Blur - 2nd Review

   30/05/2010 at 18:59       NewYork       3 COMMENTS. - Score 5/5
 - Blur, Activision, Bizarre Creations, PS3 version, Boost

The first post-PGR racer from the UK's own Bizarre Creations raised a few eyebrows when it appeared to do away with pure racing in favour of something far more chaotic, destructive, and reminiscent of a kart racer. But as games such as Geometry Wars and The Club (an excellent example of PGR values applied to a shooting game) have shown, when Bizarre push the envelope, they do it well. So, is Blur a step in the right direction or a failed experiment?

As even the advertisers will admit, the game is promoted as a Mario Kart for grown-ups, and the similarities are clear. While Blur retains PGR's solid, weighty cars, added to the mix are weapons and power-ups that all kart racers should be familiar with: nitro boosts, mines, shields, missiles and homing missiles are fairly self-explanatory examples, while "barges" stun those immediately near to you, and "shocks" set up electrical pillars as obstacles for the leading car to deal with at the front of the pack.

Far from being a blast-fest, the ability to hold three power-ups at once and cycle between them adds an element of strategy to proceedings, forcing you to flex your brain while hurtling across the track at 120mph. Most power-ups have multiple uses: a nitro boost fired forwards will act as an extreme brake, enabling you to handle tight corners; mines can be shot forwards as deadly efficient short range bombs; homing missiles can be shot backwards, to deflect oncoming projectiles; and barges, if timed correctly, can protect you from enemy fire. Thus item management comes into play: you may want to keep one power-up handy as a defence item, or store up power to unleash your entire payload at once. Desperately cycling for a defensive item as a missile heads your way is nail-biting stuff.

The power-ups do a good job of levelling the playing field. Races don't have an artificial "last to first" feel, and your place in the pack is never certain. Those in last place can easily make a comeback, as they no longer have to deal with weapons being fired at them, and can focus on speed. Being in first place is agonisingly tense, as anyone in the race can unleash "shocks" in your path, and there's usually a missle headed your way. In the middle of the pack, it is utter mayhem, with a cluster of cars vying for dominance and projectiles flying every which way.

It can feel at times that you are a victim of chance: even the best racer can fall victim to the power-up game. But with specific power-ups always in the same position on the track, it comes down to the player to drive intelligently and seek the best power-ups for the right occasion. You can also see what power-ups the other drivers have, allowing you to judge whether they are worth taking on, or best avoided.

Cars are solid and heavy, handling with an in-between of arcade and sim mechanics. The game is unforgiving, and you can't expect to careen full pelt into a turn and expect to drift automatically out of it. Navigating tight corners is even more tense as you must deal with opponents trying to wreck you at the same time. The cars, all licensed, will occasionally get airborne, landing with a satisfying clunk. Collisions are strong and meaty, with neither car giving much ground. With such substantial objects, it is all the more fun drilling projectiles into them, with satisfying destructive results.

Single player mode offers a career set across tiered levels, each level containing specific challenges. Challenges take the form of straightforward races, checkpoint time trials, and a battle mode, where points are awarded for damaging the other drivers. Placing well in these challenges earns you lights, a track of progress in the game. As PGR had kudos points, Blur introduces "fans", which are earned through showboating and aggressive driving. As you ascend through the fan rankings, you net new items. Not only are fans earned by placing well in races, and using weapons inventively, but specific in-track challenges also rack up the fans. Such challenges may ask you to drive through a set of gates, or use weapons in a specific manner, all while the race continues, tasking you with managing multiple goals at once. These tasks can prove a distraction, but they can safely be ignored.

Each tier is associated with a particular "rival" character, who you can race once you have completed a specific set of tasks within that tier (such as "avoid 3 shock fields", which would require you to keep entering races until you have accomplished this feat). Beating this bosslike character in a one-on-one race will earn you their car and special power-up mods.

Once you've been humbled by the sharp difficulty spike of career mode, however, multiplayer is the true meat of the game. Offline allows up to four guys to go at it, while online offers beautifully chaotic 20-man events. Online racing has its own track of progression, with a Modern Warfare-esque levelling system. Beginning on training grounds, you can raise your rank as you race, with rewards along the way. Again, earning fans is the focus, so there is always an incentive to keep racing, even if you don't always place (and with 20-man races, a lot won't place). It is satisfying even to finish middle of the pack, knowing that you dealt some heavy damage. Novelty awards are offered post-race as well, for accomplishments such as "most power-ups picked up" or "hit by most projectiles", so there's glory for more than just the winners.

Online play is smooth and steady, with only the odd hiccup, especially involving weapon use. Blur has strong online integration across the game, with Twitter and Facebook options (should you dare to use them), your friends' highscores listed following all races, and the ability to send messages and challenges to friends within the game. With further options to link your account to the Blur website, Bizarre Creations seem eager to create a strong community atmosphere which should help the game's longevity.

The game itself is pretty, with a cool blue futuristic interface, fully narrated by a rather chill-and-sexy lady. Coming back to the game assaults you with a "Previously on Blur" info feed on how far you have progressed in various aspects of the game. Everything feels cohesive and integrated. Menus are intelligent, in particular with restarting races, where the game gives you the option to change cars there and then without having to load out to a garage screen; something more racing games should adopt.

The digital feel is carried over to races, where crashes result in an interrupted video-feed effect, and power-ups are represented by glowing Minority Report-style icons. Weapon effects are delicious to observe, with warping effects and motion blur adding to the already blistering sense of speed. The licensed cars will unashamedly begin to break apart and start burning up as damage piles on, but we are robbed of actual explosions when your health hits zero. The tracks themselves may split opinion: though graphically gorgeous, the muted tones and bleak, soulless atmosphere is oddly depressing. Even the exhilarating firework-infused Brighton course has a dark-sky melancholy to it. Tracks set at a dockyard (unpopular online) offer an uninspiring seascape and crate stacks, while Tokyo and San Fran are more slick. The wide range of locales, including some surprisingly rural areas, considering the urban feel to the game, ensures something for all tastes.

While sound effects are well handled (playing with the volume down gives you a distinct disadvantage as listening out for other cars and approaching missiles will help with your timing), the music is sadly generic and non-infectious. For some reason, it is off by default on most tracks, adding to the empty feel. You'll likely put your own music on.

Blur is a self-confident, stylish attack on the karting genre, but of course it is so much more than a kart racer that it does both Mario and Blur a disservice to consider this "Mario Kart for grown-ups". Pure racers won't likely find their fix in a game where power-ups are so key, but the intense frustration and elation that comes with the use of such weapons makes this aspect of the game a crucial part of the experience. The game rewards intelligent play, and you will rarely win a race purely by chance. Despite the well constructed career-mode, most players will probably head early to the true draw of the game: multiplayer, where this racer excels. With a solid, progression-led online mode with brilliant social integration, Blur looks to be the multiplayer hit of the summer.

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