It's pretty pathetic seeing the best and brightest UK games journalists after they've just played The Club. These are the people that play games for a living. They shouldn't have any trouble with a shooter that's been stripped to the bare bones of running and gunning, especially not one with levels the length of a pop song. But it was like being in an old people's home after a daily ten minute session of callisthenics. Word for word, here are a couple of things I overheard:
"Ooh. I need a bit of a sit down after that."
"Where's the water? I think I need a glass of water."
And I was just as bad, voluntarily giving up my demo pod because my reflexes were shot and I knew my next three minute run of the level would be embarrassing. It's not because we're wusses. Seriously. It's because despite being completely linear and hugely arcade and having the lightest plot imaginable, The Club forces you to use your brain like nothing else. And to get us nice and competitive, SEGA put some prizes on the line for the highest scorers.
See, to get a high score in The Club there are a few things you have to remember. Things that don't come across in the videos we'd seen before. Because combos act as multipliers you'll want to thread your kills together, and that means remembering where all the bad guys are hiding, where they burst out of and where they run to. But you've got to remember to ration those kills- if you've got a big room to cross with three bad guys in, you'll want to be taking out the final bad guy just as you're leaving the room. You can also build your combo by popping a round into the skull signs hidden around a level, so you'll want to remember where they are.
Course your combo multiplier won't mean anything if you're not getting some decent points for it to multiply. So you need to remember to take enemies out from a distance, get headshots, not waste too many bullets, try and kill enemies with the last bullet in your clip, shoot enemies after rolling, shoot enemies after wheeling on the spot, kill enemies with ricocheting bullets, kill enemies on the other side of soft cover, and kill multiple enemies at once.
There's so much to think about you forget the only things shooters normally make you keep track of- health and ammo. All too often death in The Club is a shock because you completely forgot to check your health bar and make that detour to the health pack. And it's always, always a painful detour.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying Bizarre Creation's crazy new concept for a game works. Their idea of bringing racing mechanics to a shooter really does drag some of the best bits of racing games across the genre gap, making a shooter that's engaging, exciting and perfect for tiny bursts of play. Ben Ward, general hero dogsbody guy at Bizarre was eager to talk about why that's no surprise:
"I suspect other games build the story, build the levels, then think how to fit a game around it. We haven't had that at all. We've had this game for years and now we're just adding environments."
And while Bizarre are still keeping the multiplayer modes of this game of theirs under wraps, we can now tell you all about the events available in single player. Sprint mode has you making your way from one end of a level to an exit on the other side, racking up as many points as possible by casually blowing away everything between you and there. Time Attack (get it?) has you doing laps of a course, complete with a waving chequered flag, as increasingly insane opposition shows up. Kill them to extend your time, time runs out you blow up. Then there's Siege and Survivor, which are all about getting points while restricted to a tiny or sizeable area, respectively.
Level design takes a leaf out of Project Gotham's little black book. Just like with PGR's cities, Bizarre have built eight huge environments and each level is just one path through it. You've got an island prison, a steel mill, a mansion, a cruise ship, an old Soviet bunker, a war zone, and, uh, Venice. But it's fine because in The Club's world Venice is sinking and evacuated, with The Club's ultra-powerful organisers posing as a charity organisation.
The trips made by Bizarre's research staff to bring these levels to life sound... varied. The manor 'coincidentally' turned out to be an American girls dormitory full of 18 year-olds in their pyjamas, while at the steel mill everyone learnt how to make steel, and for the war zone they went to Eastern Europe and all learnt they never want to join the army, ever. But it all comes through in the levels. Even the prison feels colourful as you blitz through it, passing graffiti, running across a sun-bleached exercise yard, and over evidence of some horrible past riot. But pleasant as they are, Ben explains the levels really aren't the focus here.
"You don't complain at Street Fighter having 10 stages. You think 'Right, I've done it with Ryu. Now let's try it with Ken.' "
And Street Fighter II isn't as strange a comparison as you'd think, either. When you finish a tournament with any character you'll receive their very own pre-rendered outro that's saved in the options, Beat Em' Up style.
But those kind of extras are thin on the ground. If you want to be sceptical about The Club you should steer well clear of the new ideas it has, because they're rock solid, and you should worry that while Bizarre beef up Project Gotham with a mass of gravy-like features there's almost nothing like that here. The core game of The Club is going to come under a lot of scrutiny, and it needs to get players chasing those crazy scores on the highest difficulties or we'll all be done with it after a couple of evenings.
Still, there's no questioning that the build we played was awesome fun and left us with pounding hearts and the clammy hands of a pervert. More than that, The Club feels fresh. Whether it'll end up being remembered as a cute experiment or the raw first game in a long, long series, we'll have to wait and see.