It's hardly surprising to hear Project Gotham Racing referred to during a demo of The Club. After all, both are Bizarre Creations games. What's more surprising is to hear mention of Tekken, Street Fighter and Tony Hawk. There are references to other shooters, but not in the context you might expect. At one point we're told, "The Club isn't about hiding behind cover and waiting for guys to come to you. It's not about stealth. It's sort of... Anti-Gears of War."
So says Nick Davis, design manager at Bizarre. The Club is the studio's first attempt at a fully-fledged, fast-paced third-person shooter. Rather than focus on what makes other shooters fun, Bizarre looked at how its other games work and went outside the genre for new ideas.
One of the results, Davis explains, is that The Club is "more akin to a beat-'em-up" than a traditional shooter. For example, as you'd expect in a traditional fighting game, there are eight characters to choose from. Each has unique levels of strength, speed and stamina. Each has a unique back-story and motivations for taking part in The Club's underground shooting competitions, and their own intro and outro movies explaining it all.
In another nod to classic beat-'em-up there's a range of different arenas located around the globe. There are eight in total, including a German steel mill, an old English manor house, an abandoned ocean liner and a disused prison. But for today's demo, we're being taken to the back streets of Venice.
It's darker and grittier than your typical picture postcard. Less gondoliers and Cornettos and more burning oil drums and rocket launchers. Everywhere there are doorways to hide in and windows to pop up from. It's the perfect place to hold an underground shooting competition, but Davis says environment construction always comes before level layout.
"We build our levels in much the same way we build Project Gotham cities; we build an entire location then build routes through it. So instead of designing specific levels from start to finish, we construct huge environments then chop them up as we see fit."
They're chopped up to suit the different game modes, too. Sprint sees you legging it to the end of the level before the clock runs out. In Time Attack you earn precious seconds for each kill, in Siege you must hold a location for a set period of time, and in Survival you face wave after wave of enemies. Whichever you choose and however you perform, it's all over fast.
"The idea is that rather than play a level for half an hour, you can say, 'I really like that level, I'll just jump in and play for five minutes,'" says Davis.
"It's a lifestyle choice for us at Bizarre. We haven't got time to play games for six hours a night after playing them eight hours a day. We like to just jump into the best part of the game then jump back out again."
So The Club isn't about 45-minute-long missions. It's about short, sharp arcade blasts. It's about simple objectives and scoring points to progress to the next level. Extra points are awarded for headshots, multiple kills, distance kills and weapon pickups. Plus there are "skillshots", where you're rewarded for shooting all the metal signs of a particular design, for example.
If you really want to boost your score you need to watch your combo meter. Each kill fills it up slightly, but it immediately starts draining again. You must make another kill to keep the combo going and increase your points multiplier. The idea is you're encouraged to keep moving instead of take cover. There's no limit to how many kills you can chain so, "If there are 44 bad guys in a level, you could theoretically get a 44 times combo."
But you can't just rely on combo kills to boost your score. You need to work out the best mix of skillful shots and fast moves too. "I guess it's a Tony Hawk kind of style," says Davis. "The Club encourages players to be accurate, quick and pacy. You can chain together moves to get outrageous scores, and that's really what the game is all about."
You also have to become familiar with The Club's level layouts in the same way you get to know the tracks in Project Gotham. "We've purposefully designed the gameplay mechanic so it's like you're playing a racing game where you learn each corner, where to brake and so on. In this game you learn where enemies are and the best places to reload."
All the levels are entirely linear. According to Davis, the development team did experiment with allowing players to plot multiple routes, but it didn't work out. "Early on, we tried making the AI really intelligent and creating levels you could wander round. Players found it really frustrating because the AI was outsmarting them, they couldn't get the combos going, they would get lost. The fun part of beating the score wasn't there."
Live and kicking
If earning points and beating scores is a key element of the single-player game, it's even more significant in multiplayer. "We've found people are playing the same levels over and over again, trying to beat their best friends' scores and get to the top of the Xbox Live leaderboards," says Davis. "We've got around 600 leaderboards in total. That must be a world record, I'm sure."
Bizarre isn't showing off the multiplayer modes yet, but Davis does say there will be "about nine" to choose from. They will be "half quite traditional, half based around The Club and the way it works". So that means Sprint, for example, as well as Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch.
Even though we don't get to see The Club's multiplayer element in action, it's easy to grasp the fundamental concept. You'll be able to jump in and jump out whenever you please, and there will be a huge range of choice regarding how and where you take on your opponents. It's also easy to imagine spending hours trying to beat Tom's score. And failing, judging by the Pac-Man Championship Edition experience, but still, that was fun.
Whether The Club's online modes will be just as extensive on PC and PS3 isn't clear - Davis only mentions Xbox Live. He's demoing the game on 360, which, he says, is "because we led on 360".
"When we came off PGR we had a lot of 360 dev kits lying around, so the best thing was for us to make a start." But that's not the only reason. "I prefer the controller. And it's easier to carry."
Development may have started with Xbox 360, but The Club is due for release on all three platforms simultaneously. As announced previously, that won't now be until "early 2008".
Will it be worth the wait? It's hard to say for definite as we've yet to go hands-on with the game. But the idea of combining beat-'em-up and shooter elements is an intriguing one, and Bizarre certainly has an excellent track record. The Club marks a new direction for them, and they've clearly thought long and hard about how to carve their own niche. So far, the signs look good.