Version tested: Xbox 360
Shooters are big, serious business these days, but The Club is having none of it - you pick from a range of pre-rolled hard-men caricatures with varying speed, strength and stamina statistics and then gun your way at pace through a series of grimy environments racking up kills as quickly as possible to build up combos.
It's from the makers of Project Gotham Racing. PGR wasn't just a brilliant driving game, it was a brilliant high-scores game, where half the fun came from stringing together absurd combinations of power-slides and overtaking manoeuvres and showing off at high speed in a car. The Club does the same trick of leaning into its source material thematically and mechanically but dancing away from it in design.
The result is a shooter that turns tired genre conventions around with a bullet to the shoulder. You're not just clearing levels to get to the next cut-scene, but you yearn for the next identikit enemy to appear, or for a turret gun to control, because these things keep the combo alive. Self-preservation is a secondary consideration; this is all about timing. An ever-present meter in the top-right ticks down from every kill-shot, forcing you to barrel forward for the next one. If you see an enemy, and you have time, you just keep on running toward them, only capping them when the meter's almost empty, doing a forward-roll beforehand to increase your score takeaway.
So the speed and the sense of linking moves together hangs over from PGR, but instead of learning corners, you learn enemy positions. If you fail to tag someone new in time, or to nail a hidden Skullshot icon in that window, then your combo starts to "bleed", reducing your multiplier, and you need to keep that multiplier up because you're not fighting your way to the end, you're fighting to get a better score than the other players on the leaderboard. When playing alone, these are AI players whose scores are presented to you before each round.
Environments, of which there are eight, are split into various tasks each with their own route. Sprints are about simply getting to the exit with the highest score possible, giving you licence to take your time and nail everyone in a sequence that fits the combo meter tempo (see what happens when you practice hard enough over on Eurogamer TV). Time Attacks are laps of each level route scattered with Skullshot time-boosts, clock icons that add to your time limit and a few seconds more for every kill, and Run the Gauntlet is about reaching the exit before the clock runs down. Siege and Survivor levels are the most surprisingly good: the goal is to survive without straying from an area marked out by chalk lines and traffic cones as enemies descend on you from every available angle and zip-line. It's frantic yet subtle, utterly absorbing, and the best fodder for combos, which is the key to everything.
Mechanically, it's a third-person shooter with decent analogue movement and targeting, aiming assists, and a down-the-barrel ironsights L-trigger that helps you to nail distant foes and Skullshots. The smoothness of turning and the fluidity of the visuals combine with an assurance typically unattainable for developers turning out their first shooter, and while there's an occasionally frustrating sluggishness to your movement (although sprinting is fast and unlike, say, Gears, pretty responsive), that frustration is more to do with your eagerness to find the next target than anything bad about the game.
Even so, The Club is likely to prove divisive. Everything it does well flows from a run-and-gun mentality almost alien to modern shooter fans brought up on measured, tactical combat in Halo or Call of Duty. There's no jumping, and you can't climb over a lot of low walls. There's no cover mechanic, which is a bold decision presumably taken because Bizarre wants to keep you on the move, and off-set by an intuitive sense of how much damage you can take: a lot, but not so much that you can afford to ignore health packs, whose consumption becomes increasingly tactical as you fight your way to the end of the single-player campaign.
What dawns on you towards the end of that play-through is just how well-structured and designed each environment really is. In one Siege level in the final war-torn setting I died because I was trying to strafe backwards and left out of a doorway into the play area away from a rocket-firing enemy and I became snagged on the doorframe. Much as I cursed, the overwhelming feeling was of just how unusual an experience that was: to create a shooter - third- or first-person - where blind movement is so rarely punished in complicated environments is a testament to considered layout.
Bizarre's subtlety of execution will probably be lost on people who observe it from afar. It's no discredit to them; The Club just isn't a game that looks amazing in screenshots or video, or necessarily leaps off the page, but it's actually composed of moreish tasks that you'll want to revisit, with routes signposted in an unobtrusive but routinely effective manner and core controls and reward systems that so seldom punish you for faults not your own that it's evidently eye-opening. And while you can complete the single-player game in under four hours, it's the hours after that which define the experience.
The inclusion of leaderboards is an obvious but compelling decision. There's one for each task, and target scores for each of the four difficulty levels - a bit like PGR's Steel-to-Platinum range of medal objectives. The Tournaments of the single-player campaign are great, with scoreboards ala Mario Kart where points are awarded based on relative finishing totals rather than times. But you can replay anything you've done once it's unlocked in the Single Event mode, and I've actually spent more time here than anywhere else. I had the good fortune to review the game when no one else was playing, so I could easily earn the (Xbox 360) Achievements for making the top 5,000 or 100,000 in a given task, but hopefully SEGA's marketing will put the game in the hands of many thousands so they're worth competing to attain on a proper playing field.
But SEGA won't be able to ball out the ad-men if it doesn't sell, because its real problem is that it isn't a compelling spectacle. Enemies fall like granite tea towels when they might explode across the level like John Woo extras, and while the levels are superbly constructed from a technical standpoint - and certainly painstakingly detailed - they do all settle into a grey-brown rust explosion of relative dreariness. Maybe this is because it's important to be able to define your targets quickly - it certainly is - but the fact Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, Half-Life 2 and countless very good others manage this without boring the eyes is an indictment of the artistic direction. There are set-pieces, but they're old hat next to Modern Warfare.
The Club will also struggle to unseat Infinity Ward's opus at the top of the online gameplay charts, but what it does offer for multiple players is very arresting. Online options are there for basic competitive speed-run modes (in Score Match, the first to hit a target scores wins, but Kill Match sets the target in enemy numbers, resulting in a very different dynamic), while the Team modes worked best for us. Sharing the Siege experience - particularly when the other team is human-controlled - is brilliant, and you have to admire a game that includes "Team Fox Hunt" (after all, it is about taking down the other team's fox - surely they deserve it poor old chickens etc).
If you prefer to play with people sat on your lap, there are also split-screen and network options. Or you could swap the pad between yourselves to try and beat a particular time. Gunplay mode lets you create playlists of levels you've unlocked, allowing you to argue with Bizarre's pacing decisions. There's a welcome variety in length and environment design. Smaller levels like Downtown Dash (see it conquered on Eurogamer TV) couple neatly to frantic gambling in rooftop Survivor missions - judging when best to race outside the boundary for a health-pack before diving back in before you explode.
Overall, The Club is brilliantly immediate, logical and rewarding in ways that the PGR games always were and are, and it does for the third-person shooter what no one else has even bothered trying to do: moving it closer to the 2D shoot-'em-ups of old in a manner that appeals anew. In terms of Bizarre's canon, it is what PGR was for cars: familiar concepts designed to be enjoyed over and over rather than gasped at and discarded.
8 / 10