"It almost becomes like Street Fighter in a way," muses Gareth Wilson, lead designer at Bizarre Creations. "There's counters to everything." He's describing the power-up system in Blur at its first public sighting since the game was officially delayed last September.
To Wilson, barges, boosts and bolts are the fireballs, hundred-hand slaps and sonic booms of Blur, with the depths of the newly revealed Mod system offering a "deep layer of strategy" to suit all combatants, whatever their chosen art of fighting.
Blur, lest we forget, is a racing game. And this could easily sound like conceptual lunacy from a studio driven over the edge of reason after the best part of a decade spent refining its peerless template for photo-realistic street racing. Homing missiles? EMP strikes? Sound effects ripped straight out of Star Wars? Have I been dropped off at neighbouring Sony Liverpool, creator of WipEout, by mistake?
But no; Blur is the British studio's blueprint for "bringing the fun back to racing", a brave, liberated driving game blending Bizarre's undoubted brilliance behind the wheel with the rough and tumble of an action title.
"Blur isn't about remembering the route and winning because you've got the best memory," Wilson explains. "It's also not about having the best car. It's mastery of the power-ups that will get you into first place."
This from the creator of Project Gotham Racing? That's like Sony telling everyone to stop using PS3s. The concept of Blur, bold and refreshingly unexpected as it is, was always going to raise the odd eyebrow. Yet even while the true direction remained partially opaque, Eurogamer found it "tremendously exciting" in our first hands-on experience last summer.
Today, Bizarre reveals its hand as the results of six extra months of development are laid bare. "We were running out of time," Wilson concedes, speaking of the run-in to the original November 2009 launch. "We started to feel like we were making compromises to get the game out on time."
And given the debate raging over DLC, it's pleasing to hear that ideas Wilson claims the studio was planning to hold back and add later, or even dump entirely until a sequel, could now be added in thanks to Activision granting Bizarre the extra time it required. The delay may well prove critical to the fortunes of Blur, turning what was a flashy, fun arcade racer into what now promises to be a richly complex, precision-tuned orgy of competition that thrills the trigger-happy newcomer while absorbing the wily veteran.
With the beta set to go public on 8th March, multiplayer is the focus for this event, with 20-player LAN racing the star attraction, supported by four-player split-screen gameplay.
Single-effect power-ups, thanks to the delay, now pack secondary functions whose worth quickly becomes apparent in the heat of action. There are eight different pick-ups in total, which appear and regenerate at set points around each circuit, with each vehicle able to carry a maximum of three at any time.
Shunt is the Mario Kart red shell of the list, a homing attack usable in either direction; Bolt is a three-round laser gun fired front and back; Barge emits a powerful 360-degree close-range blast; Mine leaves an explosive trap on the track; Shock launches EMP strikes ahead of the leader which shock on impact; Repair restores a vehicle's health; and Shield and Nitro speak for themselves.
The addition of blocking and evasion techniques can bring order to the apparent chaos and ultimately demonstrates how Bizarre, despite the new direction, continues to believe in the importance of respecting skill.
"We hate games that cheat on you, that rain things down on you when you're in first place," says Wilson, drawing a distinction between the unavoidable vengeance of, say, a Mario Kart lightning strike with Blur's take.
"If you're a super skilled driver you can weave through the whole thing without a scratch. The really skilled players can play an entire race and not get hit because they're constantly blocking - if you've got a power-up you've got defence."
Further depth is promised by the aforementioned Mod system. Mods are upgrades which enhance power-ups and change a vehicle's attributes. They're earned by gaining "fans" (you get these with each race completed) and ranking up. Three mods can be equipped at any one time from a total of 24 in multiplayer and ten in single-player, allowing you to define your racing style with considerable subtlety.
A few examples tossed out by Bizarre: adding Drifter gives you a Nitro every time you pull off a Super Drift; Battering Ram gives more power in collisions; Fan Favourite grants more fans for a win; Vampiric Wreck sucks life out of cars you destroy; and Silent Running cloaks your car with invisibility - as long as you don't use power-ups.
On the difference extra dev time has made on mods, Wilson admits: "In September they were straightforward, but [after the delay] we could really go to town on those and make them game-changing experiences."
Time to try it all out for myself . The multiplayer beta features three playable modes: Powered-Up Racing, a 20-car free-for-all; Skirmish Racing, 10-player maximum with a greater emphasis on skill; and Motor Mash, a destruction derby-style arena clash with the aim of gaining the most points within the time limit.
The retail release will add a further four to the list: Hardcore Racing (no powerups); World Tour (random tracks and cars); Team Racing; and Team Motor Mash.
For the purposes of my hands-on, it's Powered-Up Racing all the way. I won't lie: it's utter madness at first. 20 cars smashing into each other, with neon sparks flying and lasers zapping as I flail around trying to figure out which symbol equals which power-up while getting dodgemed to buggery.
Half an hour later and I'm desperately weaving through EMP strikes, dropping mines by respawn points and shaking homing missiles off my tail with reverse fire. Quite unlike any other Bizarre game, sure, but enormous fun.
