(Xbox 360 Review) Blur

Developer: Bizarre Creations
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Racing / Action
Players: 1-20 (Online)
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8/10 = Excellent

Blur, the latest from Project Gotham Racing developer Bizarre Creations, is a unique combination of a traditional racer and a car combat title. Licensed vehicles race around tracks set in real locations, from New York to Barcelona, but instead of simply drifting and drafting, drivers fire off massive balls of energy and walls of lightning. As fast as it is chaotic, Blur manages to be a fantastic, if slightly frustrating, racer.

Calling Blur a combination of Project Gotham Racing and Mario Kart is a pretty apt description, but I would argue that it’s actually much more similar to Psygnosis’ WipEout series. From the sleek, futuristic pastel neon-inspired look to the blistering speed and colorful pyrotechnics, about the only thing keeping Blur grounded are the cars’ wheels. As an up-and-coming racer, you will race a single-player and multiplayer circuit filled with AI and human opponents that are chomping at the bit to make your car flip, spin, and explode. A wholly integrated online component will keep you abreast of your friends’ activities, including posts on Facebook and Twitter, while also offering a persistent channel for issuing and accepting challenges. And a solid arsenal, liberally placed throughout the tracks, will have you screaming for bloody vengeance on that evil bastard that just cost you first place.

Both online and offline components operate in a similar fashion. Each requires that you earn fans to move up the ranks, with each new level unlocking new cars and modifications. The story mode adds in a bit of spice with boss races, multi-objective circuits, and lights. Races come in a handful of varieties to help shake things up: race (standard), destruction (land hits to earn time), checkpoint, and one-on-one races (bosses). Lights are the single-player’s mechanism to unlock new circuits, with each course offering up to five lights for the primary goal of finishing in the top three of each race as well as by completing a fan run as well as a fan target. The fan objectives are activated by running into certain icons with the runs requiring you to drive through a series of arches before time – and fan enthusiasm – runs out; the faster you make it through the arches, the more fans you earn, in addition to the extra light. Fan targets are varying objectives that can be completed to win over even more fans, from drifting a certain amount to dealing a certain amount of damage. It’s a constantly rewarding system as the fans earn you new cars while the lights unlock new circuits and, along with additional circuit-specific objectives, boss races. Defeating a boss not only gains you their specially augmented ride but also mods that can be added onto your other vehicles. Getting to the boss is easier said than done as their requirements are often easier to accomplish than completing the races themselves; I’ve never played a racer with an AI that tries so hard – the second-to-last car will fight for position just as much as the second. It’s best to think of single player as a boot camp for multiplayer.

I doubt few people will complete single player before heading online, though. As enjoyable as it is tackling the different objectives and bosses, Blur can be as mystifying as it is aggravating. For all of the cars and power-ups, there seems to be some hidden variables as to how exactly you defeat the AI. Each vehicle is ranked on a one-to-five scale, by halves, in acceleration, speed, grip and difficulty, as well as up to six in health, which lend a little more detail to their overall general description – drifty, smooth, balanced, off-road, etc. There are some obvious factors that play into which vehicle should be used for each course – for example, an off-road truck might not be the best vehicle for a race in downtown Tokyo – but picking the right car within a type isn’t as easy as it seems. After playing for a while, I began to get the impression that Blur was extending the single-player portion by being a bit tricky as to how you tackle courses, by making you try various could-be vehicles before nailing the ‘right’ one. Despite the fact that numerous vehicles can be chosen per race, only a few are good choices; and within those few choices, only one is truly optimal. Now, you might come in fourth or fifth with a could-be vehicle, but you will come in first with the optimal one. The difference between picking any ride and picking the right ride is striking: a car only off by half a mark could result in a last-place finish while the other in a first. There were several ‘Argh!’ moments before I realized that, despite seeming great for a course, the car I chose wasn’t the game’s choice, and my awesome run was largely for naught as I failed to place. By continuing past a defeat, you still bank the fans earned, which leads to a new level, which leads to a new car, which might lead to the right car. An odd side effect of this setup is that it limits single player’s replayability as it becomes less exciting once you peg the right car to each track. But the system works in the beginning; however, by about the half-way mark, multiplayer starts to look pretty tempting.

Despite having to start from the beginning in multiplayer, with no fans and only beginner vehicles, it’s worth playing single player to get the hang of the courses and weapons. Some of the tracks have barriers and shortcuts that are easy to miss your first – second, third, or even fourth – time around, and knowing those could make the difference between first and last place. But the real benefit is coming to understand how to properly use the weapons. It’s not that the power-ups are difficult to grasp as they are all pretty standard because, aside from shut firing a homing missile and barge unleashing a radial energy-based attack that sends enemies flying, the rest of the power-ups – shield, repair, mine, nitro, shock, and bolt – are pretty self-explanatory. The challenge is that, unlock most racers, Blur’s power-ups often have secondary abilities and null effects. For instance, nitro can also be used to slow down while turning a tight corner, shunt can be fired backwards, and the mine fired forwards. And nearly every attack is devastating. Not only do they look great – driving through a mass of cars spinning out and crashing while others flip overhead is flat-out awesome – but they can cause some serious damage. Bolts knock cars about, barge sends them flying to the side and lightning slows them down, but the shunts and mines cause them to flip over and spin out. The game auto corrects for landings after an attack, but it’s very hard to recover your position after one, much less two (or three), hit their mark. What adds another layer of strategy is that some attacks, including homing missiles, can be evaded while many can be negated by other power-ups – bolts can be fired backwards to destroy an approaching shunt. It’s a really cool system.

Learning to properly attack and defend is crucial. Not only do you need to know the how-tos to place, but success also unlocks new cars, events, and mod layouts. The four mod layouts – aggressive, defensive, show-off, and all around – allow you to tweak your car by adding unlocked mods, such as a laser sighting for easier targeting to immunity to (or proficiency in) ramming. Mods are often what will keep a higher ranked player from getting the best of you. Along with the dozens of awards that are given out during post-race recaps – most hit, longest jump, fastest lap, etc. – and actions going towards unlocking game-wide stickers and overall objectives, there is literally always something being accomplished or rewarded.

Both modes treat you to some jaw-dropping moments and insane speed. The effects and cars look marvelous, and seeing the debris from a massive collision, or being in the first wave of power-up attacks, is always a treat. But multiplayer, especially with 20-car races, often becomes too chaotic. Power-ups are so abundantly placed on courses that there seems to be a correlation between required skill and number of racers: the more racers, the greater the chance of you asking the heavens why after a dominating first two laps you end with a 17th-place finish. The homing attack is, I found, too readily available. Even smaller races have similar situations where you find yourself being flipped over and over because one attack was followed by another immediately after being respawned; and evading is incredibly difficult with several spots making it all but impossible to avoid a homing attack, mine, or lightning trap. The abundance of multiplayer options and modes helps to alleviate this somewhat, with local games of split screen and system link offering house rules while nine modes allow for everything from straight racing to a non-power-up mode to duking it out in arenas. But the race-only mode is unlocked and the only of its kind, and as intense and exciting as the power-ups make the events, sometimes you just want to get on with the race.


Overall:
8/10
Although I found myself questioning just how a loss or hit was possible, Blur kept me coming back. Not only is the combat exciting, but the courses are great and the multiple objectives keep them feeling fresh. The game also has a phenomenal sensation of speed; I routinely turned my controller as if it was a steering wheel, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that. The ability to always see what your friends, or rivals, are up to is also a great hook, and I reraced a single-player event more than a few times to beat a friend’s run. Blur might have some problems, but its high-speed combat makes for a great time.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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