TrackMania United Review

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Graphics: 7.0
Sound : 7.0
Gameplay : 9.0
Multiplayer : 8.5
Overall : 8.7
Review by Clarke Read
The PC hasn’t exactly been treated well by the racing genre over the years. Hardcore driving sims the likes of GTR and rFactor flock to the system and its high-end peripheral support, but the PC has received little more than Need for Speed ports in the arcadier sector. Sony consoles roll with Motorstorm, Jak X, and ATV Offroad Fury; Microsoft has the Project Gotham Series; both share Midnight Club, Burnout, and Full Auto. The PC has…well, none of those.

A few years ago, a little game called Trackmania brought some arcade love to the PC with its own breed of high-flying racing. A huge hit in much of Europe, two more installations of Trackmania came down the pipe, including the million-times-downloaded, free Trackmania: Nations. And now comes United, which brings all the previous games together into one thirty-dollar package.

Trackmania truly plays like no other racing game out there. Whereas the cars are the stars in a game like Gran Turismo, the tracks are definitely the focal point of Trackmania. Twisting into intricate knots, soaring hundreds of feet in the air, and containing jumps that would terrify the most jaded stuntman, these courses put roller coasters to shame.

These courses would be impossible in reality, no question. So reality sort of got left behind, and instead we get a colorful variety of high-powered cars. The cars in the Nations “zone” (Trackmania’s version of a racing discipline) bite hard into the turns, slide wonderfully on dirt and grass, and are light enough to make enormous jumps. Island cars are the most blisteringly fast vehicles since Wipeout but slide drastically in turns as if they were on ice. And then there are the ridiculously top-heavy Desert cars, the agile-but-slow Snow 4X4’s, SUV’s, Touring cars, and rally cars. Each car type handles nothing like the others, and each is uniquely satisfying. With this many different racing styles to choose from (though all share the core Trackmania philosophy of tight turns, boosts, and jumps), there is almost certainly some style here that almost any racing fan will love. On the flip side, every player will probably find a couple disciplines they just don’t like.

When the phrase “arcade racer” is mentioned, it usually implies that a game is easy to learn and requires little to no knowledge of real-world racing principles. While Trackmania follows the former point, the latter could not be farther from the truth. To succeed at Trackmania, you had better know about things like body roll, racing lines, and how and when to brake. All races are against the clock—or the times set by others—so victory depends on optimizing every inch of road, rather than just slamming into opponents.

As Gran Turismo vets can attest to, racing against the clock is a much less compromising form of racing. You can’t cut off your opponents or slow them down, can’t use them as bumper cars—it’s just you versus the track. If you’re not used to racing like this, Trackmania will frustrate you. You’ll miss times by fractions of a second, or mess up on the last hundred meters of a course. Some of the times needed for gold medals on the Nadeo-created tracks are ridiculously difficult. When things go online, competition gets even tighter, with hundredths of a second making the difference between first and twentieth. Scratching the inside of a turn on a three-minute course can doom a run to failure.

Don’t think it’s all this crazy, though. Progression in single player only requires easy-to-earn Bronze medals, and subpar racing skills will never hold you back or prevent you from having a good time (even if you don’t post good times). For those who want it, though, the competitive aspect is definitely there; Trackmania: Nations is often featured in professional gaming events.

It isn’t all racing, either. Trackmania contains two other driving modes: Platform and Puzzle. The first instructs you to simply get from one checkpoint to another in the lowest number of tries possible. Puzzle gives nothing but a starting point, an end point, and checkpoints, and tells the player to build the fastest possible track connecting them.

While the Puzzle mode is interesting and does have some diehard supporters within the community, it can seem gimmicky at times and will probably be just a diversion for most. Platform, on the other hand, can be an absolute blast, especially given some of the mind-blowing tracks thrown your way. It can get to be even more frustrating than the racing, and definitely caters to a different style of player, but is still an integral and unmissable part of the Trackmania package.

If you ever bore of driving, Trackmania offers a fantastic track editor that is seamlessly integrated into every aspect of the experience. All tracks are built from a series of basic blocks, like straight sections, curves, boost pads, terrain modifiers, and even environmental props like buildings and trees. While a quick survey of the list of pieces may make the editor seem restrictive, the possibilities are actually huge.

If you can create a track in your head, the editor will rarely stand in your way. Track pieces can be placed anywhere in the huge grid at any elevation and even underground. Text and color affects can be triggered at any time to add a cinematic flair. Even the drivers’ camera angle can be changed, temporarily changing Trackmania into a top-down racer, or even allowing for dramatic panning shots like something out of an action movie. But I don’t have to tell you this—just spending half an hour on a decent server online and driving the tracks other users have made will show just how extensive this track editor is. And some of the stuff is amazing.

The community has always been an important part of Trackmania, and interaction with other fans is made easier than ever here. Others’ tracks can be downloaded quickly and easily and rated on quality. Server matchmaking tied to an extensive ranking system ensures close races for all. You can even download the replays of the top players on a track to help figure out how to best take a turn or a jump. The collisionless racing has always been a source of complaint. And while racing against ghosts instead of actual other cars lacks some of the brutality and intensity present in many other racers, collisions would make most tracks nearly impossible and create more problems than they solved. And, anyway, the tracks are enough to worry about by themselves.

Everything offline and some things online center around “coppers”, Trackmania’s resident currency. Earned through posting good times, making good tracks, and even just logging in each day, they are used to purchase the tracks and replays of others, as well as to post official times. The last one of these—posting “Official” times—is a serious source of frustration. Each attempt at a track in Official mode costs ten coppers (as opposed to free “Practice” mode, in which a good time means nothing). And remember how easily a small mistake could wreck a run? Well, that still happens in Official mode, so you can quickly burn hundreds and hundreds of coppers trying to post well on a single track. While this mechanic was probably designed to keep players from scoring well off one lucky attempt, this entry fee seems to me to be a very limiting and artificial restriction.
Graphics and sound are clean and satisfying, even impressive at times, but nothing really special. The tracks, being made out of a set of pieces, are visually repetitive and generally follow the “form follows function” ideal. There are a couple cool effects, like the dirt that the Nations cars kick up on the unpaved track sections, and some dramatic nighttime lighting, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.

The cars all are very simple models that suit their purpose, though custom paint jobs allow some uniqueness. The sound is strictly basic stuff, with interesting but unmemorable engine sounds and background music is cool and catchy, but not overpowering. By keeping graphical tricks low, Nadeo also kept system requirements low. The first Trackmania was designed to be able to run on laptops, United probably fits that bill, too. With all the hyper-teched shooters and RTS’s coming out these days, it’s refreshing to see a game look clean, professional, and unique without needing to brag about their new physics model or smoke effects.

And now to speak directly to the Trackmania vets out there. Buy United. Plain and simple. The graphical enhancements to the older sets are pretty cool and the updated physics make the cars handle even more distinctly than before. Nadeo has churned out an awesome new set of tracks, using every piece in every zone to its fullest. And while you won’t see many more pieces in the editor—especially in Snow and Rally—these tech updates, along with the hugely updated community features, make United a mandatory purchase for any Trackmania fan. And for those of you who have never tried Trackmania, there has never been a better place to start. Trackmania: United an inventive, creative, and just plain fun game with a surprising amount of depth hidden under its decidedly simple exterior. It manages to cater well to newbies without diminishing its hardcore credibility. Trackmania: United is rollercoaster of a game that should be at least tried out by anybody with even a remote interest in high-speed racing.