Dirt Rally is a pleasant surprise

I’ve been interested in Dirt Rally for a while now but always avoided it because I kept hearing about how difficult it was. One reviewer called it “the Dark Souls of racing games.” I know myself well enough to admit that I’d probably never get good enough at Dirt Rally to enjoy it. I’m just too much of a game grazer.

Then the stars aligned. I watched the Indy 500 on TV Sunday and that put me in the mood for a driving game. I fired up Drive Club but I have never been able to get the hang of that game for some reason. Then I noticed Dirt Rally was on sale for $20 including all the DLC so I said what the heck and bought it.

My first surprise is that the cars on-offer go back as far as the 1960s and the first car you get is a Mini from that era. It’s not very fast, which means it’s pretty easy to drive. I left the transmission set to auto and I’ve been playing from outside the car and I’m finding driving this thing is pretty manageable.

The second surprise was how fun the ‘meta game’ is. I jumped right into the Career mode. They start you off with a free car and a small wad of cash and send you off to an event. Each event (so far anyway) is comprised of 4 rally races. Damage to your car accumulates over time. Between race 2 & 3 you get a chance to make repairs but there’s a limited amount of time so you need to prioritize what needs attention most.

At the end of the event you get prize winnings based on how well you did, but you also have repair costs deducted.

This is the between-race repair screen.

I love this system because it means during each race you have to balance the desire to place well with awareness of how much damage you’re doing to the car. In fact if you wreck badly enough you’ll be out of both the race and the event, and you’ll probably lose money on that event. You need to play smart. For example in one event I was doing pretty well then had a bad wreck in race three. The car was still driveable but from there on out I was more concerned with not having it break down than I was in coming in first, so I had to nurse it through the remainder of race 3 and through race 4, since I knew coming in farther back in the standings was a lot better than not finishing due to car failure.

Another aspect of the meta game is hiring team engineers. You pick from a list of engineers that are rated for different systems of the car. Better engineers expect to be paid more. The overall rating of your team impacts how many repairs can get done during an event. If all your engineers are experts in suspension it’ll take very little time to get the suspension repaired, for example.

So, I’m having fun so far. I don’t expect I’ll ever work my way up to the super rally cars since I probably won’t have the skill to control them, but for $20 I don’t mind if I only access half the game, if that makes sense.

There’s a lot more to the package, including Hill Climbing, Rally Cross and of course there’s an online component. But for now I’m practicing in my Mini and trying to get used to driving according to the instructions of my co-driver. I usually crash when I stop paying attention to him. Sometimes his instructions become white noise in my brain since there are so many and I don’t understand them all. But I’m learning! And having fun, and that’s what matters, right?

This wreck knocked me out of the entire event.

Blur multiplayer first impressions

A week or so back I got an invite to a “secret Xbox beta” via Fileplanet. Turns out it was for Bizarre Creation’s Blur, the upcoming combat-racing game. I’ve spent the last few evenings playing and I’m surprised at how much fun I’m having in a multiplayer XBox Live game with a bunch of strangers (the beta is mp only).

Starting Monday, March 8th, the beta will open to a much bigger group of testers. You can get keys from a raft of different gaming blogs if you’re quick. They seem to run out fast once they put them up for grabs. Snag one if you can and if you have any interest at all in arcade racing.

So when you start the beta, you’re a level 1 racer with access to two lobbies. One of them is for races of 2-10 players and the other is for races of 4-20 players. The second one has been more or less deserted and there may be other differences besides number of players; different tracks perhaps? I’ve only been in there once (the beta is really small…last night when I was playing, there were 30 players logged into the beta, all of them in Lobby 1).

So you get into this lobby. As a level 1 racer you start with a couple of basic cars. Cars (all licensed, by the way) are divided in classes, A-D. IIRC you started with 1 class D and 1 class C car. Once the prior race is finished there’s a short voting session where players vote for which of two tracks to race on. Each track will allow a specific class of car.

After the voting there’s a 30 second countdown to the race; it’ll feel too long for you at level 1, but later you’ll use this time to switch out cars and mods. At level 1 you have no choices so just sit tight. Soon enough you’re transported to the track.

