What is the most important element of any action game? Visual fidelity? Not really. Innovation? Never. Longevity? Hardly. Many a title has come and gone possessing none of the above qualities, whilst remaining an exemplary addition to the genre. It’s not a tough formula to get right: paramount to any action game’s success is, well, action. Style. Flair. These are the experiences dedicated unabashedly to the set-piece, the moments that make the player’s hair stand on end; the “WOW!” factor, as it were. Games that aim towards this uninhibited and come up empty handed are rare to say the least, and the splendour of the Call of Dutys and Gears of Wars of this world hinges entirely on just how awesome they make the person at the controls feel for carrying out each button press. Showmanship is the order of the day, and any straightforward modern shooter lacking in it comes off as hollow and dull.
Hiding behind an extraordinary presentation layer is by no means a flaw if the veneer in question is impressive enough, and it’s definitely something The Club could have used. As it stands, however, an interesting concept falls down at the crucial hurdle of execution because it’s not brave enough, not as sure-footed as it needs to be, to throw away its overly conservative “pure gameplay” notion and wrap it in something much more palatable.
Everything about Bizarre Creations’ half-breed shooter is so… serviceable. It’s almost as if the studio engineered each element so as not to stand out in any way at all. The idea behind it is a good one – an intriguing evolution of the third-person-shooter that only a developer with a racing pedigree could implement well – a fusion of two almost diametrically opposed genres that seems just crazy enough to work. Blast through quickfire levels as quickly as possible whilst maintaining a kill combo to rack up the bonuses, how can it go wrong?
The Club proves that it can’t. What it also proves is that, whilst the shape given to an inspired outline can be solid enough, it won’t necessarily turn out exceptional even in the purportedly right hands. The shooting itself is too basic, the characters are cumbersome, the guns are samey and ineffectual and there’s no sense of pace. In the context of a game constructed around speed runs, this too is entirely perplexing. Manoeuvring the protagonists is a chore, but once they’re wrestled into position and the button layout acclimatised to, things start looking up.
Unfortunately, they flatline when one realises this is all The Club has to offer. It’s one of the most straight down the line average games ever made, so undistinguished is the entire experience. Enemies crumple with little incident. Explosions are sparse, and worse, carry no impact. Weapons are dull to look at and duller still to use. Melee attacks are no more remarkable than a swipe of the equipped gun. Where are the flailing ragdolls that soar ten feet into the air with so much as a nudge? Where are the screen-consuming fireballs that obliterate everything in the immediate surroundings? Where is the impact and weight behind the trigger? Where are the gravity-defying karate kicks and face-mangling uppercuts? At its most stripped down, The Club can be enjoyable, but it is severely in need of an intravenous shot of adrenalin with a side order of exhibitionism.
Of course, though, they’re looking to provide focussed, uncomplicated gameplay, untouched by Hollywood dressing and with no frippery allowed. Attempting to apply old-school principles of high-score nirvana-chasing to modern archetypes can work – Wipeout HD’s Time Trials and Zone mode are a great example – but when the gameplay in question is so unevolved and lagging behind the pack in such numerous ways, it’s no excuse. The Club has a roll button, a crouch button, an aim button; but none of them are of any particular practical application. To dangle bells and whistles like this on a twenty year old template is utterly confounding, because the resulting amalgamation of styles comes off as indecisive. If something is to be streamlined, go all the way with the bare essentials and polish them to mirror sheen, don’t start haphazardly tacking on bits and bobs that improve the formula in no discernible way. For such a supposedly bare-bones game, The Club has a lot of unnecessary clutter.
Vitally, though, the pressure that is The Club’s selling point is rarely felt, and this is perhaps the title’s biggest failing. It moves ironically quickly from “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” to “not this again”, because the core action is so unambitious. Unambitious, in fact, to the point that it undermines any potentially unique features. The variety of modes, stages and characters is rendered moot by both the chronic personality deficiency and aversion to any action approaching high-octane. The hideous load times serve the player well, allowing him or her to reflect on what they could better be doing with their time than such run of the mill drudgery. Something enriching, perhaps, because life’s short enough as it is.