for kicking down barricades. I can't count the number of times I ran toward a breakable door, hit the A button a split-second too soon, and rolled toward the door rather than breaking it open. My momentum stopped, I'd jam on the A button over and over until I finally broke down the door. By this time, my combo ticker had gone down almost halfway, and my adrenaline buzz was sufficiently squashed.
Overall, The Club represents a flawed, but generally enjoyable slice of hardcore gaming. The fast-paced shooting mechanics and old school ideas make for some really intense, exciting, and just plain fun moments, but the squiffy controls and lack of true online score competition prevent The Club from reaching its true potential. Even if these flaws weren't present, however, The Club still wouldn't be for everyone; it caters to a very specific demographic of retro-loving score junkies who believe in perfecting gameplay strategy and achieving the highest score possible. Be sure to try out the XBLA demo before you look into throwing out any dough; if you dig the demo, there's basically just a lot more of that in the full title. If you hate it, the complete package won't do anything to change your opinion.