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Bizarre Creations does what the others don't and makes the racing genre fun again...
When Bizarre first announced that Blur would be a racer with power-ups there was an audible groan from the loyal fanbase that follows the Liverpudlian studio (well there was from one devoted follower here at least). The team behind the masterful Project Gotham Racing series had instantly sold out under the ownership of Activision, with their first title being something that was seemingly aimed towards a less demanding, i.e. bigger, audience.
Sure power-up based racers can be fun, ever since Mario Kart first appeared on the scene (and has kept going ever since) we've had plenty of amusement and then when Wipeout put its futuristic spin on the idea we lapped it up. But for every Mario Kart and Wipeout we've had plenty of imitators - Walt Disney World Quest: Magical Racing Tour anyone?
Fortunately such fears are easily and quickly put to rest as Blur is undoubtedly one of the deepest racers in town and certainly the most engaging, exhilarating, and entertaining one we've played in a long, long time.
The description of Blur as Mario Kart for adults is both misguided and stunningly accurate. The Mario Kart series has consistently managed to keep the sub genre ticking along since its inception with entertaining races and fun power-ups. Blur achieves this admirably, but to label it as a copycat would be doing the game a great disservice. Unlike recent, slightly more superficial racers, Blur - like an onion and green skinned ogres - is a game of many layers.
The actual racing action has developed a lot since we first laid eyes upon it last year. Admittedly the handling isn't to the same level of refinement as the Project Gotham Racing series, but it is far less 'brick-like' than what we played earlier in the year. There's room for skillful manoeuvres, and there's that satisfyingly Bizarre feeling of exchange between braking and accelerating when taking a corner. With the sheer intensity of on-screen action you'd have to say Bizarre has got this absolutely spot on, after all who wants to be worrying about racing lines when you've got a homing orb of doom tailing after you in the rear-view mirror? Collisions with the barriers around the track have thankfully been made a little more punishing than earlier builds, but it won't beat you too hard if you're worrying too much about the bloke next to you armed with a Barge instead of the barrier straight ahead of you.
So it's a solid if slightly unremarkable racer, but the racing is only one part of what Blur has to offer.
On initial inspection the range of Power-Ups seem to cover the bases and tick the boxes, from the Red Shell homing functions of the Shunt to the Speed Boost, it's all pretty familiar territory. Quite evidently its influences owe much to the range and diversity of the Mario Kart series, while the flashy lighting and effects bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wipeout series. Like both titles, Blur manages to get the balance between racing and combat absolutely spot on, pushing you to the edge of your seat in die-hard concentration as the two aspects blur into one cohesive, enthralling experience that doesn't give you time to blink.
Perfectly balanced, the power-ups offer a great deal of depth beyond simply lining up and taking the shot, as beyond their initial function additional abilities quickly come into play. Once again, the idea of using weapons behind you may have been lifted from Mario Kart, but it's a concept that Blur runs with and makes pivotal to success. When you hear the warning tones of a Shunt homing into your direction, you'll need to master the technique and timing of using the 360 degree boom of the Barge or a Shunt or Bolt shot backwards to try and destroy the blasted orb of electromagnetic destruction. It's the balance of offensive and defensive capabilities of each power-up that gives Blur an edge; a necessity for a little skill that elevates it beyond its initial superficiality.
Equally strategy and tactics play a grater role in Blur than any other power-up based racer, largely because you can store up to three different power-ups. This provides the scope for varying tactics, such as keeping a Shield or Repair in store for later, or stocking up with a powerful trio of Shunts or maybe a collection of Speed Boosts for the final straight. Perhaps the only opportunity Bizarre missed was having Ultra Super Power-Ups; why couldn't we have another level of Super Power-Ups for certain combinations of three weapons? Perhaps an idea for the inevitable sequel?
The two elements combine seamlessly with neither aspect coming at the cost of the other. You get the feeling that Blur has undergone considerable testing and polishing, resulting in a game that is just a pleasure to play, whether it's in short bursts or prolonged bouts. This is a point further demonstrated by the track designs. Like PGR before it, Blur's circuits are based in real world locations ranging from Barcelona to Brighton, Hackney to San Francisco. Unlike PGR, however, Bizarre Creations has decided to apply a little bit of artistic license, changing the layout of roads from the real world to make sure they provide the scope for a perfect track. As you'd expect from a studio specialising in racing games, Blur's wide range of tracks are designed to test your skills but have been thoughtfully adapted in a manner to accompany the action driven gameplay.
