Five Things We Learned From the Blur Multiplayer Beta

Racing games fall into one of two categories. Either they take an arcade approach to the controls and focus on the street-racing tuner culture of Midnight Club or Need for Speed, or they eschew all of that for a true racing simulation experience, along the likes of Gran Turismo. I rarely find myself attached to the former, and have never understood the allure of the latter (especially when I can just go outside and drive a real car). Every once in a while though, a game comes along that breaks my prejudices. In the case of Blur the multi-player beta caught me completely by surprise and I couldn’t be happier. Yet, at first blush, it’s a little difficult to classify. The best way I can describe it is thusly: take the exhilaration of old school Cruisin’ USA racing, the adversarial features of Mario Kart and the graphical styling’s of Midnight Club and you’ll have a game that closely approximates Blur.

Mario Kart for grown ups: The original Super Nintendo and the Nintendo 64 versions of Mario Kart remain two of my favorite racing games of all time. I’m not totally into the simulation side of the genre, and last owned a racing game during the Midnight Club games that were featured on the Xbox and Xbox 360. My problem has always been that in more true to life racing games, the only way to overtake the leaders or make up for a mistake was through flawless driving and hoping that those in front of you made mistakes of their own. There wasn’t really anyway else that you could affect the race. This makes racing games kind of boring especially if someone jumps out to an early lead. With Blur the word “boring” will only apply during the load menu. The game features a full compliment of power ups and weapons that harken back to Mario and his friends chucking shells at each other. Some of them, like the bolts, shunts, and mines are projectile based, used for offense. There are shields and speed boosts, and even a “barge” power that sends out a wave of energy from the car, sending nearby cars flying in all directions. You can even repair your car mid-race with the “repair” power (not surprising at all). The most interesting power might be “shock” which immediately places three electrical landmines right in front of the path of the race leader. That’s right, think of it like the spiked blue shell from Mario Kart. Even if you are stuck in last place, sputtering around the corners, you can still knock the front runner down a peg. That’s the true beauty of games like Blur. No matter what happens, you are never really out of the competition. It’s unclear if there are more power-ups to come in the full game, or if these are the full extent of the game’s power-ups, but even if that’s so, there’s an interesting enough mix here to make for outstanding shifts in racing momentum.

Always turning left: There aren’t many concerns that I have about the game at this point, but if there is a weakness it’s in the tracks. There are only four tracks available in the beta; two urban, one at the docks, and one that takes place over a more rural area. None of them is tremendously remarkable and aside from the rural track they all maintain a real linear path with only occasional shortcuts and alleyways. While they are fun and provide a great forum for the nail-biting, explosive racing that occurs, they don’t lend a whole lot to the festivities themselves. I’m guessing that the developers are holding quite a bit back for the release, which I’m fine with, but I do hope that we will see some more non-linear tracks that truly provide multiple paths and perhaps even some with specific obstacles or features that can change the complexion of the whole race. The tracks are all pretty short except for the rural track, so it would be good if there was more variety in the length of them as well. Again, I point to Mario Kart which has always been known for really memorable tracks that varied greatly in how they played, their length, and even the amount of turning and cornering. There is a little potential with some of the tracks, where you need to wait to take advantage of a speed boost, or save a shield so that you can avoid taking damage on a sharp corner. Its moments like that which give me hope for the full game. No word on DLC either, but more tracks could easily be an avenue for the developer team.

Power to the People: In Blur, if you want to progress, its all about impressing the people. Fans are gained each race, depending on your finish, as well as how you used weapons and maneuvers on the track. The levels are used not just for ranking purposes, but also for improving your stable of cars and abilities. One of the things about Blur that I really appreciate is that it allows everyone to race they way that they want. Drifters can drift to their heart’s content, while the bangers and mashers can focus on just ramming every enemy in site, picking up power-ups, and dispensing vehicular justice ala Twisted Metal. The game rewards you with fans in both situations, meaning that not just those who happen to master one or two specialized forms of driving are going to get a leg up on the competition. Having fans also creates an easily understood means of dishing out rewards and unlockables, giving players a clear indicator of what they need to do to unlock the modifications or cars that they most desire.

Mod Nation: One of the interesting aspects of the game involves the strategy with which you can upgrade your car and apply modifications. These aren’t the body kits and whatnot that you see in a lot of the tuner-based games. Instead think of them like enchantments or power-ups for your car. Some will grant you more health or better armor, and others will modify power-ups or how many fans you gain for various on-track accomplishments. You can have three active at any one time, and there are several sets that you can modify to swap out from race to race, depending on what sort of car you will be using or the track that you are on. There also seem to be different upgrades that are specific to the individual cars themselves. What they are and how they are unlocked isn’t totally clear as they seem to not be unlockable in the beta. These modifications and unlockables are a great way to create differentiation among drivers and let all of us race the way we want to.

Why play alone?: Sifting through the menus on my way to the player lobby’s I notice the presence of a single-player experience. Seeing that this beta is restricted to the multi-player aspects of the game I can only speculate on what features the single-player holds, but my real question is, will anyone care? The multi-player experience is so exhilarating and fun that I’m not sure there will be any reason to play by yourself. Racing games aren’t exactly known for exciting A.I. If anything, the harder the games get, the cheaper the computer controlled characters seem to act. Maybe Blur is better suited as only a multi-player game. Unless there are some open world aspects or you use the single player to unlock some extras in multi-player I’m not sure that many players will see a reason to switch over, the chances that it will hold the same level adrenaline pumping excitement is very low. I guess, on the upside, you can look at it as a chance to practice more before the big races.

As always with demos I caution everyone that we have not seen the full game and that gameplay elements and other features may change before the ship date, but everyone knows that so it’s not a big deal. This being a multi-player “beta” there is a good chance that changes could come to Blur before its street date, even more so than usual. No word yet on if a single-player demo will be available before the launch, but it’s something we will keep an eye out for. Until then, download the beta and we’ll see you out on the tracks. Just don’t get too close.

Like the beta? Hate the beta? Did we miss something really important? Sound off with your comments.