Over the next few days I'm going to be posting a review for three different driving games. Each one adheres to the basic driving principals of going faster than Saddam's dignity with the aim of beating your opponents to the finishing line. The first of these games is TrackMania, the rank outsider in a race where the other two competitors have massive sponsorship and team backing. But you will have to wait a day or two for the other reviews, so today let's have a good look at this somewhat unique racer from the little known French developers Nadeo.
At its roots and in its heart TrackMania is pure Stunt Car Racer. While it does make a few changes to the formula, most notably exchanging a first person viewpoint for a third, it retains that glorious 8-bit title's sense of fun and of the ridiculous. The graphics are of course a lot better and do look very nice indeed. There is some nasty Aliasing around the guardrails on corners but apart from that it all looks very lovely and spangly and should have no problems running on any decent machine. Mad courses are the order of the day with a plethora of loop-the-loops, insane jumps, twisting spirals, and some of the most vertigo-inducing racing lines yet experienced by an easy-chair-bound racing car driver. Your car will fly off the course at angles usually connected with drunks in mid collapse, grins will erupt across your face to be replaced by the facial twists associated with a powerful stream of invective. You will marvel at the ingenuity of the track designs from both the developers and a very accomplished community and you will eventually wish that there was maybe a little more structure to the game. You will definitely have fun with TrackMania - for how long depends on what you want out of your driving games.
TrackMania is a simple and very direct little game. There's no flashy intro, no vomit inducing interface screens swirling and jumping around like the visions of an Ebola-ridden Picasso, no glut of choices that would put a Dulux paint catalogue to shame, none of those fancy things that we have gotten so used to in the flashy presentation of today's racer. The game will not trouble you with such things as handbrake turns, nitro boosts, rear mirrors or anything like that. To play this game all you need is a keyboard with four keys, making it my choice for playing when I want to have a beer while getting my driving thrills.
The single player game is split into two parts, Race and Puzzle with a third option of playing maps of your own design or that of other players. There are three different terrains in the game and three different vehicles with which to tackle them. For the Alpine sections you get a bouncy pick-up truck; there's an American muscle car to tear across the desert sections with and a suspiciously Renault 5-looking buggy for the rally sections. Each terrain type has 16 races to steam through, with a bronze, silver or gold medal being presented to you depending on your time across each track. Each medal is worth some coppers, the games currency. The more coppers you earn the more pieces you can buy for building your own tracks, more of which later on. There are a total of 52 races to complete, with the last four only becoming unlocked once you manage to get a gold medal on every preceding course, quite a challenge, believe you me. The first round of eight races on each terrain is easy to complete, getting more tracks unlocked will take some time and skillz. Either way, 52 tracks is a healthy number to play with, and that doesn't take into account the ever expanding number of user made courses, more of which later.
The actual driving is very arcadey. In a game where three to four sequential loop the loops is the norm this is what you would expect and the driving model is both forgiving enough to allow the novice to enjoy their time learning the ropes, and tight enough to give the more experienced player something to aim for as they try to perfect their driving lines and jump skills. Each car behaves rather differently and while drifting and bouncy suspension are the order of the day the different cars will require some slight tweaking to your driving to ensure a respectable time come the finish line. The tracks themselves are quite narrow, and while there are guardrails to keep you in place you will often find yourself sailing gracefully (or shambolicaly), over these and away off into the sun-kissed horizon. This game is very particular about its angles. Get them wrong on straights and you will slip and slide all over the road as you try to correct, get them wrong on the approach to a jump or some other insane obstacle and you will be punished and need to whack the return key to return to the last checkpoint. These checkpoints are essential to your progress, miss one and you will have a tough time getting back into the groove. If you are foolish enough not to whack that return key and give it another attempt. On some of the courses you will be cruising off-road so finding the checkpoints can get rather tricky, but the vast majority of the included courses are laid out well enough that you will rarely get lost. The driving itself reminds me of Micro Machines as it is all about tapping keys for adjustment and keeping your finger on the accelerator for as long as you dare. You are best taking corners on two wheels for added zip through the turn. Realistic this ain't, but easy to play and hard to master just like any good game it is.
The puzzle section in the game forms the second of your three single player options. Here you will once again go through the different terrains and have to race against the clock to collect medals. This time however you will often have to go in and modify the track. This starts off nice and gentle and eases you into the concepts behind designing a playable course. At first you will just have to place the occasional piece of track to make a viable course but soon you will be placing dozens of pieces with the goal of creating the fastest track so as to beat those elusive gold medal scores. Once again the first few levels are easy enough to breeze right through but you will have to go back and rack up some impressive times to get the necessary medal points to progress to the more advanced courses. The puzzles can be quite challenging and their inclusion in the game helps to provide some variety in what is otherwise a rather one-dimensional racer. All in, trying to complete all the races and all the puzzles will take you many hours and provide some solid entertainment. As long as you don't get bored by the fact that each race is differentiated only by its course.