The actual racing is (so far at least) all done on tracks with several routes/shortcuts on them. There’re various power-ups scattered around. Shields, mines, missiles and the like. These all feel pretty good and many of them can be fired forward or backward. Honestly the racing feels a lot like a cart-racer with a more grown-up ambiance. As I said, cars are licensed and realistic looking. The driving model feels slightly more realistic than that of a cart racer but it is still very drifty with an emphasis on accessibility; this is not a racing sim!

Hitting other players with weapons tends to slow them down or turn them around. Each car has a health-bar and if you get hit too many times you’ll wreck. Wrecking just means you lose a couple seconds before you respawn. There are “Repair” powerups that will replenish your car’s “health.” Rather than having a “rubber band” effect in the game, there’s a lightning powerup that will drop columns of lightning in front of the race leaders, no matter where you are when you trigger it. If the leaders can’t avoid these it’ll slow them down and let the pack catch up. It’s a nice ‘fair’ mechanic aimed at keeping races tense.

The overall goal of the game is to gain Fans. Fans are the “experience points” of Blur. You get Fans from placing in the race, but you can also get them from hitting other players with weapons, clean laps, good drifting and a host of other things. If you’ve played Project Gotham Racing, swap in “Fans” for “Kudos” and you’ll get the idea.

After the race, you’ll learn how many Fans you’ve earned and see how far you’ve gone towards the next racing level. Then it’s back to the lobby to vote on the next track.

It won’t take you many races to level. In two nights (maybe two hours of playing) I’ve reached level 7. The beta has a cap of level 15 but the full game will go to 50. It looks like things slow down past 10. I’ve seen a lot of level 10 racers and not many beyond that.

What makes Blur so fun is that progress-quest itch that you can keep scratching. At level 1 you have a beginner car and beginner player skills. Chances of you placing in a race are pretty slim. But you can still earn a lot of Fans by driving well. I think it took me 2 races to get to level 2.

As you gain levels you’ll earn new cars with better capabilities and more advanced handling models. These are, in theory, harder to drive but much more competitive. Ideally you’ll match car to track… if a track has a lot of dirt you might take a car that’s build for off-road racing… somethink like an SUV. If that track is really twisty you might favor handling and acceleration over top-end speed. Only by learning the tracks will you be able to determine what car to use on which track.

After a few more levels you’ll unlock Mods. Mods come in sets of three and they tweak various things. Some mods give you a power-up at the start of the race. Some let you earn more Fans for good driving. Some improve defense and others improve offense. Sometimes you have to compromise since you can’t mix and match individual Mods; they all come 3-to-a-set.

It looks like the cars themselves can eventually be tweaked/upgraded but I haven’t got that far yet.

Blur feels pretty simple when you start playing it, and honestly it never gets overly complex, but as you learn the tracks and the power-ups you start picking up nuances to the gameplay. Just as an example, there’s a Shunt powerup that fires a relatively slow moving homing ‘missile’ at a player. If you’re targeted there’s a flashing indicator to let you know. You can try to out drive the Shunt by janking around a corner or something, or you can drive straight, let it get almost to you and drop a powerup, or fire one backwards, either of which will negate the Shunt. There’s a powerup that “pulses” around your car, pushing everyone away from you (and probably into an obstalce). The counter to a pulse is popping a Shield powerup. And if you have a Shield and the right mod equipped, the energy from the “pulse” gets turned into something beneficial to you; maybe a weapon that you can immediately fire at the dude who tried to Pulse you.

The game looks great, feels really fun to play, and seems like it’ll have enough “leveling up” to keep players occupied for a good while. Getting into a race is fast and earning Fans always leads to “One more race” syndrome as you try to hit the next milestone. (There are also Challenges to work towards, like “Shunt 50 players” or what-have-you. I haven’t earned any of these yet so not sure what you gain from completing them.)

I had zero interest in Blur and had I known this was what the secret beta was, I never would’ve applied for it. But once I was in it, I figured I should give it a try. Now I find myself budgeting money for the game when it comes out. It’s that fun.

As to other players, I don’t even have a headset hooked up to my XBox. So though I saw the ‘talking’ icons lighting up, I never heard anyone talking (maybe that’s a setting…not sure) and there’s really no reason you’d need to talk to other players. On XBox Live, that’s a huge selling point for me. OTOH, getting a group of friends together to chat and race would be awesome fun, because Blur is full of “Oh sh*t did you SEE THAT!!?” moments as racers pull off awesome moves or narrowly escape terrific crashes.

Here’s a rather long “quick look” from Giant Bomb: