Following today’s news (18th January) that Microsoft will be purchasing video game giant Activision Blizzard for a casual ~$69billion – the biggest acquisition in the Redmond-based tech firm’s history – it got me thinking about the Overwatch, Diablo and Call of Duty publisher’s racing game involvement.
It struck me that while this is an undoubtedly large and successful business – with some serious fragilities of late – it’s been far too long since it really invested in our favourite genre in gaming.
Surprising, really, when it’s still a burgeoning corner of the market. You only have to look at just how many driving titles are set to arrive this year.
While Activision has released several racing titles over the years, and Blizzard’s first-ever game was 1991’s Radical Psycho Machine Racing for the Super NES, I make it over 11 years since the company created something aligned with my tastes.
The game in question is Blur.
Yes, just two years ago there was the remaster of Crash Team Racing and in between it and Blur, the Californian Guitar Hero publishers pushed out a slew of NASCAR titles, one Monster Jam release, a Fast & Furious game and toys-to-life driving spin-off Skylanders: SuperChargers. But, none were home runs.
No, Blur was the last time Activision really cared about racing games. Sadly, of late, the merger between Activision, Inc. and Vivendi Games has been far too busy releasing Downton Abbey mobile games instead…
2010 was a halcyon time for driving games. Gran Turismo 5 launched in November to much fanfare, following ModNation Racers in May that was trying to take on the equally new Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Traxion.GG team favourite, Split/Second, was pushed out by Disney and the first of the Codemasters’ Formula 1 titles tore up the licenced sports game script.
Heck, even Criterion Games’ first Need for Speed game, Hot Pursuit, was thrust upon the world – and that game is so fondly remembered, EA released a remaster as recently as 2020.
It’s easy to see why Blur – a then all-new franchise from Bizarre Creations, the now sadly defunct team behind four Project Gotham releases for Microsoft – got lost in the mix.
Perhaps tellingly of the game’s sales performance, there was never a sequel despite one initially being in development. Perhaps Activision Blizzard was so badly burnt by a lack of sales success for Blur it has steered clear of car games ever since.
“Over the past three years since our purchase of Bizarre Creations, the fundamentals of the racing genre have changed significantly,” explained Activision at the time.
“Although we made a substantial investment in creating a new IP, Blur, it did not find a commercial audience.”
A very early build of the follow up was recently found on an Xbox 360 development kit, and shows how the sequel was going to feature dramatically more exciting track layouts. It would have been all over this.
Despite the packed year, I still fondly remember Blur as a unique attempt at something fresh in the market and that speaks volumes about its ability to, just about, pull off the different approach.
For those of you who perhaps aren’t aware, and I don’t blame you for being none the wiser, Blur took licenced real-world cars, placed them on fictional tracks based on actual locations and threw in weapons.
No, not like Twisted Metal, but more akin to a WipEout game with fully-functional gravity.
You were racing a Renault Sport Mégane or Chevrolet Corvette against the likes of a Ford Focus RS or Hummer H2 around London. You then drove through floating boxes, like Mario Kart, at certain points around the circuit that would equip your vehicle with a power-up.
This could be a nitro boost, but it also could be a purple bolt of electricity to wipe out your rivals.
Structurally, you simply raced, raced some more, beat a rival in a 1v1 event, unlocked a faster car, raced again and carried on until the end. Nothing special in that respect.
I must say too, that there were times when the racing felt more than a little overwhelming, with later events devolving into a constant barrage of attacks. Without a large group of friends who also owned the game to play with online, once I’d completed the career, the appeal was sadly ephemeral.
But, Bizarre knew its vehicle handling onions, and while it was distinctly different from Project Gotham and clearly designed with accessibility in mind, there was still a little bit of that magic sprinkled beneath.
There was a learning curve, and pulling off a perfect drift was never a given. This was all topped off with up-to four-player split-screen local multiplayer.
It shows how enjoyable it could be that I still yearn for the stillborn follow up all these years later. I think there’s scope for something similar today, especially when online gameplay is so much more advanced now than it was back in 2010.
Clearly, a solid idea wasn’t enough to save the developers. Later in the same year, it released James Bond 007: Blood Stone, something I played out of loyalty to the studio, but Activision decided to close the company soon after.
“[We] explored a lot of [sales] leads – pretty much anyone you can imagine in the industry. But unfortunately, so far we’ve not been able to find any interested parties. So we’ve made, as a last resort, a recommendation to the team for closure,” said Activision Worldwide Studios CEO, Coddy Johnson, in 2011 after initially trying to sell the developers.
Perhaps the game’s motives weren’t distinct enough, or maybe the marketing and PR didn’t explain what it was trying to do with enough clarity. Or, perhaps, it was simply released at the wrong time.
As it turns out, it was originally set for release nearly a year earlier, as an Activision press release highlighted:
“The company is moving Blur from 2009 to give the development team more time to enhance the game’s innovative and distinctive online multiplayer gameplay.
“We are committed to making Blur a great new racing franchise, and we are very encouraged by the game’s design,” explained Mike Griffith, President and CEO, Activision Publishing, in September 2009.
Committed, but not fully it transpires.
I don’t think today’s news of the industry-rocking purchase will change anything for racing game and sim racing fans. Not one iota. Activision Blizzard hasn’t cared about this category of gaming for years.
“Upon close, we will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s incredible catalogue,” explained Microsoft’s newly promoted CEO of Microsoft Gaming, Phil Spencer, of the takeover.
This is especially pertinent for Blur, as you can no longer purchase a copy. It’s not on Steam, nor on Xbox or PlayStation digital stores and is not backwards compatible on any contemporary device. The only way of enjoying this arcade racer in 2022 is to purchase a used physical copy and pop it into an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
Will Microsoft jettison the likes of Call of Duty and Tony Hawk and place Blur on Game Pass or digital storefronts as a priority? Realistically, I very much doubt it. But, the acquisition news hasn’t stopped me from dreaming…