TrackMania United PC Review
See that intro line? That should be the game’s subtitle/tagline/whatever they’re called at the moment. See, TrackMania United is basically a racing game. That much is obvious. But if you play it and do nothing but race, you’re kind of missing the point.
See, as far as games go, TrackMania United is a strange one. A quick glance at the screenshots and anyone who’s not come across the series before would be right in saying “yeah, no shit, we can see that”. But that’s not what I’m talking about. United isn’t really a straight sequel to the previous TrackMania games. In terms of new content, there’s actually very little to be seen here. In this sense, United is a sort of ‘greatest hits’ re-release. It comes bundled with the best tracks from the previous games in the series – TrackMania Original, TrackMania Sunrise, and TrackMania Nations. But, again. Missing the point.
Before I start ranting about what makes United special, a bit of backtracking is in order for those who aren’t familiar with the series. The TrackMania games have been laughing heartily in the faces of more realistic or po-faced racing games for a number of years now, and they’ve been consistently excellent at it. While the rest of the world seems happy to drive cars through real-life cities, earning respect from local gang members or sticking neon lights under their cars, the TrackMania games knew we could do better. They knew we could be firing sports cars around the insides of giant pipes at 500Km/H, skimming them off bodies of water like stones, or making them fly hundreds of metres into the air to execute quarter-pipe gap transfers, providing you get the take-off angle right and know how to control your car in mid-air. Because you can do that too, if you like. Why shouldn’t you? It’s just a video game, after all – something a lot of developers don’t really seem to get these days.
And Nadeo didn’t just settle for making racing games. No sir. On top of the racing there was platform mode (admittedly nicked from the excellent Rollcage Stage II), where can you can take as long as you like to tackle a track, but you’re rewarded for completing it with a lower number of restarts – that is, your main concern is not falling off the bloody road and into oblivion. Then there was the brilliant puzzle mode, where you’re given a partially-completed track, with a set beginning and end, and a number of checkpoints. You’re then given a small selection of track pieces, and have to try and build the shortest route through all the checkpoints. And let’s not even get started on the fact that you could easily build your own tracks from scratch and share them with other players online.
Of course, the games were never a huge success, as is often the case when you’re dealing with such risk-averse idiots as you’ll find in the videogaming masses. But the series saw a huge boost in popularity when the previous instalment in the series, Nations, was released as a free 250Mb download. The platform and puzzle mode were sadly missing, but it was still enough to make people realise what they’d missed out on. Hell, if you’re not convinced by this review, you’re only a quick Google search away from a free copy of Nations. Go play it, then come back.
Right, now that we’re all up to speed, let’s talk about United. Now, if you want to cast a cynical eye over it, you might well suggest that United is just a re-release to squeeze some cash out of all the people who downloaded Nations for free, and enjoyed it. There’s probably a fair bit of truth to that, but there’s more to United than you’d think. As stated before, it gathers together the best tracks from all the previous TrackMania games, but it also gathers something else – the players. Previously, it was a total pain in the arse to play with or keep track of your friends, and there was no real place for the players to talk outside of the individual online races themselves. The TrackMania communities had always been strong and dedicated, but this was in spite of the communication tools provided, not because of them. This time, though, the developers have completely sorted out the community infrastructure.
When you first load up the game, you’re asked to specify what country and region you live in. From then on, the main menu always has a panel in the bottom right, showing you all the recent activity in your region’s forum. You haven’t even started playing yet, and the game’s already showing you that you’re probably only ten minutes away from some of your fellow players. Personally, I hate people, but even I thought it was a nice little feature. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s now a fully integrated friends list/instant messaging system, and every single player gets a ‘ManiaLinks’ page. This is essentially a little online shop that you can run – you can display any tracks or car paintjobs that you’ve made, maybe write some stuff about them while you’re at it, and people can come along and buy them off you using Coppers, the in-game currency, earned by performing well in races. Personally, I tended to stick with the old method of playing online and simply hitting the ‘download current track’ button every time I came across one I liked – but now I can also look up the track author’s ManiaLinks page and see what else they’ve done. It’s a really nice idea, and it works. Furthermore, every track – whether it’s a single-player track made by Nadeo or one made by another player – lets you check the current list of best times, see who set them, and download the replays to see how the pros do it. Some of the courses are seriously confusing, so there’s no shame in taking a few minutes to watch someone else tackle it so you know what the hell you’re meant to be doing.
There are a couple of things that bother me, though. For a start, there’s a monumental skill gap between people who’ve just started playing, and people who’ve been at it for a while. Now, there are of course servers set up just for beginners and the server list gives you an indication of whether the players on a given server are better or worse than you. However, with the more dedicated players being the ones who bother to make tracks themselves, it’s got to the point where the more interesting content is often prohibitively difficult and new players will often find themselves feeling lucky if they even get to the end of a lot of the tracks, never mind actually getting a decent time on them. On top of that, the series has come a long way since TrackMania Original, and it shows. While it’s nice to see the Original tracks included, they do feel pretty tame and dated compared to the increasingly interesting and off-the-wall track designs found in the later games. But then, people seem happy to keep including Original tracks on their servers, so perhaps I’m just being a snob.
So, get involved. Don’t just do the races. Talk to people. Paint offensive slogans on your car. Build tracks. Watch people race on them, and get feedback on your designs. Get some friends interested, and start your own team. It’ll be less difficult, and more fun, than any of it sounds. Trust me. And look out for me on the servers – I’m the guy hovering somewhere around last place, with ‘I KILL SWANS’ painted on his bonnet.
Not just a brilliant game, but a superb example of how a community can be brought together. Just you watch everyone else start stealing Nadeo’s ideas.