Everyone must have heard of the old maxim 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Wise words, which are all too often ignored by games developers, who, come sequel writing-time, cannot help but tinker. All too often the end result is a follow-up that loses the qualities that defined its predecessor while managing to retain the negative elements that everyone hoped would be sorted in the sequel. No one can accuse Nadeo of fixing the bits that didn't need fixing in this, the first full follow-up to last year's cult hit Trackmania. They've wisely decided to keep the wild but precise gameplay, added a few new modes and one lick of paint and been content to release the game that fans of the original want rather than fundamentally alter the game to try and appeal to a wider audience. That's not to say that Trackmania is bereft of a major change or two.
The most immediately noticeable change in Trackmania: Sunrise is in the revamped graphics, which really are a sight to behold. The difference between Sunrise and the original could hardly be starker. Whereas Trackmania's 3D graphics look almost quaint in their simplicity, the visuals in Sunrise are just about the best I have ever seen in any racer. The level of detail is stunning and puts most other games, regardless of genre, to shame. All of the graphical stops have been pulled out, with all kinds of shading, motion blur, lighting and particle effects hitting just the right notes. The three tile-sets in the game offer up plenty of variety with slick urban centres contrasting nicely against Spanish siesta stylings and sumptuous waterfront vistas. The view distance is practically limitless and as many of the tracks are both expansive and circuitous the amount of background scenery often feels in danger of overwhelming your eyeballs. The cars are also an alluring sight. The car models are rich in definition while the paint jobs, all of which are fully customisable, do their bit to ease the burden of staring at a motorised arse for hours on end. The crispness and contrast of the graphics actually threaten to overwhelm, so it's a good thing the developers have stayed their hand a little bit. For example, the shiny shading effects have been reined in just enough to stop the whole thing from going into a cartoony visual overload.
Overall presentation is a lot more professional this time round, even if the menus could still do with a little more attention. The first Trackmania distinguished itself with a wide variety of jaunty driving tunes. Sunrise is even better provided for in the music department, featuring as it does the music of a selection of up & coming bands. Proper bands, playing proper music, some of them with singing and everything. Of course only you will be able to decide if the selection is to your taste yet I found myself really enjoying a number of the tracks. Full credit to all parties involve for trying something a little bit different.
So, aesthetically Trackmania: Sunrise is a totally new and improved beast. What about the gameplay? The core of the game remains the same. Trackmania may look like just another arcade racer but it's much more than that, being more of a racer/puzzle game hybrid then a NFSU or Mashed. Trackmania offers up a variety of challenges that span its four different game modes. In each challenge you must beat the lap within certain parameters, with better performances earning you better medals. A bronze medal is all that is needed to unlock the next track in a series, but to pass onto the more advanced sets you will begin to need to collect more silver and gold medals. You'll also have to begin to win the cups for each set of tracks, which again come in bronze, silver and gold flavours. Cups are won by beating each of the series' tracks in order. So far Trackmania sounds pretty standard, but getting the fastest lap time is the way to victory in only one of the game's four modes. Lap times are all important in the Race mode, but don't let the races initially simple demeanour lull you into a false sense of security. Things quickly hot up to the point where some OTT driving is needed to make it to the finish line.
I was never a huge fan of Trackmania's puzzle mode so it's with relief that I can tell you the previously obtuse and cumbersome editor has been streamlined and made more informative. Each Puzzle level consists of a start and a finish line. The player is then given a set number of track tiles and has to figure out how to create a navigable path from one point to the other. Once the player thinks they have a successful layout they go into the gameworld and try to drive the route. The puzzles start off easy enough, asking the player to put down a ramp to jump over some water or a necessary bridge, but soon become fiendishly complex. Figuring out a possible track layout can quickly have brows a-furrowing then repeated unsuccessful attempts to drive the damn thing can have tempers a-raising. Needless to say I found this the most challenging of all the game modes and while many consider it to be Trackmania's most engaging mode, my patience reached its limit after a depressingly short period of time.
Joining the Race and Puzzle modes from the last time are two new options, Platform and Crazy. The Platform mode challenges the player to make it from one end of the course to the other using the least possible number of car-resets. This starts off easy enough with some fairly basic street courses with the occasional jump or hole in the road to be dealt with. However, things soon become far more testing with all kinds of crazy gaps, loops and platforms doing their level best to send your car flying off the track or onto its roof. When this happens you must reset the car, which puts you back to the last checkpoint and adds one point to your reset level. To win a bronze medal you can muck up 10 times, but to get that all important gold medal you can only foul up the once.
Coming into literal last place is the Crazy mode. This mode is totally locked out at the start of the game and will only gradually become available as you beat the different series. It's a shame the initial requirements for this mode are so high as it's a great twist on the standard game. To beat a Crazy level, players must race around the same track over and over again. To make it interesting each lap must be completed under a set time, which steadily gets shorter and shorter. This means the last few laps are insane races against the clock, as not only are you trying to complete the set number of laps to win the gold but you also don't want to screw up and waste the last 13-14 laps, some of which can be rather long. Just like the rest of Trackmania there's a lot of fun to be had and although the difficulty can often have you cackling manically more often than not it is from pleasure.
