Games 6/8/10: Blur, Backbreaker, Planet Minigolf

Blur
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bizarre Creations/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild language)

Bizarre Creations has attempted to make it perfectly clear that while “Blur” uses vehicle and track designs typically reserved for the likes of “Burnout” and “Need for Speed,” the game it’s really targeting is “Mario Kart.”

Looks and a few other particulars aside, the comparison isn’t a stretch — for reasons good and bad.

While “Blur” doesn’t completely nullify the value of able and dangerous driving — the cars handle almost identically to those in Bizarre’s more serious “Project Gotham” racing games — the real key to victory comes from sabotaging the opposition with power-ups scattered around the track. The use of real-world graphics trickles down slightly to these power-ups, but while they don’t look as fantastical as “Kart’s” mushrooms and turtle shells, their general behavior certainly calls that game to mind. “Blur,” to its credit, introduces some nice improvements to the system by mixing in defensive items, including a shield, and by letting players go after the items they specifically want instead of picking up unmarked boxes and hoping what they want is inside.

The heavy premium on power-ups in what otherwise feels like another “Project Gotham” game certainly makes for a novel change of pace, but the degree to which “Blur” deemphasizes the importance of driving well is kind of disappointing. Ramming and sideswiping cars is practically worthless, and while there are occasional rewards for agile driving, most of the advancement through the game comes from pelting other drivers with items and zipping past them while they recover. Some of “Blur’s” constricting track designs practically mandate dull, safe driving, especially early on when the only vehicles available to drive are Class D cars that handle like tugboats.

Frustration with these and other factors, including some unfortunate difficulty imbalances (the game’s too easy on the easy setting, but gets ruthlessly, cheaply difficult on normal difficulty and beyond) and a long wait before the cars that are really fun to drive become available, makes “Blur’s” single-player component something not everyone will love. Bizarre has designed a inventive career mode that functions like a role-playing game and allows players some measure of forward progress toward unlocking better cars even when they finish dead last in an event. But while that setup gives the mode some serious longevity, it also feels designed to make players grind away by losing the same events repeatedly until they have the experience and cars necessary to win it. That this can lead to frustrating stagnation is both obvious and an understatement.

Fortunately, “Blur” has a similar system in place for online multiplayer (20 players), and it carries all the benefits of the single-player mode without the aggravations the A.I. brings to that table. The game matches players against others in their experience class, and because the playing field is completely level and factors beyond player control have no say on the outcome of the race, it’s a significantly better realization of what Bizarre envisioned when it first conceived this idea. Kart racing has always been a genre that shines brightest in multiplayer, and “Blur” gets major points for recognizing that and giving that crowd just as much to strive for as those driving solo.

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Backbreaker
For: Playstation 3 and xbox 360
From: NaturalMotion Games/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The problem with “Backbreaker” — and there probably couldn’t be a worse problem for a football game to have than this — is that its diversionary modes are better than its presentation of a complete game of football.

The promise of “Backbreaker” — which champions a game of football based around a dramatically more intense physics engine than what “Madden” uses — is everywhere in the optional but recommended tutorial portion. The mode introduces the controls and physics via 25 lessons, covering everything from open-field tackling to the art of the interception, and it doubles as a validation of the concepts NaturalMotion has introduced to make this a step in a new direction for football games.

“Backbreaker” treats the two control sticks as extensions of a player’s body — the left stick controls the feet per usual, the right stick good for juking, hitting, passing, swimming around blocks and so on — and it presents the action from closely behind whichever player you’re controlling instead of from fixed angles a la “Madden.” You can switch between players at will, but “Backbreaker” encourages picking a player during the play-calling screen and sticking to him throughout the play. The camera unwieldiness that happens when switching mid-play certainly validates that approach.

The zoomed-in camera angles work well during the tutorials, which operate within controlled parameters. They also work in the terrific Tackle Alley mini-game, which finds players running through a gauntlet of would-be tacklers and racking up arcadey scores by dodging defenders and reaching the end zone.

But “Backbreaker” tumbles hard when placed in real, 11-on-11 game situations. The camera zooms too far in for players to have any field presence in unscripted situations, and while we get a nice look at the cool tackling physics, it’s too difficult to find open lanes while running, check multiple receivers while passing, or do just about anything near the line on either side of the ball. It’s sometimes preferable to just break the system: Lining a defensive end on the opposite side of the play makes it far easier to sack, for instance, while running the ball east and then north makes for much larger gains than following the block.

Which leads to the other problem: “Backbreaker’s” A.I. is both too easy to exploit and excessively prone to undermining the fun. Quarterbacks randomly throw directly to defensive backs nowhere near the route, and your teammates go on spurts of committing the same penalty multiple times. Turnovers are way too commonplace, and the afflictions affect human and A.I. teams alike on all difficulty settings.

“Backbreaker’s” dead-simple playbook isn’t bad news for players overwhelmed by the sea of formations and plays in “Madden,” and the absence of the NFL license doesn’t necessarily sting thanks to a customization tool that lets players extensively edit the name, look and roster of 32 teams. (Players can’t share created teams online, but even if they could, the lawyers that be likely wouldn’t allow the sharing of user-created NFL teams anyway.)

But the features and arguably refreshing simplicity are for naught until “Backbreaker” figures out how to get the main course right. First effort or not, too much goes wrong here to recommend this, novelty factor or not, as a serious alternative to “Madden’s” brand of football.

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Planet Minigolf
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

The good thing about “Planet Minigolf” is that its biggest problem is potentially treatable with a patch. The bad thing, unfortunately, is that if that never happens, that problem — control — rates pretty high on the list of issues not to have. On every other front, “Minigolf” is an extraordinary package for $10. The 16 nine-hole courses, which disperse over four different environmental theme
s, look great and offer a healthy mix of surprises and homages to classic minigolf traps, and a surprisingly rich course editor allows players to create their own courses and share them online. There’s a single-player campaign as well as online/local multiplayer (up to six players), and players can customize their character’s look for both components. “Minigolf” even supports three-on-three team play, and the truly patriotic can represent their country and contribute their scores to an inspired multinational leaderboard. So it’s too bad about those controls: The default analog stick scheme is way too touchy to feel natural, and the button-centric alternate controls (in addition to being entirely too easy to miss completely in the menus) suffer the same problem to a smaller degree. Practice makes that touchiness easier to anticipate, and the present settings are nowhere near unreasonable enough to completely derail the experience. But “Minigolf” will need some developer fine-tuning before it feels as effortlessly intuitive as the PS3’s best traditional golf games presently do.