Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Blur (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

One particular genre of video games that has always held a special place in my heart is racing games. Every since first playing Enduro on the Atari 2600, I have played countless racing games on countless consoles, ranging from simulators like Gran Turismo and Forza to the more arcade-style racers like Ridge Racer and Need for Speed. Sadly, the market for these games has become saturated with a seemingly endless parade of racing games that look, feel and play almost exactly the same. Consequently, a few great games get lost in the shuffle and Blur is one such title. Highly regarded by critics and racing game aficionados but overlooked by pretty much everyone else, Blur is a fast-paced, frantic and highly addictive arcade racer that offers both a lengthy and satisfying campaign and a quality (and still very active) online multiplayer component.

Most modern racing games involve either a convoluted story that thinly binds the races together or simply opt for racing action with some objectives to keep you playing. Blur falls into the latter category, with several themed levels, each with six events and a "one-on-one" race with opponents that serve as bosses of sorts. The objective is to win races and gain "fans", which function as experience points that allow you to level up and unlock better vehicles. The events in Blur are broken up into three distinct categories; "Checkpoint" which requires you to hit a certain number of checkpoints before the timer runs out, "Destruction" which involves wrecking as many opponent vehicles as possible, and "Race" where you face off against up to 20 other AI racers. The races take place in various locations around the world, however there are only 15 different tracks and you will often see the same tracks repeated.

What makes Blur a frantic and sometime chaotic racer is the addition of "power-ups" which are similar to what you would find in a Mario Kart game. Each power-up is used for either
damaging and slowing down your opponents or defending and repairing your own vehicle. The power-ups are as follows: a "Nitro Boost" that gives you a burst of speed, "Barge" which allows you force-push opponents away from you, "Shock" that creates pools of lightning on the track, a "Bolt" attack that functions as a three-shot projective and a "Shunt" that hones in one and blasts your opponents. Also included are two defensive power-ups, a "Shield" that protects you for a short period of time and a "Repair" that allows you to fix damage to your vehicle. The challenge in Blur is knowing which power-up to use and at which time. Both your NPC opponents and online rivals have the ability to use power-ups on you, so a good defense is important to ensure you don't get slowed down or wreck your car.

As you play through Blur, your "Fan Level" will increase and better vehicles and power-up modifications will become available. To help you level up faster and provide reasons to replay races, each level has a set of "Fan Demands" that require you to perform certain tasks like winning a race without crashing, using two specific power-ups together, etc. Satisfying these demands will increase your Fan Level faster and allow you to progress, and some of these actions are required before you can tackle the "one-on-one" races at the end of the level. Some are fairly easy to pull off while others do feel like a grind as you play through the same race multiple times. However, this is something endemic to most racing games and it doesn't reach the levels of tedium that I often find in simulators like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport.

The most important aspect of any racing game are the controls and this is something that Blur delivers in spades. All of the vehicles handle extremely well and the controls are incredibly tight, save for the occasionally stiff drifting mechanic. As with most racers, you are given a variety of vehicle classes such as sports cars, street vehicles and SUVs, each one appropriate to certain tracks and locations. Your AI opponents do a good job of trying to run you off the road and you very often find yourself the target of a Shunt, but Blur thankfully lacks the rubber-banding problem that a lot of racers seem to have. Being in first place makes you a big target, but the game never feels unfair and you always have a fighting chance to take back the lead. This also holds true in the online multiplayer, which is still well populated even a year after release. Online players rank up in the same fashion as the single player and the modifications can be better customized to suit your playing style; people who are hell-bent on wrecking everyone have plenty of mods available, while more defensive drivers can mod their vehicles to have better shields and recover from crashes faster. The single player campaign can be lengthy and the multiplayer will keep you coming back for sure.

Graphically, Blur follows the formula of Need for Speed and Burnout in that it has the right amount of realism combined with solid arcadey visuals. Racers that move incredibly fast tend to suffer with their framerate, however this was never a problem I noticed in Blur. The occasional glitch and car getting stuck in a wall did occur, but not often enough to make it an issue. The only area that Blur does suffer is in the audio department and especially in the music. Similar to Forza 3, the background music is faint and nondescript, adding little more than white noise to the races. More presence with the music and a better licensed soundtrack would been a great improvement.

Blur is one of those racing games that not many people I know have played, mainly because it suffers from the "just another racing game" stigma that the genre has garnered in recent years. This is unfortunate because it is one of the best racing games to come along recent years, well paired with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, another fantastic racer that shares many similarities with Blur. Fans of technical simulators and those who want to customize every detail of their vehicles might not warm to Blur as much as fans of fast-paced and frantic arcade races, so how much you enjoy this game will depend on your taste. However, as much fun as it must be to build your car from the ground up in a simulator, the ability to shunt an opponent off a cliff is way more fun in my books.

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