You see there is no real opposition. Sure you race against other drivers but as there is no collision modelling you may as well be racing against a number for in effect the clock is all that counts. While you will find yourself racing on tracks that even Geoff Crammond would never have dreamed of, the basic racing is always the same. In a lesser game this would have become very boring too quickly but here in TrackMania the sheer variety of the courses will provide enough new driving challenges to keep you amused. It is just a shame that there is no hint of any career, just a chain of races and puzzles to race through. And then you try the multiplayer.
While there is the option to play across a LAN it is the internet where the real racing goes on. While the interface screens continue in their shareware stylings and are not the easiest to navigate, getting logged in to a game is a simple enough affair. Part of the account setup procedure requires you to input your country and the nearest big town so you can often find people who are geographically very close to you. You can be racing within mere seconds of having booted the game up and although there are not a huge number of game types available, from time attack to a plain old race the massive and practically unlimited number of courses more than compensate. Some of the user made tracks out there are absolutely huge and really hard but they mostly remain fun to play even if you haven't managed to cross the finish line after 6 minutes (built in courses are often under 30 seconds). The game supports up to ten players per track but lag is often a problem. While the lag will not affect your actual driving the display of your opponents will often be seriously screwed up. Sometimes their cars will jump all over the track, going under it over it Wombelling free. Sometimes the cars won't have any graphics and just the names will skitter all over the screen like a bunch of blind mosquitoes on speed trying to organise a mass sumo wrestling match. Even if you can continue your racing unharmed it is very disconcerting when the lag gets bad and this odes spoil some of the enjoyment of racing online. Hopefully with some more patching, (one is already up with some fixes and a lot of tweaks and improvements) this can be tamed down some more. Fortunately for us European based gamers most of the servers are nearby so the lag isn't a constant problem and there is also the plus point of there being lots of willing racers at reasonable times of the day. While the majority of players right now seem to be French speaking you won't be bothered what tongue your opponents talk in as the racing is king.
The multiplayer has a few more niggling problems for the player to contend with. The screen can get very cluttered with lap time displays, the list of racers on the track and a few other items of information. Unfortunately, as of yet there isn't anyway to adjust what gets displayed. From the screenshots you can tell how cluttered it gets. Hopefully this too will be addressed in a future patch. The developers and publishers seem to be doing a good job on the community side of things and do listen to what the players think and want. At the time of writing there is also no league or any competitions in place, which mirrors the problem of shallowness that works against the single player game. However, come January there will be a league in place and it seems likely that more competitions will become available as the game matures.
The course building side of things is where Trackmania really shines. While the interface is not the cleanest nor simplest to use it does the job. And judging by what some people have already built and put online the only limit is your imagination. All those coppers you win from races and puzzles buy the bits of track you will need to put together your own twisted tracks. To get enough pieces is a real challenge as you will have to do very well in the series events to afford enough to make a flat circuit into a warped house of fun on wheels. You can download other people's maps and give them a whirl in challenge mode, but it is online that you will find the best courses as people put them up for others to test and race on.
TrackMania is not quite the Stunt Car Racer for the noughties that I hoped it would be. Instead it delivers its own unique style of racing that should appeal to anyone who likes a good laugh while racing around the most insane tracks yet committed to silicon. The actual gameplay is so simple as to be verging on the childish but the amount of fun to be had will make you feel like a wee bairn again. It's a shame that there isn't more structure to the title, and there are some rough edges, most notably in the interface. But as long as you are not looking for realism or the option to adjust your camber you will get a good laugh from playing Trackmania. My only final reservation concerns the price, £29.99. Not wanting to sound unjustly harsh but TrackMania really does come across like a shareware game tarted up for retail. I am not saying that it is amateur, it is all professionally done, but it does lack depth and presentation so I question whether or not thirty quid is a fair price (To those of you interested, I have seen some online retailers stocking this for £25 - Ed). I suppose it all comes down to whether this is your cup of tea. If you like your racers with real cars and realistic tracks you will really enjoy TrackMania's unique sense of fun but may be left feeling somewhat unsatisfied with the whole package. If your not a gearhead or just like games that challenge the mind as well as the reflexes then you should love TrackMania and will find hours of enjoyment racing and building to your hearts content. It is one of those games that you just keep on playing into the wee small hours.