It's most obvious in the Puzzle and Platform modes but it takes a while for Trackmania's biggest flaw to become unpleasantly apparent. You see, Trackmania's platforms'n'stunts racing style requires lots of trial and error for the player to figure out the way to complete a challenge. Even some of the racing tracks cannot be finished until the player has sailed clean over the next stage in the race or tumbled over the edge of a high platform because the 90 degree turn at the top of the ramp was obscured by the road itself. Each race, puzzle or platform is called a challenge, and for very good reason. Trackmania is not an easy game - locked levels quickly become an obstacle to progress. To get past the third race series you'll need to have one a clutch of bronze medals, a few silvers, a bronze cup and one elusive gold medal. If you find the gold medal beyond your ability, not an inconceivable possibility even on easy, then you're stuffed. Trackmania quickly gets insistent on accepting only the very best the player can manage, with gold medals invariably requiring an absolutely flawless run. So it's fortunate that the game is so down-right enjoyable that it's easy to lose yourself in a tricky challenge. Nadeo seem to have balanced the game with a little more finesse than last time, as frustration took a good bit longer to settle in then it did with the previous versions. Besides, if one mode is beginning to seriously get on your nerves, you can always try out on of the alternatives, sample some of the community maps or even try your hand at making your own. Trackmania: Sunrise can still frustrate and annoy with its demanding requirements but it very rarely crosses the line which separates a challenging game from one about to be uninstalled.
To keep things extra fresh the camera's position will occasionally change. If there's a drag strip of boost tiles and the car is going faster than a 13 year-old's wrist at a porno convention then the view changes to a bumper cam, resplendent with smearing from the motion blur effect. And for those truly convoluted pathways the game may decide to give the player a top-down, Micro Machines style view of the proceedings. This distant view from a slightly more conventional angle also comes into play for those ridiculous ramp to ramp transfers which populate the more extreme tracks. And in another move designed to make the game a little bit friendlier, there are now ramps on the outside edges of most tracks which allow you to get back onto the course without having to resort to a costly reset, something which is a small alteration that has a big effect on one's enjoyment of the game.
Trackmania's driving model demands precision while playing fast and lose with the laws of gravity and inertia. Cars hang in the sky for an inordinate amount of time and you can even accelerate and break while sailing through the air. In fact, many of the gaps you have to traverse require you too lift off the gas at just the right time, often when airborne. Each of the three vehicles handles very differently. The sports car is the easiest, and to my mind most enjoyable, of the three to drive. The bay car is a top-heavy SUV that is a happy medium between the racer and the last vehicle, the coast car. This slower than geology buggy takes an age to get moving and turns with all the elegance of a wrecking ball. The environments for each of the cars suit their different handling characteristics and a little practice does ease the initial antagonism of the more 'spirited' vehicles. Personally I never grew to like the coast car but the sheer uncompromising thrill of the insanely fast sports car more then made up for this. The complete lack of collision detection with the other racers on the track continues to be somewhat disappointing, although it's easy to appreciate how its inclusion would fundamentally alter the way the game plays. The skill comes from finding the correct route and then the fastest way to drive that route rather than your ability in passing opponents. The other cars on the track do a t least serve one purpose. As you work your way up through the medals a colour-coded car will flesh out the time to beat to gain the next medal level, especially handy when the gold coloured car takes a shortcut, letting you know the path to take if you want to get the fastest time
Joining the track editor are editors which allow you to alter just about every aspect of the game except for the actual underlying mechanics. The most enjoyable editor is the paint package, which allows you to fully customise your rides with a variety of paint jobs, stickers and patterns. You can make some truly hideous combinations which you can then take online in the hope that the garishness of your vehicle may put off the other competitors. You can edit replays and ghost laps if you fancy and the track editor has been given a bit of a facelift, making it a little bit easier to use and a lot simpler for the novice to get to grips with. The official campaigns will take a decent chunk of time to complete and the multiplayer offers up the prospect of near-limitless racing and puzzling. Trackmania: Sunrise has an extraordinary amount of longevity tucked away in its heart.
Multiplayer is extremely well catered for. For those with no network connections at all there's the Hotseat mode. For those who get there thrills from LAN games Nadeo have you covered. And for those who like their multiplayer seasoned on the internet there's more then enough content to keep you playing until Trackmania: Sunset comes along. The most popular choice is of course the racing, although there are usually plenty of servers offering up the more platform-based style of play. Logging in to the service seemed to take a rather long time yet once I'd chosen a server things nipped along at a fair old pace. You don't really have much clue as to what you are getting yourself in for until you take the plunge and as most servers lean towards fan-made tracks it can take a while to get a race-wining rhythm together. It's here online, racing against other humans, that the lack of collision detection is at its most disappointing. It's a shame that there's no option to enable it, but judging by some of the elasticised warping of other players it doesn't seem like the network code is up to such a task. Up to 16 players can play the same challenge and the banter is pretty healthy for such a fast-paced game. The Trackmania community is a very strong and energetic one so there are always plenty of new courses to try your hand at. New tracks are delivered by a fully integrated peer-2-peer file sharing system so both downloads and uploads are seamlessly handled in-game. Given the vibrancy and talent of the community, it's pretty inconceivable that gamers will run out of new challenges to test themselves against. The first time I started the game there was already a bunch of bonus developer-made maps and there's already over 30 new maps on the official site.
Trackmania: Sunrise is a deceptively simple game, one of those classics that you can instantly pick up and play but which colludes with the pleasure seeking part of your brain into compelling you to keep on playing until you master all its little nuances. Gameplay-wise, Sunrise is no great leap forward from the two previous Trackmanias. However, it significantly improves the visuals and music, smoothes over many of the rougher edges that characterised earlier efforts and defines itself as the premier racing puzzle game. Fans of the first Trackmania should get this sequel immediately. The improved aesthetics are nearly reason enough while the new modes and the increased professionalism of the package as a whole really seal the deal. If you've never played a Trackmania game before there's now no reason not to. Unless you aren't a good enough gamer for the challenge.