It's been a while since I've played and really enjoyed a racing game. Wipeout HD came close, but it was definitely Burnout Paradise; the mayhem and arcade-like controls worked for me. I always preferred the crazier racers over hyper-realistic ones like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. After playing the multiplayer beta of Blur, I think I may finally be hyped for a new racing game.
My impressions in a sentence is that Blur is Mario Kart grown up. There's a transition from cute karts to slick cars, bananas and shells to mines and missiles, and from a very basic online mode to one with multiple modes, rankings and car modifications.
Blur greeted me with an extremely slick presentation; I was really impressed considering this build is a limited-release beta. Neon-tinted menus with smooth animations guiding me into the multiplayer menu (single player was faded out). The beta had a main mode that made 2-10 player matches, a more chaotic version that allowed up to 20 players, and an unlockable mode where players get to use the fastest class of car available. This brings up that Blur has a "level up" mechanic in its multiplayer. Whenever you finish a race, 1st place or 20th, you gain "fans" for your finish position and things like drifting or wrecking others with powerups. When you reach certain numbers of fans you level up, which slowly gives you access to more parts of the game. There's a lot of stat tracking here, from win percentage to powerup hit ratio, which I always enjoy.
One thing you should know about Blur is that your first race, invariably, will come off as insanely chaotic and probably won't end up well. This is a testament to how much the powerups add to the gameplay. This is a good thing because the core racing game is actually pretty bland once you factor out said chaos. Tracks are very standard, ranging from your city level, beach level and docks level. There are some alternate routes and shortcuts but the tracks fail to be dynamic in any way (to be fair, the beta only had 4 tracks). The cars, even with different statistics, handle similarly; it came off as somewhere between Burnout games and more realistic games like Forza in terms of realistic handling.
But like I said, powerups are what make the game shine. While I will make copious amounts of Mario Kart references when describing them, what sets them apart is that most powerups have alternate uses that require a bit more strategic thinking to use. Another major difference is that you can hold up to 3 powerups at once. This adds a ton of strategy and complicates the game since you have to micromanage powerup usage while worrying about driving well. Here's the breakdown:
Shunt: The "red shell"; an evil red ball of doom that locks onto an opponent in front of you. Unlike the shell, shunt takes corners much better, but can also be dodged much more easily; a well timed jerk to the side right before impact will usually fake it out. It can also be countered by shooting another powerup backwards to hit it. Speaking of which, shunts can be shot backwards.
Mine: The "banana"; leaves a mine on the track, spinning out the car to run into it. They are actually the most visible form of a mine I've ever seen in a racing game; basically they are giant red orbs that float in plain sight. I still run into them all the time, which either means they are so visible to counter the high speed of the game, or that I suck at racing games (probably this). Can also be shot forward, which then acts like a Bolt. Can be used to block other projectiles.
Shock: The "blue shell"; Causes three energy pillars to shine on the track in front of the lead car. The leader has the least time to react and swerve to avoid them (other players have to worry about them too). A bit more fair than blue shells since it is much easier to avoid (though still tricky).
Nitro: The "mushroom"; Use it to go super fast! This powerup has the oddest alternate use of them all; reverse-firing a nitro acts as an air-brake, which slows the car very quickly and allows for precise movement. A cool idea on paper, but I really don't know if players will ever use a nitro to slow down their car as opposed to speeding it up.
Bolt: The "green shell"; Shoots a small spike forward (doesn't bounce like a shell though). It can be very hard to aim, but hits will both slow the target and alter their direction slightly. Timing one well can send a car flying off a cliff pretty easily. This is the only powerup that has multiple shots (it can be fired 3 times). Like other projectiles it can be fired backwards to hit pursuers or block their shots.
Shield: The "star"; The car becomes invulnerable to damage both from opponents and hitting walls. Wears out after being hit a few times or about 10 seconds. Unlike the star it doesn't mess up cars that run into you, sadly.
Barge: (Actually, I can't think of a good Mario Kart reference here...) sends a shockwave from your car in all directions, spinning out everyone nearby. It can be problematic since spinning out a car in front of you will just knock you back when it slows down into your face. It can block incoming projectiles if timed correctly.
Repair: (No Mario Kart analogue here either) Repairs the car fully. This brings up that your car has a health meter that depletes when hit. Running out of health means getting "wrecked" which doesn't eliminate you, but respawns you 3 seconds behind, which may as well be elimination a lot of times.
Overall the powerups all feel useful and require some thought to use well. My only worries are that shunts are too weak (better players claim they are too easy to dodge, and being hit doesn't slow the car down enough) as well as shields (no offensive ability and run out too quickly). Of course this is a beta for a reason, and I have faith these things will be balanced out.
The fact that powerup collection is not random (they always spawn in the same places) and you can hold on to up to 3 gives a ton of strategic implications. So much, in fact, that I worry that this game will become a bit too much for the more casual audience. In many games I got hit by series of powerups to send me (sometimes with others) flying to the back of the group. Unlike Mario Kart there are no "golden mushrooms" or "lightning bolts" to give the weakest players a chance to come back. What's more is that powerups don't cater to your position (since they are never random) and the only powerups that are even usuble when far behind are nitro and shock. The result is a very miserable second half of the race if you fall behind in the first half.
But like I said, I believe Blur is crafted as a grown up Mario Kart, which means there should be more reliance on skill then making miracle comebacks due to broken powerups. There's a ton of great gameplay here as well as replay value. Leveling up unlocks new cars that are not necessarily better but are more "advanced", typically trading off handling, acceleration and/or health for more speed. You can also unlock car modifications, of which you can have three at any time. Mods range from getting more fans in races to modifying powerups (one gives barge a larger radius) to giving you a powerup at the start of the race (the crowd favorite of the beta).
Unfortunately the beta caps off at level 10, leaving a ton of content locked and even more "only available in the full game". The big question for me with Blur is if it can stand up to the other arcade-racer coming out, Split/Second. The games take very different approaches; Blur has static courses but has a lot of strategy with powerups, while Split/Second has no powerups, instead letting players occasionally alter the course by triggering pre-defined events (like a bridge collapsing) which can easily ruin an opponent's position and dynamically alter the course. I'd have to play both to really know which is better, but I can say right now that I have very high hopes for Blur.
Special bonus! Be one of the first three people to post a comment to this and you'll receive a code to join the multiplayer beta! The beta is for the 360 only, sorry PS3 owners (the final game will be both 360 and PS3). If you don't have LIVE it includes a 48 hour code for a good couple days of mayhem. Finally, please post a meaningful comment, not FIRST!!1!1! or ME PLZ! or LOL WUT NEW WRITERS, etc. The first three (good) commenters will get PM'd with a code. Good luck!