With a "new" Mario Kart on the scene, it's a good time to open the back-catalogue cupboard and dust off the only game in recent memory to have almost outclassed the powered-up antics of Nintendo's famous arcade racer.
Blur, by Liverpool-based Bizarre Creations, who'd previously developed Project Gotham Racing, sold itself on that very tagline—"powered-up racing"—and came out for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in May of 2010 to a very positive critical reception. Taking real-world cars and locations, and mixing in Mario Kart-like powers—for example, "shunt" is its version of a red shell, a projectile that homes in on an opposition racer; "nitro" is the speed-boost mushroom; and "shock" is a scatter-shot twist on the leader-targeting spiny—it emerged as publisher Activision's highest-rated new IP of the year.
Putting the game on today, in its 360 guise, I'm surprised by just how crisp and clean it looks, how hard and fast (and loud) it plays—and by just how tough it is. Granted, I don't realize I'm playing on the highest difficulty until a few races in, but all the same: Blur is, was, and remains one nails-hard driving game. Even with that challenge nudged down to "medium," it takes a few circuits of tracks in Tokyo, Brighton, Los Angeles and Barcelona to fully get to grips with not only the various hazards of each track, but also the game's testing, fidgety drift controls—this is no case of holding a shoulder button and skidding with confidence.
My 360's not connected to the internet nowadays—I only get it out of storage for special occasions (look, Binary Domain, one day your chance will come, stop whining at me)—so I've no idea if there's any multiplayer engagement with Blur anymore. But given that the Activision website doesn't list the game when you search for it—"best match" being something called NASCAR Unleashed—and that Bizarre Creations closed down less than a full year after what would prove its penultimate game's release, it's unlikely that there's any support for it. A shame, given Bizarre's hopes that this would be a multiplayer hit—all the ingredients are there for it, that much is evident just from its offline solo modes.
Above: Blur launch trailer
There's great, exhilarating, occasionally exhausting chaos to races, where up to 20 cars ram and slam against one another, exchanging bolt blasts and barges, each gradually coming apart unless you pick up a "repair" item. Cars can each hold up to three items at a time—one more than any Mario Kart's ever offered—and how and when to use them becomes an invaluable tactic, if you ever want to finish third or higher and therefore not outright fail a race event. (Told you it was demanding.)
I saw first places slip to fifth or sixth several times over the course of a couple of hours' refreshment with the game—just like Nintendo's series, everything can—and often will—change in a heartbeat, as one amongst the chasing pack nails your car, on just a sliver of remaining health (which has the pad pulsing, heartbeat-like, to add to the drama), with a forward-facing mine. Uh. Wrecked, and out of the essential podium places. So when you can, it's always handy to hold onto a "repair" power-up, and a shield, too, keeping a slot free for offensive abilities. Which you're going to need, if you're to get the better of the game's bosses.
Yes, Blur has boss showdowns. In its career mode, levels comprised of several separate events spread across a variety of locations and split into three types—a race, destruction (where you eliminate the opposition using the "bolt" power-up), and checkpoint tests (pass through the gates before the clock hits zero, collecting time-extending items and speed-boosting "nitro"s as you go)—are each crowned by a one-on-one encounter. Beat the boss, and you win their vehicle.
Blur is a great game, even today. If you've a soft spot for vibrantly violent racers with a supercharged twist, and have the means to play it, do so.
But I went several rounds against the very first level's boss, a level called "Proving Grounds" just to rub it in, before finally succeeding. A combination of consecutive bolts, shunts and barges just about saw her off and didn't I roar my satisfaction at the TV when I finally had her eating dust. (I did.) Or, rather, sand, given the stage is set on Brighton beach. Which is entirely stony, FYI, but let's not worry over trivial details in a game where an Audi A3 can launch lighting out of its dashboard.
Blur is a great game, even today. I could go deeper into how it works in terms of level unlocks, the extras available on each track, and how even when you're fucking up, royally, you're still rewarded—everything you do, however badly, adds to the overall experience and slowly improves your game. But really, sincerely, if you've a soft spot for vibrantly violent racers with a supercharged twist, and have the means to play Blur, do so. For me, it's that kind of recommendation (and long has been).
(On topic: Xbox, I don't know how likely this is, as I'm not even sure Activision want to acknowledge the game's existence anymore, but as these messageboard posts show, I'm not alone in wanting to see this added to the Xbox One's backwards-compatible roster. It mightn't have online play, but it does pack a mean split-screen mode. So, IDK, look into that, please? Cheers, guys.)
So what went wrong? Releasing in May 2010 wasn't a great move, for one thing. Blur registered appalling week-one sales (just 31,000 in the US), against stiff competition not just from same-genre titles but also games that'd go on to be regarded as some of the greatest of all time. Also released in May 2010: Just the small matters of Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Alan Wake and Skate 3. And then there was ModNation Racers and Split/Second: Velocity to go toe-to-toe with, from a strictly racing perspective. Tough crowd.
That the game's marketing went down the route of explicitly badmouthing the competition did it few favors, too. Blur's release trailer, at least for the US market, saw a broccoli-haired Mario Kart-like character press its face against a fence separating its cartoon antics from Bizarre's more realistic thrills. Its "race like a big boy" messaging left a bad taste in the mouth.
A gentler, more generically wow look at this cool new thing effort prioritized press quotes, pasting accolades across the screen, many of which focused on online play. But even then, it didn't translate the exhilarating speed of the game at all, or just how frantic its combat can be (extremely). But, I suppose, that's not something you really appreciate until your own hands are on the pad—which, again, if you can, you should.
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Bizarre Creations closed in February 2011—as part of the studio's deal with Activision, which bought the studio in 2007, a huge chunk of financing was dependent on Blur and a handful of other games hitting certain sales targets. It's safe to say that they categorically came up short, leaving a £40 million hole in the budget. Activision tried to sell Bizarre off, but with no suitors coming forward after three months of shopping it around, they simply shut the place down, slamming the brakes on plans for a sequel—although Bizarre did get some way into its development, as clips of a sports car tearing around Brighton (again) and Dubai revealed in 2013.
Activision had hoped that Blur would "do for racing what Call of Duty did for shooters"—but that potential, which the game has in spades, in entire skip-loads, just never came to fruition. One of those things I guess: great game, appalling timing, questionable publicity, and less-than-ideal visibility. "A perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances" is how former Bizarre design manager Gareth Wilson, who subsequently moved to Sheffield's Sumo Digital, described the situation in early 2011.
But if you're seeing the headlines for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and thinking to yourself: If only there was a way to get some of that on my ancient 360 or PS3, well, you know what to look for at your local second-hand store. Sincerely, Blur is a blast, and one that really does hold up as a pulse-rising, skin-tingling arcade racer seven years on from its release. It really did deserve better, so a little retro renaissance wouldn't go amiss.