Tonight I’ve been playing the rather excellent Blur multiplayer beta on Xbox 360 from Bizarre Creations, the former shepherds of the Project Gotham Racing franchise.
The most obvious comparison to other games may seem a bit lazy, but it’s probably the truest one. Blur is basically “Project Gotham Kart” with a bit of Rollcage thrown in – races in real cars, featuring a mixture of offensive and defensive unreal powerups, with added neon.
But the games listed above aren’t the only influences. Blur’s on-car HUD is a nod to the forthcoming Split/Second, and the system of challenges and car mods has Call of Duty: Modern Warfare written all over it. Luckily for Blur, its specific combination of familiar elements makes for an entertaining new experience.
Much of this is due to the massive increase in multiplayer numbers compared to a standard racer, from the previous maximum of 8 players in Bizarre’s last game, PGR4, to a huge 20 in Blur. This immediately makes a big difference. The netcode here is super-solid, with very little lag at all despite the crazy amount of pyrotechnics and crashes going on all around. What’s interesting about this number of players is that it really shouldn’t work. It should be an unplayable mess. But whether it’s due to the smartly limited number of power-ups, the impactful but non-ruinous effect of a standard weapons hit, or the neat game of rock-paper-scissors going on with how different powerups counteract each other’s effects, what could easily have been an unfocused free-for-all is actually quite a tactical racer.
The powerups have their roots in Mario Kart. There are clear red shell and green shell a-likes, a banana, a mushroom – all jazzed up and neon’d to the nth degree, given potentially iconic pick-up symbols and flashy FX. But the racing tracks aren’t just PGR retreads. They feature jumps and multiple routes. They’ve been made wider to accommmodate more racers, with the occasional evil bottleneck or cliff edge causing chaos. The scenery certainly doesn’t impress like it did in PGR3 and 4, but the apparent minor scaling back of detail is an understandable concession given the numbers of cars on track and the particles being thrown around.
Online integration is smart, with a voting system to decide on the next track, a pretty short turnaround time between races, and a clear and well laid out lobby screen. Disconnects do happen, but they’re relatively rare and are to be expected in a beta. Bizarre is on record as saying that it’s actively looking for feedback to improve the game for the final version. This isn’t just a marketing tool for them, helpful though it will no doubt be to improve the game’s current Ada McGrath-like word of mouth. Niggles include how wall-riding is far more efficient than drifting, and how the EMP power-ups (the Blur equivalent of Mario Kart’s blue shells) can be avoided a bit too easily by the race leader.
But overall the experience is a positive one, vindicating Evil Activision (TM)’s decision to allow Bizarre an extra 6 months of development. Project Gotham Racing 2 is still my favourite online game of all time, even now, but there were moments in my first Class A Supercar race on Blur, with the sheer level of speed, explosions going off everywhere, and cars flipping all over the place in front of me as I steered my way through a barrage of EMPs, that made me think this may have what it takes. A few months ago, that looked impossible. It’s quite the turnaround, and it makes me excited for what the final spit and polish could bring.