The single-player mode is split into nine different stages, each housing a range of different events with a one on-one boss battle at the end. Beyond the traditional Race, Blur features Destruction and Checkpoint events. Each of them play up to the classic Bizarre design of pitching you against a constantly ticking down timer, and giving you the means to keep it extended with skillful play. Destruction removes most of the Power Ups and leaves only Bolt Shots on the track, the idea being to defeat waves of opponent cars and awarding a time boost when you successfully do so. Checkpoint is a Time Trial, but places Speed Boosts and time boosting Timer icons liberally across the circuit.
Beyond just merely winning the race, Blur offers a multitude of meta-challenges that are completed as you play the game, from hitting a certain number of opponents with a Bolt Shot to cleanly overtaking opponents with the Speed Boost. It's this design that ensures there's a constant sense of progress, something to achieve, with Blur that helps to elevate it to being more than just a clinical racing game. Even to unlock the Boss Battle you'll need to satisfy a list of different objectives. It's the design and structure that makes replaying events a joy in Blur and definitely helps to alleviate the clinical monotony of race after race that most racers suffer from.
Blur employs an XP system more commonly found in shooters, with Lights being the reward for winning races and the key to unlocking further stages while Fans serve as the XP. Fans essentially work the same as Kudos did in the PGR series, rewarding the player for skillful driving and use of weapons. Like PGR before it, the Fan system rewards combinations, so a simple hit with a Bolt will gain a few Fans, while shooting a target in the distance will net a bigger reward with the Long Range Bolt Shot. Experts, however, will revel in the mastery of sliding the car around a corner into a drift, gaining some air and then hitting the bolt for a Super Duper Bolt Shot (ok we made the name up). The sense of depth that's often a theme throughout the works of Bizarre Creations, continues throughout everything Blur offers.
Even on the track there's plenty of additional challenges to discover beyond actually trying to win the race. Race through a Fan Run icon on every track and you'll activate a series of arches to race through and earn the award. Later, Fan Demands emerge with varying challenges such as overtaking an opponent with a Speed Boost or hitting a number of opponents with a Bolt Shot against a tricky time limit. It's this layered approach that means Blur is so much more than just racing.
But this is just the single-player, a small component of the game compared with its multiplayer aspirations. Activision is often a publisher we like to mock (ever so slightly), but we feel we owe them some credit for the qualities of Blur, particularly in the multiplayer department. It's hard to say whether Bizarre came up with the ideas all on their own, but you get the sense that somebody at Activision may have told them to look at what Modern Warfare does right with multiplayer when it comes to the online aspects of Blur.
Firstly, Blur supports Xbox Live/PSN, System-Link, and more importantly does four-player splitscreen better than anything we've seen on this generation - no titchy windows and huge black borders here. Secondly, multiplayer is a completely different component to the singleplayer with its own XP system, Mod Shop and race events; it's truly like two halves of a game.
The Mod Shop (unlocked at Lvl 3) brings the strengths of Modern Warfare's Perks system to a racing game. Once unlocked you can combine up to three different Mods, each offering a range of different perks such as sucking in power-ups froma greater distance or converting attacks while under the safety of a shield into additional power-ups. Beyond the ability to really customise the car to your own playing style, it gives Blur that addictive, one-more-go, appeal that Modern Warfare offered in abundance; you're always tempted to have one more go just to see what the next level will unlock.
A range of Playlists provides the structure for multiplayer, which are unlocked as you level up. The typical Race types are complimented with unadulterated Destruction Derby events, where the onus is simply on how much carnage you cause. Because Blur absolutely nails the balance between racing and combat we didn't take to these events as much as the traditional races, but we're happy to see a little variety. Further playlists offer hardcore events for the more accomplished racer and even Social playlists that reflect what the Blur audience is currently enjoying.
But, a big part of Blur online is the fact it embraces the whole social networking craze. Initially we were quite sceptical of these features, but we've got to say we're hooked on this bit of the game. Virtually everything in the game can be shared via Twitter or Facebook, simply hit the bumper button, sign in and you can share everything you're accomplishing in the game. Undoubtedly the best feature is the ability to set challenges to your friends based on your performance, by simply completing an event and setting the criteria such as score more Fans and set a lower time. The best thing is that because it works via the Xbox Message system (it's not an issue with the free PSN service), this feature is even open to those only on Silver membership. Simply open up the message and take on the challenge.
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