For Bizarre Creations, Judgement Day is now just a few weeks away. When Blur is released to the masses at the end of this month, we'll find out whether the Liverpool studio's racing-with-power-ups gambit has finally paid off. Among the UK gaming press, the informal consensus appears to be that it may well have done. Initial reactions to the project were cloudy: fans of the more straight-laced Project Gotham series were sceptical about the new carnage-driven approach, particularly in light of all the other big-name racers that arrived in late 2009 - DIRT 2, Forza 3, and Need For Speed: Shift. But when the game re-emerged from the shadows earlier this year, there was a definite sense that Blur had found its stride.
The game certainly seemed to go down well with the assembled scribblers at March's multiplayer event, shortly before the launch of the online beta on Xbox LIVE, but up until now we've not seen anything of the single-player side of things. Then again, perhaps that's quite understandable: the original plan for the main campaign was to tie all the races together with a story, complete with cutscenes, villainous rivals, and loud banter between rival drivers.
This has all been dramatically cut-back in favour of a far more traditional structure. Career mode is now divided across several tiers, each of them comprising of a handful of events at tracks around the world. In addition to the straight-up races, you'll also compete in checkpoint and destruction contests - both of which pit you against a rapidly-decreasing time limit. In the former you'll slow the clock by hitting gates and top-up icons; in the latter you'll earn back seconds by wiping out drone-like rival cars. Finally, each tier concludes with a one-on-one race against a boss-like character. Previously this would have tied in with the over-arching plot, but now it just seems to be a nice way to round off each set of events before you unlock the next. Still, you get to keep your rival's car once you beat them - and you'll be able to use the new motor in multiplayer games, too.
Before you actually get to challenge one of the boss characters, you'll have to meet their demands. Thankfully this doesn't involve dropping a satchel of cash off at a shady location, or submitting to some form of strange sexual predilection; instead you'll simply have to tick off a number of goals. Early rivals will want you to pass a number of events, or to score a certain number of fans - Blur's equivalent to Project Gotham's Kudos system, rewarding you for stylish driving - but at later levels you can expect these requests to become increasingly taxing.
It's the demands system itself, rather than the head-to-head races that follow them, that now sums up to Bizarre's approach to the single-player campaign. You've got the freedom to flit back and forth between races as you see fit, but on top of that there are literally hundreds of goals and targets to meet. Achievements and Trophies are now directly linked to the collection of stickers - in-game badges that are awarded for completing specific tasks. Each sticker actually has four separate tick-boxes that need to be met - from weapon-based tricks to goals involving sightseeing at certain track-side landmarks - and since there's a whopping 50 of them to earn, it'll take you ages to get the lot. And there are yet more extra objectives and optional challenges to be found elsewhere: drive over the "fan run" icon during a race, for example, and you'll summon a set of 20 glowing arches to pass through. Hit the lot, and you'll get a bonus to your fan score.
If you're an obsessive trophy hunter then this may all sound like cherry pie, but it's hard to escape the feeling that career mode is now simply a training ground for the rampant frolics of multiplayer. We've already heard about Bizarre's quirks and innovations for the online game - the perks system, the hugely customisable rule sets, and the curious support from Twitter and other Web Socialite 2.0 gubbins. There's also the customisable Challenge system, the mechanic that lets you slap your mates about the face with a virtual gauntlet: if you've finished the Hackney checkpoint race in a particular time, why not ask Blind Murray if he can do it quicker, in a worse car, and without the aid of turbo power-ups? It won't even matter if Murray is a cheapskate with a Silver LIVE account - he'll still be able to take up your dare. And what's more, he'll probably lose. Because he has no eyes.
Blur's career mode may seem a bit straightforward when compared to these fresh ideas, but given how chaotic the multiplayer events can be, it may end up being the best place to learn the game's ropes. That's not to say that the AI will give you an easy ride of it: even on the lowest difficulty setting, there's still a clear need for solid racing skills. Make no mistake, you'll definitely need to master the game's flashy and highly destructive power-ups, too - but if you drive like your nan on her way to the bingo hall, you'll never get anywhere. By the time you've unlocked all the vehicles you'll have a choice of 20 different motors in any given race, from grippy little coupés to power-sliding beasts like the Dodge Challenger - a car that seems to have a suicidal mind of its own, like Herbie after too much Joy Division.
In short, this is still very much a racer at heart. And while each of the power-ups have the potential to send you crashing out of first place, all of them - from the black hole-like Mines to Shunt, a huge ball of energy that rolls tears down the track - have a way of being avoided or countered. This isn't Mario Kart, and there's no dreaded Blue Shell; even Shock, which dumps three blue pillars of static death in front of the leading driver, can be steered around if you have the skill and awareness.
And while these WipEout-like weapons may well be a far cry from the sobriety of Project Gotham, there's a similar air of stylish self-confidence in the game's presentation. Power-ups or no power-ups, a new Bizarre Creations title is a major event for any racing fan. Have the Scousers done enough to win over the nay-sayers? On May 28, we'll find out for sure.
Blur will be released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on May 28.