Handling feels as solid and responsive as you'd expect from the studio and the finished article will of course feature a stack of licensed vehicles (over 50, I'm told) to suit all driving styles. The difference is you're worrying less about the precise angle and speed of an approach to a tight bend and more about blocking the missile attack from behind while keeping the guy out in front in sight just long enough to blast him into a spin.
Traditionalist ire is inevitable and understandable. Simply, Bizarre wanted above all to make something different (a decision helped, of course, by the Activision buyout, with Microsoft retaining the PGR name). Moreover it wanted to "cure the problem of races getting boring after the first third," which Wilson feels strongly had started to blight the genre as a whole.
"You never know who's going to win the race until the last third," he continues. "We haven't done this by using cheesy rubber banding - it's through tactics and strategy. It's all about battling and being in a pack racing together."
Bizarre's solution won't please everyone. There will be racing fans who believe there wasn't anything that needed "curing" in the first place. In which case the studio would likely retort these gamers are already well served by the likes of Forza 3 and the perpetually-incoming Duke Nukem Turismo 5. But hyper-realism is no longer a location on the studio's map.
"I think the genre did need to diversify a bit," Wilson adds, explaining that it's "natural" at the start of a hardware generation to push for "tech masterpieces". But, "later on we need to be looking at gameplay, fun and enjoyment as the console tends to go more mainstream".
So who is Blur for? "People who maybe enjoyed racing games in the past and haven't bought one in a while may well like it. We still think the hardcore will love it: we've still got our triple-A Bizarre handling in there. Real cars, real locations - we've not compromised on quality at all."
Wilson is right that the overwhelming majority of multiplayer races I have retain a sense of drama and uncertainty until the finish line. Although, perhaps to prove the point that skill and experience will triumph, Bizarre testers wipe the floor with the press. Wherever I end up finishing, every race without exception is tense, exciting and fun.
Circuits in the beta include Barcelona and Tokyo street circuits, a very un-Bizarre dusty plain and a zip around LA docks. There are sections with multiple routes in each course, and which you ultimately take seems largely to be a case of which power-up you need the most.
I don't encounter any notable performance issues over LAN and nor would I expect to; four-player split-screen is also commendably smooth. I've had no problems either with early online races, although with the beta still to go public at the time of writing, the most vehicles I've had in a single race is six.
Beyond the race, Bizarre is betting heavily on community features and social networking to maintain interest for the weeks and months post-release. Twitter integration is already confirmed. This was, Wilson suggests, inspired in part by Bizarre making its first multi-format racer and wanting to find a "way for PS3, PC and 360 people to be able to communicate with each other as a community".
Naughty Dog tried this Twitter business with Uncharted 2, and it annoyed people so much the studio disabled the feature. How will Blur be any different? "One thing we didn't want to do was turn it into some spam factory," reassures Wilson. "That's not what social networks are about." He's clearly never followed me on Twitter. "It's about bragging and you only post when you've got something to say." He's clearly, etc.
It works like this: at any point out-of-race you can press the Share button - mapped to a bumper on Xbox - and a menu pops up asking what you'd like to share. This could be rank, number of fans, cars, position and so on. This creates an auto-generated message with the hashtag #blurthegame. Crucially, you can edit it before sending. "The game never automatically sends stuff. You decide when you want to send it out," says Wilson.
Beyond Twitter there will likely be support for another social networking service which I'm not currently at liberty to name, but you don't need to be Mystic Meg to hazard a guess.
Friends Challenges are a further string to the community bow. Bizarre says these are a response to the changing face of gaming, catering to those who find it hard to find time to play together. Complete a challenge, send a message to a friend via, say, Xbox Live telling them how well you've done and ask them to try and beat it.
The message pops up in the dashboard and the exact challenge can be loaded up direct from that screen for your friend to tackle. They send it back to you with improved stats, and on it rolls. Whether it lives up to Wilson's lofty claim that "single-player really never ends" remains to be seen, but it's clearly a clever way of engaging friends and promoting competition.
It'll also be available to Xbox Live Silver users and, even if you haven't unlocked the challenge content in your own game you'll still be able to play, so it doubles as a teaser of what's to come.
Blur, then, has finally revealed itself as a ferocious, enormously fun and deceptively simple arcade racer with tantalising depths lurking under the bonnet. But there's an elephant in the room: Black Rock's Split/Second, a Hollywood-style street racing game, built around power-ups and inspired by the studio's boredom with a stagnating genre. Sound familiar?
Both Wilson and fellow lead designer Ged Talbot are understandably evasive, claiming ignorance and citing the usual excuses of being too focused on their own project to worry about what anyone else may or may not be doing. Hmm. (Incidentally, having the LA Docks stage in the beta is an interesting decision.)
Anyway, that the delay gods have ordained the two games will release within a week of other surely cannot have been something either studio had envisaged. To be fair to both, the experiences they offer beyond back-of-box bullet points differ in important ways, with Split/Second focusing on large-scale environmental destruction versus Blur's car-versus-car carnage.
Regardless, come May gamers will be presented with two visions of the future of racing both of which revel in their destructive action focus. It may not quite be Street Fighter, but in the battle for the streets it's the head-to-head to watch.
The multiplayer Blur beta will start on 8th March. The full game is coming to PC, PS3 and 360 in the US on 25th May followed by a Euro release on 28th May.