Here's your one sentence review of Blur from Bizarre Creations: it's Mario Kart, grown up. There's more to it than that, but really, it feels like it took everything from the famous kart racer and added depth, polish and features that older audiences can appreciate and even get addicted to. I guess that's what they were trying to get at in their silly ad campaign.
Let's start with the visuals: Blur is, while not ugly, certainly not the best looking racer out there. Cars and locales look slick and presentable, though the whole game feels a bit muted and less colorful than the competition. Bizarre Creations made a, well, bizarre decision in that the soundtrack is turned off by default, making the first race I was in a ghastly silent affair. Turning it on in the options let loose some electronica and house style music that fits the game well enough. Some of the tracks were simply annoying, though, and I was disappointed that there was no option to turn off certain songs. The less colorful visuals and soundtrack set the tone for a game with a mature feel. Car models are all licensed and based on real cars, with handling that veers more towards realism and less towards doing crazy power drifts ala Mario Kart.
Not so realistic, of course, are the powerups that litter the field, which I extensively went over in my preview of the game. What sets these powerups apart from other arcade racers is that most have secondary purposes that are used by holding back (forward for the mine) before shooting. Predicatively all this does is shoot the powerup in the opposite direction, but this has large strategic implications. Rear-firing bolts, which are normally forward projectiles with no homing ability, can knock back opponents closing in on you. A barge normally offensively pushes nearby cars away, but can also be used to cancel out incoming projectiles. In fact, all projectiles can be rear-fired to destroy incoming shots, so there's a constant decision of whether you should use powerups to take out opponents or save them to defend yourself. This is all possible thanks to the great idea of a constant rear view mirror on your screen, which lets you multitask driving while taking out what's behind you. Even the nitro, which should be straightforward enough (press it to go fast!), has a secondary use that slows you down and allows you to quickly adjust your turn angle before it boosts you; this is absolutely invaluable in time trials where expert cornering is key to getting the gold. Blur offers a level of tactical powerup usage I've never seen in a racer before, and I love it.
There's one big problem with all the great ideas behind the powerups. Since five of the eight powerups can be used to take out incoming projectiles, it can be a bit too easy for the leader of a race to maintain first place. For the most part it's easy for them to knock back any homing missiles with all the powerups they get first dibs on, and it isn't too difficult to dodge the lighting powerup (Blur's target-the-leader blue shell). Meanwhile 2nd and 3rd are being pummeled by other racers so they quickly lose sight of first. I've been able to get into first in multiplayer and maintain it easily for over a lap, winning by times up to fifteen (!) seconds before second place crosses. And I'll be the first to tell you I'm not good at racing games.
The good news is that getting first isn't the only important thing in Blur, particularly in multiplayer. Bizarre has easily created the deepest online system for a racer around; there's tons of stat tracking, from top 3 position finishes, powerup hit percentage, and tons of awards for hitting goals with powerup usage. Using a certain car model frequently will unlock new skins along with health and speed boosts for it. On top of that all is a level system that awards not only for driving well, but for effective powerup use and hitting those aforementioned goals.
Leveling up unlocks two things: new car models and new mods. Blur solved the problem of Split/Second's online, where players with less experience and thus weaker cars would be steamrolled by end-game cars, by putting cars into four classes, D through A. When a track is voted on only one class of car is allowed, so someone can't pick a supercar to make your SUV eat dust. Leveling up unlocks new cars in each class, but the important thing is that the stat differences between cars in a class are very small; a level 40 car will only have a notch of speed over a beginner car. Later cars are also more "difficult", in that they have worse handling or less health to compensate for the better speed, so it takes a seasoned player to use them well anyway.
The much more interesting unlockable with leveling up are the mods, which are often compared to the perk system from Call of Duty. Each mod gives your car a unique ability; for example, giving your car more power to ram others off the road, or giving your bolt powerup a laser sight for aiming, or making your shield restore health when it hits a powerup. You can only pick three at any time; the diversity here really feels like you're making a unique identity, more than picking a car model or paint job.
I could ramble on about how great multiplayer is, but there is one problem if you're looking to pick Blur for the PS3 or PC, and that's the community. At any given time there are 400 or less people on the PS3 version, and I've heard there's less than 100 at a time on the PC; considering that a game's online community peaks in its first weeks, that's not a good sign at all. Furthermore Blur divides its multiplayer into different modes, such as 10 player races, 20 player, team races, destruction-based modes and no-powerup rooms; it's a nice idea but with a tiny community the result is further fragmentation; I never saw more than 5 people total in the Motor Mash mode, which is just sad. The community may grow over time or after people are done playing the flood of great games recently released, but it's a problem worth mentioning. 360 owners, from what I've heard your community is alive and well, so you can ignore this paragraph.
The single player, unfortunately, pales in comparison to the multiplayer side. Normal races are like online races but without all the stat tracking and level progression (it exists, but at a lower maximum level with less rewards), and instead with brutally difficult AI. I couldn't tell if there was rubber banding but the AI was a bit too good at destroying me time and time again; further compounding the problem is that getting less than third place means you "fail", so you get no lights (points that advance your career) and don't get any awards that you'd would get otherwise, which can be very frustrating. Getting third or higher is fine and all in 10 player races, but the problem is most races have 20 racers, so it's very easy to get pounded by powerups and fall to 15th place in the last lap. I found a difficulty option (which was pretty hard to find and completely unmentioned in the tutorials) but changing the mode to easy was like switching from Ninja Gaiden to Kingdom Hearts; all of a sudden I had 20 second leads over opponents and challenge ceased to exist.
Single player has a few more modes which try to keep things interesting. Checkpoint is time trial with nitros and time extensions; like I mentioned before strategic use of nitros is key here. Destruction is by far the most interesting, where you have to take out weakened opponents with only manually-aimed bolts. Conserving ammo, aiming well and dodging the occasional mine or bolt from the opposition makes this mode intense and a lot of fun. One on ones are races against the boss characters, which are fun but frustrating to unlock; bosses require you to first meet demands, which range from annoying, like completing random fan requests in a race, to boring, like racking up a very high number of wrecks. The last thing I want to do is "grind" for stats in order to fight a boss; this is a racing game, not World of Warcraft.
Blur is a tale of two modes. On one hand, the multiplayer, incredibly addictive, filled with a lot of action and motivation to keep playing. On the other, single player, which simply ranges from boring to frustrating. If you're okay with ignoring or only playing single player when your internet is down, then Blur gets my highest recommendation; the multiplayer is engrossing, rewarding, and practically never ending (when you reach the level cap you can reset yourself to level 1 and unlock a "legendary" car...you can do this up to 10 times). It may not be the flashiest game out there, but if you're looking for a deep racer with a great mix of skillful driving and intelligent weapon usage, look no further than Blur.