Please think about the last fun racer you got an eye on over the past ten years. Ok, except for Mario Kart please. Difficult isn’t it? Nintendo’s flagship multiplayer has always had dominated the genre of fun racers, many other games fell behind or received little attention. Sadly, one of the most impressive attempts to create some competition was ignored by the broad audience and wrongly faded out of people’s minds over the years, becoming the – in my opinion – most underrated fun racer ever.
Let me tell you about the denied child of Mario Kart and Project Gotham Racing which was raised by Need for Speed Underground. Let me tell you about BLUR.
Just your average chaos race next door
A long, long time ago Project Gotham Racing (PGR) developer Bizarre Creations brought a fun racer to life which should “not be about power-ups, but your ability to drive with power-ups augmenting that”. This philosophy reflects in many elements of the game, but first let me tell you how BLUR works in detail.
Most power-ups in BLUR are based on the classic Mario Kart utilities. Bolts give you three straight laser-shots to attack your opponents, the shunt is a big orb homing a targeted opponent, and nitro is a classic temporary speed and acceleration boost. The unique thing about BLUR is that you don’t steer cartoon-characters in – more or less – creative fantasy karts.
The vehicle fleet of this game consists only of real licensed cars. From small cars such as the Ford Focus and VW Golf to muscle-cars such as the Chevy Camaro to Land Rover SUVs and high-performance cars such as the Corvette, nearly every class is represented. Each of them is unique in its handling, but never reaches sim racing level, clearly appealing to arcade fans.
The approach to transfer power-up-based fun racing into a real-world setting doesn’t stop there. The 15 tracks of the game are also based on real places in different countries. Even though they are strongly edited to create an absorbing race-line full of alternative routes with short cuts and thrilling jumps. Fans of car-based movies like “Drive” or “Gone in 60 seconds” will surely have their flashback moments being chased by their angry competitors in the aqueduct of Los Angeles.
The more realistic concept of BLUR leads to stunning situations were cars that everyone knows fly around and above each other, spinning wildly after a critical hit of a shunt, or a triple-bolt-combo. Combined with the NfS Underground-like presentation which accents neon lights and lighting effects of powers-ups, a round of BLUR is one of the most ecstatic joyrides I can imagine. Putting the Nintendo fan bonus aside, the slow gameplay of Mario Kart pales in comparison.
A question of balance
Now that I have hopefully painted a proper picture of the game to you, I want to explain why I think BLUR is one of the most underrated racing games ever: It’s about its well-balanced gameplay. While it basically offers the same as Mario Kart, some innovative adjustments have raised Blur above its competitors ten years ago. Here are some examples.
More tactical opportunities: Taking Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing as references, BLUR gives the players much more defensive options. Nearly EVERY power-up can be used either forwards or backwards. Even a speed-boost can be remodeled into a massive brake to dodge hostile projectiles or take a curve much sharper than usually possible.
The real-world setting is used cleverly to add some new nuances to the usual fun racer ABC as well. You can use your rearview mirror to keep an eye on what’s going on behind you and precisely dodge shots of your opponents as well as aim properly when dropping mines.
In addition to that the variety of the cars is not just of cosmetic nature. As the cars have different handlings, it is necessary to pick the right one for certain tracks. In other fun racers, or even racing games in general, this aspect often becomes redundant.
Not to mention that cars usually don’t fly around instantly when hit by a shot. The racer works with a damage gauge which causes the cars to explode when empty. This gives players the chance to learn from and react to certain threats during a race including the chance to restore “health” by using the repair power-up.
More innovative than the rivals: When Mario Kart 8 introduced the horn to finally give players a chance to survive the blue shells (may they rot in turtle hell) everyone freaked out. What if I told you, that BLUR implemented such an innovative item in form of the Barge around seven years before that? Or that it didn’t just replaced the unholy blue shell with the unholy overpowered blue beam? Instead you can unleash the “Shock” upon your opponents at the top of the field.
It creates three broad laser-pillars which slow every car down driving through massively. In comparison to the blue shell you always have the chance to dodge if you drive carefully. Instead of being a bust or lose item like the blue shell, the shock is a helpful without turning the game into a random counter-item lottery.
Fewer random factors: Speaking of randomness: In BLUR you don’t get items via roulette after touching an item box. All power-ups have their fixed spot and don’t change during a race. Players always see the specific symbol and know what they are going to get, so you can always pick what suits your current position and tactics best.
Made for big competition
For these reasons, I’m convinced of that BLUR is more tactical and skill-based than most other fun racers. This circumstance would provide quite suitable arguments for broader competition which led many people to play online. Instead of just racing against opponents, players could send challenges to each other, and pursue breaking other players’ records. Even an official website for organised competition existed, but as the game didn’t manage to generate enough relevance the page got shut down. A sad ending as well as a missed opportunity.
A central gameplay mechanic which contributes to the Project Gotham Racing roots of BLUR is to gain fans during a race. Fans are kind of the currency in the game and as such necessary to level up and unlock more features. You collect fans by pulling off cool maneuvers or solving fan requests while racing. Such can be started by touching an icon that is placed on the track just like power-ups and reaches from drifting a certain time to hitting enemies with a special weapon or overtaking a certain count of opponents.
For me this mechanic is one of the best specials the game has to offer. As some of the requests can’t be solved by driving away at the top of the field, the game forces you to stay in the middle of the dangerous crowd for most of the time. Given the circumstance you don’t want to level up with the speed of a snail. It just isn’t enough to win.
You have to truly play with your opponents and still win. This is the boldest gameplay idea I have witnessed for a long time. As the level system was also implemented in the online mode, the matches were even more thrilling for me when battling real opponents in the crowd not knowing whether I would make it to the top spot in time.
…in a game without fans?
The video game press praised the title as well, giving solid ratings, so I truly don’t know why BLUR became a commercial failure in the end. Maybe it was due to the nearly synchronic release of Split/Second (also a great racing game) and both snatched buyers away from each other, not gaining enough relevance and publicity for themselves.
Maybe the game became a victim of its weaknesses like the too short single player mode and the quite unspectacular split-screen mode. As fun racers traditionally are used as couch games to hang out and laugh/fight with friends, this might have been a vital point for its lack of recognition.
As I like to play the game on LAN parties with my friends from time to time, I realized: it ages quite well, even if the graphics don’t pull off a firework anymore and never have. Still, I wonder every time why there are not more games like BLUR. It combines realism and overdosed fiction in a way that paints a picture of an alternative reality which is not ruled by our laws of physics. A reality which is, nevertheless, much closer to ours than Mario Kart and thus, despite its absurdity, much more tangible.
So, let’s raise a glass from time to time for all the hidden and forgotten gems, that the digital world has to offer. Cheers!