Blur – Don’t Play Alone

Review

Originally posted at: http://www.criticalgamer.co.uk/2010/06/07/blur-review/

What is a good multiplayer game worth? It’s a surprisingly difficult question. Online gaming has shifted our values in profound ways. Is a game with multiplayer a better investment than one without? Does a game with a forgettable multiplayer mode deserve the same criticism as a game with poor single-player content? How do you judge an online game on its merits when player depopulation or dwindling developer support can make it unplayable? These are questions that make Blur, Bizarre Creations’ online-centric racing game, so difficult to review.

It’s easy to make a call on something like Halo or Call of Duty, which offer something for everyone, online or off, and guarantee a stable player-base for several years. But even then, we need only look back to 2005′s Splinter Cell :Chaos Theory, a robust classic that’s been neutered thanks to a loss of online support. And if your game of choice isn’t successful? Forget it – the boatload of vacant online games far outnumbers the handful of wildly successful ones.

These concerns are relevant because Blur’s online multiplayer is what makes it so completely brilliant, and because that multiplayer may already be dwindling.

As an offline game, Blur is completely average – almost poor by Bizarre Creation’s own standards. The house that made Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars has more or less crafted a mix of the two – a high-quality racing game with a fireworks display of weapons and power-ups. The side-effect of this diabolical union is a need for chaos that only human opponents can provide.

Competing with AI in Blur is much like it is in a fighting game. Not only is it a pain, but it bears no resemblance to human competition. Playing against the AI will actually make you worse at the game.

This is alleviated somewhat by some clever events beyond the standard racing and a pile of additional challenges under the hood. Checkpoint races have you collecting nitro and time extension icons all along the track, boosting to the next checkpoint before time runs out. Destruction events require you to gun down mobs of slower, weaker cars, taking out as many as you can. Additionally, every event has a high score to crack and special challenges strewn across the track. Succeeding in all of this nets you lights (which unlock additional events), and fans (which unlock new cars). The game does an excellent job of giving a sense of progress – you’re always on the cusp of completing another challenge. In fact, if Blur’s single-player was simply a collection of fun challenges, without the AI races, it’d probably be a lot more fun than it is.

That said, you shouldn’t even consider Blur if you’re not planning to take it online. There are tons of other, better, single-player racing games. Where Blur excels is in its online multiplayer races.

Blur has been pegged as a more realistic take on Mario Kart, but that’s only half the story. Its driving model is on par with the best arcade racers and cornering is as much a part of the game as managing your power-ups. Those power-ups, of which you can hold up to three at a time, provide far more strategy than you may be used to. Blur isn’t a compromise of gameplay systems, it’s damn-near two games in one.

The result is a pretty intense learning curve and a skill-ceiling that even the best players haven’t found yet. Don’t be surprised if it takes five hours before you start winning races, or even coming close. Competition is stiff, and the game’s Modern Warfare-style progression system is as much a way to reward you as it is a signal of the kind of game you’re getting into. But unlike that game, where losing can be a nightmare, fighting for 19th place can be just as enjoyable as hanging on to the lead.

It’s almost as if the game is matchmaking as you race. The mix of weapons, defensive maneuvers, and the natural distribution of cars on the track tends to divide players into pockets of skill. With so many cars, you’re rarely left in the dust, and more often too concerned with the opponents immediately in front and behind you to worry about first place.

That the game is constantly rewarding you with new cars, abilities, and challenges only diminishes the importance of winning. In Blur, you’re always winning because you’re always getting better, you’re always being rewarded, and you’re always having fun doing it.

Once the game clicks though – once you’re bobbing and weaving between hails of lightning, attacking and counter-attacking in equal measure – Blur truly becomes something else. What’s initially exciting about Blur is the total chaos and information overload. Everything is exploding – cars are shooting lasers at each other – it’s total madness. But after a while the chaos begins to take shape. It’s an almost transcendental experience, much like Geometry Wars, where you enter a higher plane of concentration.

This is where Blur is at its best. Sure there’s a ton of other online modes, including fun distractions like a car-combat mode and races without power-ups; but it’s the pure 20-player races that make the game what it is.

The overriding problem with Blur is the current state of its online community. Its quality is absolutely dependent on a population that currently hovers around 2000 players on the Xbox 360 version, and even less on PS3 and PC. So what is Blur worth? In an ideal world, the online experience alone would vault the game into classic status among arcade racing fans. But as it stands, some day, perhaps much sooner than we hope, Blur will be little more than a happy memory. Should you check it out anyway? Absolutely. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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