Fifty dollars can buy an awful lot of things. Twenty-Five delicious pomegranates. Two DVDs. Both volumes of Alan Moore's Supreme, possibly the single greatest comic book series ever written. An evening at the movies for two and a half people.
If whichever executive at Vivendi Universal thought that this game were equal to, or greater in value than any of those things, I'd have trouble imagining someone more self-deluded. If that same executive, and this is the theory I tend to believe in, felt that the game could be dumped on an unsuspecting audience who would snatch it up based on its association with a popular movie, as well as the attractive graphics on the back, then I have trouble imagining someone with less respect for the game-playing public.
Fight Club is, as the title would suggest, a fighting game. A ludicrously bad one. It features a few of the features and game modes that people have come to expect, including a disappointingly short story mode, a poorly-devised online component, and a "create-a-fighter" mode that offers a depressing lack of customization options.
The aggressive awfulness of Fight Club (the game) is additionally shocking because Fight Club (the movie) could actually have been translated fairly easily into a decent fighting game. Just why it wasn't is something of puzzlement to me. It seems like a natural mix—after all, Electronic Arts has leveraged a more tenuously-game-related property full of guys pummeling each other in dank basements into a profitable franchise, why not do the same with Fight Club? Actually, had Vivendi Universal just shamelessly ripped off Def Jam Vendetta's format and mechanics, I would have praised the developers' good taste; after all, if you're going to steal, you really ought to steal from the best.
A Def Jam Vendetta-style combination of brutal brawling, holds, and throws would have suited Fight Club down to the ground. Instead the developers chose to follow the Tekken template when designing the game, right down to the two punches over two kicks button layout. This means that rather than the free-roaming gameplay and interactive areas of Def Jam Vendetta, players are restricted to 2D movement and mostly static backdrops.
The central problem with Tekken—style 3D fighting games is the nearly obscene amount of memorization required to master any of the characters. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that each character is distinctly different from one another, and generally feature as memorable and colourful character design as the game's art director could manage. This massive variety can create the feel of playing an entirely different game with each character, and leads to the nearly limitless depth that the greatest 2D fighting games seem to possess.
Fight Club, by comparison, is about a bunch of shirtless guys who gather in basements and punch one another senseless. If the face that all the characters basically look exactly the same wasn't bad enough, they all play exactly the same as well. There are only three different basic character types, the brawler, the grappler, and the martial artist—meaning that the game's fifteen characters are broken up into groups of five who all have the exact same moves. The only difference between the characters is slight difference in their appearances and different extended combos and throws. So the game offers all the tedious combo memorization of a Tekken-style game with the generic, unremarkable character design of a wrestling game. Not often one sees people attempting to merge the worst of both worlds, is it?
The combo system is all the more infuriating because the game's manual has no move lists, and the in-game move list can only be accessed from the training mode. So if I wanted to be able to use a move in an actual fight, I'd have to make sure I'd committed it completely to memory, a process made all the more difficult by the fact that the 'training' mode doesn't so much train the player as it does put them in front of a static opponent who can be punched and kicked at their leisure. Learning moves requires the player to constantly open the pause window to check how they're performed, which forces an already trying process over the line into unbearable territory.
If it wasn't enough that the game's fighting engine is badly constructed, needlessly complex, and no fun at all to play, the developers didn't even get the movie-licensed material right. First of all, they only managed to license the likenesses of very minor characters from the film, which just serves to make the game look cheap by highlighting the fact that the developers weren't able to acquire the rights to show the main actors, as it did in last years' Die Hard and Mission Impossible games.
The game also suffers from Terminator 3 syndrome, in that the developers only included enough of the plot to make it recognizable as a Fight Club game, but not enough to make it the slightest bit coherent to someone who hasn't seen the movie. They even flub enough of the small details to make me wonder just how clear they were about the movie's plot. For example, when Angel Face (Jared Leto's character form the film) appears in the "Story" mode, he should already be horribly disfigured, but he isn't. Also, for some reason the game seems to think that the movie took place in L.A., when it actually took place in Delaware.
The game's one saving grace is its graphics. The animation is fluid and whether attacking or being attacked the movements of the various characters blend into each other well. The textures are all shiny and attractive enough, and the 3D fighting arenas are realistic enough to make me wish that I could run around freely and interact with them, rather than just look at the pretty backgrounds as I move towards and away from my opponent.
Even the game's graphics have their down side—there's one level that's knee-deep in water, and while the water ripples in circles around the characters' legs, it isn't noticeably disturbed when they walk through it, nor is there a splash when they fall. Even the game's much touted "realistic bruising" and facial deformation isn't as interesting a feature as it should be, since the characters only seem to bruise in the face or over broken arms. The other big graphical trick, showing the skeleton when a bone is broken dramatically, is handled so badly that it ends up more confusing than cool. The breaking hit is always shown three times in dramatic slow motions, but the "mo" isn't "slo" enough to really tell what's going on in most of the hits. One of the breaking attacks involves kneeing the opponent in the side, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what was supposed to be broken afterwards. An extreme close-up or change in color of the broken bone would have gone a long way to fixing this feature.
Most of Fight Club's problems exist at the conceptual level—the designers made a very bad choice about the type of game they were making very early on, and the game suffered because of it. The other errors, though—the terrible manual, the graphical glitches, the utter lack of fun present in the fighting that makes up the entirety of the game's content—these are the problems of a game that wasn't tested as exhaustively as it should have been, and I can't help but wonder how that could have happened; I mean, the game's already five years past being relevant, it would have killed them to take another six months to make it decent?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.