Groucho Marx once famously stated that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, and it's a sentiment that also can be applied to The Club. Rather than being a genteel establishment in which to swig top shelf single-malts and puff lazily on Havana's finest, this Club is all about pelting headlong through a variety of locations while hordes of short-lived employees try to kill you. Suddenly the Wednesday night D&D group doesn't seem so silly, does it?
You can play as one of eight different characters, each with slightly different ratings in speed, toughness and so on. There's not all that much difference between them when playing the game, so it's more of an aesthetic choice than anything. Hunky Russian or a smartly tailored Japanese assassin? Up to you. It's easy enough to change characters whenever you want, so you're not locked into your initial choice.
The main game mode is 'The Tournament', in which you play five events in eight different locations. The locations range from abandoned steel mills to underground bunkers, though they all come from the grim, industrial school of design. There's little here you won't have seen before in a hundred other games -- crates, stairways, corridors, and more crates. Each area is suitably labyrinthine but there's nothing here that could actually be described as interesting.
The five events can be roughly divided into time trials and survival modes. Sprint, Time Attack and 'Run the Gauntlet' require you to either reach an exit or complete a set number of laps before a timer expires. The Siege and Survivor events trap you in a confined area and throw waves of enemies at you for a set time. If you last the distance, you'll win the event. More important, though, is that you rack up the highest possible score in each event. Rapidly offing large numbers of bad guys will see the points adding up, and the more stylishly you do this, the better off you'll be. So, for example, rolling across the ground and then plugging someone between the eyes is worth much more than just spraying bullets all over the shop. You also have a Killbar that constantly ticks off time between kills. Keep the bodies piling up before the Killbar expires and you'll soon be swimming in lots of lovely points.
You also have the option to play any single event you've already completed, or to compile 'playlists' of events. So, if you really don't like Siege events, you can create your own playlist consisting entirely of Time Attacks and Sprints. It's a neat idea and a good way to concentrate on the parts of the game that you really enjoy, and keep working on your high scores.
And really, The Club is all about the high score. It won't take you more than a few hours to play through every event at every location, but if/when the compulsion to beat your high score kicks in, you'll really start to get into the meat of the game. Extracting the maximum number of points from a level can be quite an art, and is much more satisfying than simply getting to the end in one piece. If you can't see yourself ever getting particularly worked up over high scores, then it's fair to say that The Club won't have much to offer you -- there's no real storyline and, as stated earlier, the level design is nothing to get excited about. Still, if you do have that urge to climb leaderboards and constantly hone your skills, The Club can be an oddly compelling little habit.
It's unfortunate, then, that Games for Windows Live has to get involved and muddy the waters. While it's much better behaved than the last time we encountered it, it's still ridiculously irritating to have certain parts of the game locked off unless you have a Gold Membership. You won't be able to access multiplayer games under the 'Live' section, and both Single-player and Live leaderboards are restricted. You can access multiplayer games under the 'list play' option, but last time we looked there were exactly no games listed there, leaving 'System link' -- or LAN mode, to you and me -- the only multiplayer option.
Of course, this is not a problem if you have a current Xbox Live Gold membership, but if you're solely a PC player, you'll just have to decide if you fancy paying a bit more more to get full access to a game you've already paid for. We would think, for most people, the answer would be a loud, defiant and slightly more sweary version of "not really."
Further problems arise with the game's third person point of view. When in close quarters, the camera has a tendency to zoom in and this results in the back of your own head taking up rather a lot of screen space. It can be incredibly frustrating to have enemy positions obscured by your own thick skull and for a game that's so reliant on quick reactions and split-second timing, it does seem to just get in its own way far too often. A perfect solution would be to make the player's character turn invisible when obscuring too much of the screen, but as it is, be prepared to spend a lot of time admiring the manly curves of your own brain case.
The overly dark and murky look of the game doesn't help much either. Despite having the in-game gamma cranked up to maximum, we still had to turn our monitor settings up to eye-scorching levels before we were able to easily pick out the bad guys. Fair enough, they shouldn't be too visible but some levels -- the Russian underground bunker in particular -- made it impossible to see the enemy until they were literally standing right in front of us. And sometimes, not even then. Combined with the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph, playing The Club can sometimes feel like world's first blind-folded run and gun shooter. Otherwise, the graphics are fine, if a bit too generic and uninspired and the sound could do with a bit more grunt - some of the weapons sound disappointingly pea-shootery.
The Club is best considered a niche title that will only really appeal to players willing to fully engage with its high score obsessiveness. Games for Windows Live proves once again to be an intestinal worm slowly sucking the life out of a game, rather than a cutting edge multiplayer system that's uniting the gaming world. Note to Microsoft -- stop it, and stop it now. Still, there is fun to had with The Club. While it's not an immediately impressive game, if given a chance The Club could provide many hours of point-chasing fun. It's a little hard to recommend at full price, but it'd certainly be worth keeping an eye on the bargain bins.