Blur is a great proof of concept. Bizarre Creations set out to update Mario Kart's tried and true formula with real cars in a "mature" setting -- and for the most part, the developer succeeded. Racing has a great sense of speed, enemy AI isn't nearly as elastic (even in the harder levels) as in Nintendo's kart racer and the power-up mechanics offer a balanced selection of weapons, making gameplay more tactical than dependent on dumb luck.
However, between a poorly paced campaign, a small handful of available race modes and an uninspired sense of style (from the announcer to the menu layouts), I found myself wanting much more from the single-player campaign. The best part of the game is its plain-Jane racing but, unfortunately, Blur forces you to complete its two lesser modes (Destruction and Checkpoint) in order to get to all of it. Combine that with an exponentially increasing difficulty level in the game's later competitions and you've got Blur: a fun, interesting racing game with terrible structure.
In terms of racing, Blur shines. The mechanics are basic enough to be accessible (no manual shifting, drifting and drafting are minimally emphasized), yet the licensed cars respond as you'd imagine. Rear-wheel drive dragsters do straight lines well but can't handle tight corners, off-road cars lose less speed when veering, err, off the road and drift cars kick out their back ends when you tip the wheel hard left or right.
The game's selection of vehicles is ... strange, to say the least. You'll find a Renault Megane alongside a handful of different BMW M3s and even early 20th century pick-up trucks. I found myself gravitating towards a small crew of givens for nearly every race. Various car types are distributed evenly among the game's four classes (CC levels, for you Mario Kart diehards), though I used one or two of each set far more than the rest. Unfortunately, aside from a few tracks that more or less require using an off-road car to win, the selection of different types of cars is fairly meaningless and ends up doing little more than cluttering the menu on the way to choosing an actually useful livery for the race at hand.
Each new race in Blur brings in fans to increase your fan level, thus unlocking new cars and mods for the game's power-ups (a cadre of Mario Kart-esque items that can be fired at nearby enemies). Unfortunately, the cars I unlocked were often less powerful and handled worse than ones already available to me, and the power-up mods were too few and far between. Rarely would I unlock something actually useful -- a mod that would add an extra Bolt (read: Green Shell) or that would turn my shield into a battering ram, for instance -- but most of the time the unlock was just another car packing less of a wallop than the last. It's especially unfortunate that power-up mods weren't more common, as they play to one of the game's greatest strengths: balance. Rarely did I feel "cheated" by enemies pounding on me with the game's many weapons (though it'd be a lie to say that luck never played a part in my win or someone else's).
Blur is clear best played against other human beings, but online multiplayer unfortunately suffers from the same gating issue that the single-player game does, locking you out from a handful of game modes until you reach a certain level. That's a real shame, because the level of sheer chaos taking place on a track at any given time when playing online is easily five or six times what you'd find in a single-player match against bots, instantly making the whole experience more fun.
Given the fact that players must rank up to higher levels to unlock other race modes, though, fewer and fewer players populate the higher level game types. Additionally, all of those cars that you spent hours unlocking in the campaign? They all need to be unlocked again. The experience of racing online was great, but the way that it's set up worries me that few people other than very dedicated community members will be playing Blur online later this year.
Those who stick around will find some good races and rivalries among their fellow drivers, and they should have progressed far enough to see Blur's uneven single-player campaign shrinking in the rear-view mirror.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of the game purchased by Joystiq.