Daily Grind: Blur Online Multiplayer Beta
Despite the numerous Wipeout games that have been released across Sony’s platforms over the last few years, none have held more significance than the first game in the series which was released alongside the PlayStation in 1995. With an aesthetic crafted by retro-minimalist graphic design studio The Designers Republic and a soundscape of european electronica plucked from from the decade’s burgeoning scene, the game’s success was a product of zeitgeist as much as effective design.
It’s interesting then to see Bizarre Creations, whose 1996 release Formula 1 was just as instrumental to the PlayStation’s early success (at least in Europe) as Wipeout, take inspiration from its former publisher’s futuristic racing series. Their latest title, Blur, is a weaponised racer which presents the technological stopgap between the modern supercars of our world and the anti-gravity vessels of the Feisar corporation.
Far from rehashing a dormant genre, the studio has been keen to talk up the social aspects of their game. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are cited as being just as essential to Blur’s design as the racing games the studio has spent the previous 14 years of its existence producing. Curious to see this fusion of combative competition and social interaction, I spent some time with the multiplayer beta that’s currently running on Xbox Live.
: Power Play
Whilst Blur may feature the sleek, industrially designed curves of a modern racing game, beneath its bonnet roars the engine of a kart racer and a host of power-ups which players can use to buffet, blast and speed past their opponents. Whilst there are obvious analogues between these and items found in the Mario Kart series (Shunt is essentially a Red Shell, whereas Nitro performs the same role as a Mushroom) it’s clear that Bizarre Creations have taken a good hard look at the shortcomings of Nintendo's racer and addressed them appropriately. Notably, the feeling of being punished for assuming first place is absent thanks to the secondary function of each power-up and the wealth of defensive options that these provide. An impending barrage of Shunts can be ably negated using the radial blast of Barge or simply out-manoeuvred with the aid of a Nitro. Strategising aside, the relative heft of Blur’s vehicles make the power-ups feel all the more dangerous and satisfying to deploy, and I often found myself relishing in the explosive joys of dropping a Mine directly into the path of rivals intently fixed to my rear bumper.
: Pole Position
Far from the power-ups proving to be Blur’s main attraction, you’ll have to to hone some serious racing chops to back up your marksmanship. The driving model is incredibly satisfying, and strikes a good balance between the supercharged acceleration and drifting of an arcade racer and the chaotic seat-of-your pants action of a karting game, where you occasionally feel barely in control of your vehicle. Whilst a more gentlemanly approach to driving may aid your progress in some situations, there are also plenty of opportunities to use your superior steering to trade paint with other cars and bully weapon-weakened adversaries into barriers and medians. The game does a really great job of keeping the pack together throughout each race, so even if you spend the majority of its duration in last place, the notion that you remain competitive and a threat to the current leader persists right up until the end of the final lap.
: Stopping Power
If there’s one aspect of gameplay that the developers need to refine before Blur ships later this Spring, it’s the jarring way in which you’re momentarily ripped out of the game when the frenzied nature of racing leaves you facing in the wrong direction. Clearly, there’s a need to penalise players who spin out due to an ill-timed drift or a continual salvo of weapon fire, but the fade-in-fade-out track reset feels like a lazy throwback to older games in the genre. Whilst the multiplayer nature of Blur doesn’t lend itself to something as drastic as Forza 3’s rewind feature, a more elegant solution, which doesn’t bring action to a screeching halt, would be appreciated.
: Social Climber
Bizarre Creations have taken the opportunity to not only build upon the Kudos system they developed for the Project Gotham Racing series, but also borrow aspects of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer progression from Activision stablemates Infinity Ward. Far from securing a place on the podium being the only thing that counts, the completion of mid-race challenges and your general on-track performance are also vital to your progress. Anything from catching air-time to maintaining a high hit ratio with the Bolt power-up is enough to gain Fans the accumulation of which allows you to level up and unlock new vehicles. They also unlock perks, which can then be used to design class loadouts tailored to specific cars and playing styles. As I often found myself barrelling into other players to get ahead, I constructed a class which capitalised on the bulk of a nice heavy truck by increasing the radius of the Barge power-up and the impact damage done to other vehicles. Despite its limited presence in the beta, I can already feel that the progressive and social meta-game significantly bolsters the racing experience. Whilst it’s hard to deny that the constantly dangling carrots of upgrades and abilities are the main draw here, the less tangible feelings of one-upmanship generated by the post-race trophy roll-call are of equal significance.
: The Neon Handshake
Not content to simply run at a speedy framerate, Blur’s visuals are also highly impressive. The fleet of both licensed and fictitious automobiles is rendered with a degree of sleek realism whilst the numerous tracks offer some attractive vistas, from the lazy orange sunset of a mid-western dustbowl to starlit Japanese skylines. However, it’s the neon influence of Bizarre Creations’ dual-stick shooter Geometry Wars that define’s Blur’s aesthetic and permeates every aspect of the game’s presentation. Deploying power-ups envelop your vehicle with electric blue crackles of lightning and soft white bubbles of radiance, whereas the inter-race menus feature golden trails of time-lapsed traffic. This unique visual hook creates an interesting augmented reality that exists somewhere beyond our own world, despite name-checking a host of real cosmopolitan cities.
: The Twits
Perhaps it’s unfair to level this criticism at Blur alone seeing as quite a few other games have committed the same act recently, but I’m really not thrilled about the game’s Twitter integration and its potential to litter my feed with extraneous information. My understanding is that the game already internalises other aspects of social interaction with its own facsimiles of Facebook and YouTube, so I don’t understand why micro-blogging can’t be limited to its faux internet too. I have a sneaking suspicion that in years to come, we’ll look back on all of this as a weird curio from the current era of games. Still, at least it’s better than being spammed with Mafia Wars invitations on Facebook.
: Power Play
- Pole Position
- Social Climber
- The Neon Handshake
: Stopping Power
- The Twits
Whilst Blur compares very favourably to other arcade racing games, it specifically leaves kart racers choking in the acrid fog of its burnt rubber. Considering the lacklustre treatment given to the latest iteration of the Mario Kart series by Nintendo, I’m quite happy to exchange the cutsified charm of the Mushroom Kingdom for a healthy dose of reinvention. In fact, Blur not only makes the Kyoto giant seem lazy for bringing so little innovation to a franchise they've been flogging for almost 20 years, but also makes Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and the upcoming ModNation Racers seem distinctly hokey.