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An Hour With... Blur

Well, more like three hours. Make of that what you will. Particularly if it's "Alec hasn't had the internet for several weeks so being able to play games again is probably over-exciting him."

So: figured I'd take a look at Bizarre Creations' powerup-infused racer Blur, which seemed (on console at least) a little overshadowed in May by redemptive cowboys and men who were awake. On PC, it seemed barely mentioned, including by us bunch of hapeless jonnies. Whoops.

Nonetheless, I've idly been curious about it because a) it's Mario Kart but without that mawkish, unchanging nostalgia and b) this old story from 2008. Racing is/has been in danger of painting itself into a specialist corner (though I look to GRID/DIRT and TDU as strong fight-backs), so seeing a bunch of its major creators worrying about that got me pretty excited about how they'd experiment with ways of broadening its appeal. I wonder if Bizarre were already working on Blur back then, or if it was, in part, inspired by their chat with their peers that day.

Unhappy rumour has it that Blur sold a fairly pitiful number of copies, though Actvivsion have since refuted it. Whatever the case, I can't say I ever look to sales as a measure of a game's quality. In other words: let's play, chums!

First up, to get it off my chest so I can then natter, untroubled, about the good stuff: it looks awful. Just dismal. At least a generation old (subjectively speaking, needless to say), unconvincingly blocky and a mad clash of luminous colours and depressing desaturation. Make it neon! But also gritty! Oh, leave that stuff to Tron 2 or whatever it's called. This is about racing cars equipped with magic guns. Lighten up.

The look almost derails Blur, and I can totally understand why anyone would pass it over for that reason alone. While I've only played two to three hours, and not dabbled at all in the multiplayer as yet, I reckon that'd be a terrible mistake.

It's the halfway house between Mario Kart and Wipeout, which obviously shared more than a few DNA strands in the first place. Blur manages the Serious Business of the latter and the Anyone Can Play of the former, resulting in a game that feels a whole lot more dangerous but without necessarily being so.

It's a good trick. I felt powerful and clever, even though I was almost never pressing the brakes and was firing my power-ups with all the strategy and precision of a monkey lobbing handfuls of faeces at visitors to the zoo. I am the best!

I am not the best. But I felt enough like the best to be pleased with myself - the rubber-banding didn't seem blatant, the effects of shots I did land well seemed fairly profound and, in the modern idiom, I was rewarded with oodles of spurious points and achievements come the close of every race.

I often object to hollow progression mechanics, but Blur does it with enough flash and verve that I was quite happy with it. I can't say I was totally on-board with the concept of Lights and Fans as the whojumwhatchmacallitthingies I need to score, with their feeling just a bit too abstracted from driving around a track really quickly (as opposed to DIRT 2, which totally nails the simple glee of racing well and being given bucketloads of cash for it). But the strange, gentle tug of Will I go up a level was in evidence, and pleasantly so.

Funny thing, though - I didn't care a jot about the cars I unlocked, outside of seeing if they were faster, harder, stronger than the other ones. The muted presentation and the push for points, points, points meant that the car wasn't, in fact, the star here. It was just a tool to help me do better.

In that respect, it's the polar opposite of my old sweetheart Test Drive Unlimited, in which racing and scoring seemed a distant second to the superficial but oh-so-satisfying pleasures of simply owning an incredibly expensive motorcar. Maybe that's the Mario Kart element making itself known - you don't care what Toad's Kart looks like or what it says about your tastes, because you're fixated only on whether it can outpace Diddy-Kong.

The power-ups definitely make it. There's nothing novel about them, and at least a few are direct lifts from games involving dumpy men on go-karts. They do, however, require just that little bit more precision and timing: there are no mega-cheaty ones designed to reverse the fortunes of helpless stragglers, simply temporary toys that grant an advantage if used sensibly.

The extra challenges beef Blur up nicely too. Again, nothing especially fresh - pass through all these gates, kill this many cars, brush off this many attacks, yadayadayada. The pick'n'mix, optional nature of them, however, seemed enough to have me creating my own freeform narrative through the game, rather than unthinkingly trying to beat every race and leaving it at that. Minor things, but God is in the details. By God I mean "a reason to care about why you're playing."

Would I play more? Oh yeah, no question. I will play more, in fact. Ton o'fun, as long as you can get past the newspaper-in-the-rain aesthetics. It's a racing game that rewards me for playing it, rather than punishes me for not immediately being good at it, and I've always been a sucker for those. I subscribe to the most basic fantasy of fast cars: that simply being in one turns me into an ace driver.

Given the power-ups and mysterious energy fields and whatnot, obviously it's about as far from a simulation as you can get without trying to argue that The Sims is also a racing game, but I suspect there's some mileage (that sounds like a pun. It isn't) to be had from stony-faced sim fans trying to beat shooty-shovey types purely by driving skill, with none of that power-ups funny business.

A real shame Blur's potentially been a sales casualty, then. It's nowhere near as slick and smart as Codemasters have been with GRID and DIRT (I appreciate a bunch of people don't like them, but they're incredibly well-realised crossover titles), but it'll be a hell of a shame if Bizarre end up saddled with stuff like Blood Stone for the rest of their existence, rather than being able to further explore the car-games-for-everyone space they've dabbled in here.

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