Bizarre Creations aren't known for slapstick racing and special weapons - previously they left that to the likes of Mario and Sonic. But with Blur the studio has done an about face in the aftermath of its Project Gotham series. Gone is the simulation engine, gone is the car tuning and decal creating. In their place though is a surprisingly challenging racing game that will not only instantly hook casual gamers, but given half a chance will also prove its worth to the hardcore.
This is a message it takes a while to believe - Bizarre Creations making a kart racer, surely not? But as I discovered during a rainy day in Liverpool, there is a lot more going on here than a simple Mario Kart clone. I headed up to their preview event with not a little healthy scepticism and a sturdy umbrella.
For a start the game looks every bit like a simulation. Environments, cars and weapons have a familiar aesthetic to them. There is a satisfyingly solid feel to both the driving and the scenery. Slam your ride into the unsuspecting street furniture and the results are instantly evident.
Look and feel aside though, Blur makes no bones about catering for the casual player. Pretty much anyone can sit down and get round in one go. If you take too much damage or end up facing the wrong way the game simply points you in the right direction again and off you go. In some ways this is actually easier than Mario Kart.
However, as I spent more time with the game I started to understand that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. The first thing I noticed was that with each race I undertook my rank was increasing and I gained access to some interesting ways of customizing my ride. As we learnt later from Craig Wilson there are 24 of these mods that you can apply, in sets of three. The mods work a lot like Modern Warfare's perks system and create some really interesting ways of playing the game.
Whereas Mario Kart style games usually stop at some power-slides and special moves, Blur lets you create a variety of ways to play the game. Perhaps you are an aggressive driver; then you'll like the Ramming mod that increases your car's ability to damage other vehicles. Or perhaps you are more defensive, the Invisibility mod is a great way to sidle past the action unnoticed.
Playing the game in a 20 player local network there was a real buzz in the room as we warmed to the challenge and slowly unlocked more mods. I had sat down with quite a bit of scepticism, but this was soon dispelled as I revelled in the pure competition of Blur's new style of racing.
The cars themselves are all licensed real world vehicles, something that adds a little more substance to proceedings. Like the mods, you have to rank up before you can drive each of them. You can also customise them with some additional power-ups to accentuate their weight, speed or acceleration.
Although for Bizarre Creations previous simulation-based games' split screen mode was unimportant, their focus on the more casual racer makes it essential here. I was impressed at their sensible design decision to unlock all cars and tracks in this mode, regardless of progress in the main game. You can literally take this home and play it with friends and families straight out of the box.
Online multiplayer promises to support an impressive 20 players, and if our preview play-time is anything to go by this creates some incredibly hectic and enjoyable competitions. A range of playlists will be available here to suite all tastes. There will be a no power-ups pure racing option, but it is Bizarre Creation's expectations that the most popular will be those with everything turned on.
After a day with the game I came away really surprised how much I liked it. Something of a Mario Kart fan, I was expecting this to be second rate. In fact Blur is quite the reverse. Once you twig that this is a kart racing game, it soon starts to impress with a whole host of other elements - mods, power-ups and upgrades - that create a game with genuine depth.
These different layers all work together to create an experience that lets players race the way they want to. Happily, they avoid becoming the caricature that Mario Kart has been of late. This is partly from an absence of rubber banding and blue shells, but also from a real focus on the racing. The winner of a race will be the person who drives the best, makes the right power-up choices and manages to create their own luck - rather than the guy who sneaks past at the last minute.
The challenge for Bizarre Creations is in their ability to find an audience for their game. They need to grasp the nettle of the kart racer if they hope to communicate why Blur is worth playing. Once they do I think there will be plenty of gamers, hardcore and casual alike, who are more than keen to experience some casual racing with a surprising amount of hidden depth.