More than three years ago Sega published Bizarre Creations’ much criticised score attack shooter and while it’s not really old enough to be considered retro it has plenty of old-timey sensibilities that makes it perfect for a retrospective.
It’s also too much like Sonic the Hedgehog for its own good. Interested now?
The set-up for The Club is incredibly straight forward. A group of eight gunmen take part in a tournament where they compete in a series of challenges that are bet on by the wealthy, and the whole ordeal is organised and commentated on by a man known simply as ‘The Secretary’. Unlike other blood sports in games these gunmen never actually interact with each other, so while the character designs are pretty varied it seems like kind of a waste for there to even be a difference between them. In fact it’s strange at all that any attention was given to them, rather than having you play as your own character that you’re free to customise, as aside from having basic stat differences very little of the games content is affected by who you choose.
Story-wise that’s actually all there is. There are no character specific scenarios or endings like the excellent Vigilante 8 2nd Offense on the Dreamcast, and it’s definitely disappointing there was no attention paid to developing the characters at all, especially when they do actually have back stories, especially since the character models are graphically the most impressive part of the game, with plenty of swaying accessories and flapping coats.
The game appears to be a generic third-person shooter, but the pacing is vastly unlike many of its ilk. Shooting is incredibly fluid and easy. While there is a more accurate aiming stance mapped to the right mouse button, pulling off headshots at close-to-medium distances is pretty easy without it. Sprinting is mapped to the shift key, and some of the characters are capable of running at an impressive pace.
You’re even able to switch weapons while running, and this forms the basis for most of the action in the game. Each tournament is a set of stages, and most of these consist of running from A-to-B killing everyone you can along the way. Points are awarded based on a number of factors such as the weapon used, the range they were killed from, where they were hit, how strong the enemy was and finally how big a score multiplier you have by that point. You earn a extra notch on the multiplier combo so long as it hasn’t been too long since your last kill. The higher your combo the less time it takes before you start combo bleeding, which is when you start to lose your multiplier at an alarming rate. This means you have to aim well to score the most points you can as well as kill often in order to keep building your combo.
There are also skill shot markers in the environment that award no points, but will act as a multiplier bump if you find yourself having no one around to kill. Pacing is key to ensure that shooting both kinds of target will let you run the entire map in a single combination so it’s possible to never actually bleed out at all. That however does require you to play a set stage over and over again to learn the enemy placement and weapon pickups but that’s really to be expected from a score attack game like this.
The reason I compare it to Sonic then is that sense of momentum. The more you learn about the stages and enemies the faster and smoother you can run through the levels, building up astronomical scores for your efforts. It comes as no surprise then that it also suffers the exact same failings as while the levels are linear you can find yourself exploring into a ‘secret area’ containing an extra weapon/health/skillshot. This would be great, except that when you’re not expecting it your entire momentum can come to a grinding halt and your left trying to figure out just where the right way to go is. In Sonic that simply wastes time but here it can utterly destroy what was an impressive run previously.
Another Sonic-ism comes in the form of the different challenges you’re faced with which aren’t always the kind of thing you enjoy doing. There are at least two stages in each tournament where you have to defend yourself until a timer runs out, scoring as much as possible. These stages are always far less compelling then the sprints and gauntlet runs and yet you have no choice but to complete them to get back to the parts of the game you actually enjoy playing, something I felt that Sonic Unleashed and the goddamn treasure hunts from Sonic Adventure put me through time and time again.
It’s such a weird conflict, as it seems to be that the creators didn’t really understand what it is the player would enjoy most about their game, so they tried to mix in two wildly different gameplay styles with the same scoring mechanic, and it doesn’t really work too well. That isn’t to say the defense stages are boring, but when this game is at its best I simply haven’t played a third-person shooter with such an unrelenting and terrifying pace to it. There are time-trial stages where you will start with ten seconds on the clock before your head will explode, and the only way to get more time is to kill people, collect items and shoot skillshots.
Only none of these alone really gives you much time at all. Every enemy you kill is only worth an extra three seconds, which means if it takes you longer than three seconds to put someone down you’ve done nothing to slow your imminent detonation. In my second of these there was a moment where I had only four seconds on the clock and I was furiously charging through enemies, blasting them down and then switching to the next gun I had mid-sprint simply because there was never enough time to reload a single bullet. It was such furious enjoyment that having a gameplay mode that featured the exact opposite mechanics can’t hope to be as enjoyable.
The length of the game has been called into question too, as there are only eight tournaments to run through, each taking around 15 minutes to complete. I’d complain too, but the fact is that we’ve argued for Sonic games to be much the same for a while now, with many fans excited at the prospect of a shorter game that featured nothing but the fast and fluid excitement of a good old fashioned 2D Sonic game.
I’d therefore argue the game is a fine length if it wasn’t released at full retail price when it initially came out. It had an online versus mode that completely missed the point of the main game and trying to sell what content there is here at sixty dollars is asking an awful lot of a gaming demographic that even now argues that 1200 MS points is too expensive for an entirely new Japanese Vertical Shooter. As a game ‘The Club’ can be wonderful but the marketing strategy for it is ridiculous by anyone’s standards.
It’s a short game, and even then there’s not a lot that’s fun to replay again and again outside of the sprint/time-trial style stages, but getting to play those at all is an incredible treat. Probably the greatest feature about this game is the positive attitude it has towards the shooter genre. A lot of vertical/horizontal shooters these days are more about dodging rather that shooting, and The Club works the mechanics of weapon switching, aiming and shooting together with a complex scoring system with a level of sophistication betrayed by the product as a whole.
Bizarre Creations may have shuttered their doors, but this oddity will at least be fondly remembered by some. B-