Publisher: Digital Jesters/Enlight
Developer : Nadeo
Euro Release Date: November 28, 2003
US Release Date: June, 2004
Originality is becoming a rarity in the gaming world today. The games that get the most coverage and have the most people talking about them are oftentimes not the best that the industry has to offer. One could consider it a problem on the publisher’s part for not being willing to take risks and advertise their titles that are different from the norm, or maybe the developer for not including trendy features like a rock soundtrack, a popular voice-actor, or heaping gallons of blood and gore. Whatever the case, games like Trackmania are often sorely underrated or ignored.
Trackmania is essentially a puzzle/racing hybrid. You have the ability to build tracks however you like and then race on them. The puzzle mode offers a unique experience where you are given a start and finish line and maybe a partially completed track as well. You have a certain number of certain types of track, and may place these any way you like. The goal is to to build a track that allows you to race from start to finish, and through any necessary checkpoints, in the alotted time. If you don’t seem to be doing to well, it’s back to the drawing board – or maybe you just need to fine-tune your driving ability. There’s also a race mode which is good for practicing your driving.
One more aspect of the game lets you create a track however you want. You win points for completing puzzles and races, and these points may be used to purchase track pieces in the games shop. There’s quite a large variety of pieces (many of which never seem to be used in the puzzle mode), from plain flat road and curves to hills, turns with a slant, boost tracks, and different types of terrain. The game's shop is sadly missing loops, twists, and more “extreme” pieces (or at least none that I found), but you can still build some wild courses with the tools at hand. I predict this game will have a nice cult following – hopefully, it will be easy to share and download tracks with a friendly community in the near future (community site can be found at www.trackmaniagame.com and also at www.tm-exchange.com with downloadable tracks/mod's ed.).
Half of your time in the game will, of course, be spent editing tracks. This is where the game’s biggest flaw lies – it’s tricky to use. For being fairly straightforward, one would hope it would be a bit more intuitive than it actually is. You can add pieces, rotate them, raise and lower them, and so forth. The problem is that the interface requires you move the stationary cursor with either your arrow keys or the large buttons on-screen – you can’t really move the cursor with your mouse in real time. Granted, the cursor occupies one square on a graph, but that’s no reason to abandon what strategy games have done with ease for years. Another problem lies in the similarly static camera. You may only position it from four compass positions, with various levels of zoom. It’s sometimes quite tough to get a look at what you need to, especially with the stationary cursor, and the fact that things like mountains can get in your way. Despite these qualms, the track editor is still largely useful. You’ll just wish that it was comfortable to use as it, in all honesty, really should be.
When you finish your track, the game’s interface does impress. The editing menus pull offscreen and the camera glides down to the starting line where your car is waiting to be put to good use. A countdown will commence, and with any luck you’ll finish your race before the time limit passes. Getting a bronze medal is not terribly hard with a decent track design, getting silvers, and especially golds, is much harder. Of course, doing so grants you many more points to spend in the game’s shop. The whole game is very slick in how everything is integrated.
The actual racing in the game is not bad. There are three different cars in the game, each of which having a number of different skins. The three drive totally differently; one is slow but is very easy to control, one is really fast but quite tricky to keep in control, and the third is a balance between the two. The driving mechanics are simplistic, but work well. You basically just accelerate, brake, and turn, with no worries about nitro boosts or powersliding or shifting gears; thanks to the more-than-adequate physics engine, though, driving is fun and accessible and not as shallow as one might have feared. Your car will lean to the side when turning (going as far as riding on two wheels on very sharp turns at high speeds!), realistically fly through the air off of a ramp, drive differently on different terrain (there is ice!) and gain speed when going downhill as opposed to uphill. The “boost” track pieces rapidly raise your speed for a short while, and make it much easier to make it uphill. The game’s physics are so well tuned that making slight differences in your track can make a world of difference in your driving. I was very impressed.
The game’s difficulty level is kind of all over the place, unfortunately. The first few tracks are definitely easier than later ones, allowing you to get your feet wet and see how things work. But then sometimes a surprisingly difficult puzzle will get in your way, halting your progress for a while. And on occasion an incredibly simple, even at times blatantly obvious puzzle will pop up. One, in particular, presented a nearly finished track with one area that required a ramp to jump over – and guess what the only piece I had in my inventory was. A ramp. It’s weird how the developers sometimes trust you to get by the time limit with your own track, but other times hold your hand like no tomorrow.
The game is also unfortunately short. It’s possible to complete most of the puzzles in a day or so, and the races won’t last much longer. There are three different sets of levels, with eight or so puzzles and races for each. The first is a snowy ice location, the second a sandy desert, and the third a bright, grassy field area. Sadly, once you complete these the only thing left to do is build your own tracks and improve your scores. Hopefully the online communities will really embrace this game, as it has the potential to truly never end – unfortunately it seems that the developers would hope you pick up at the relatively early spot they left off at. I have not had a chance to check out the PowerUp addon (the North American retail version distributed by Enlight will have this included, to be released in late June 2004), but it is said to include loads of features, with new solo play modes, new multi-player options, new construction blocks to use and loads more new extras.
The game’s graphics and sound are solid. There’s nothing mindblowing to see, visually, but it doesn’t look bad. Cars look good, with smooth curves and shiny properties. Track elements are fairly detailed, nicely modeled with crisp textures that never present a problem. Everything moves at a pleasing, smooth 60 frames per second. The audio consists of oddball techno beats and other music that sounds like it could have been done with a single keyboard, but it’s still not that bad. My only real complaint is that the same music and sound effects are used for each of the three levels. Get used to hearing a weird, corny “boing” sound effect every time you finish a race in the desert tracks.
All in all, Trackmania is a little gem that will probably never quite grab the mass media by the reigns since it doesn’t feature fancy licensed cars and real-life locations. But I digress. Despite the game’s flaws – and it does have them – track building and racing is surprisingly fun and addictive. You might find yourself hooked. I was. With any luck, we will see more content available for the game in the future (apart from the recently released "free" PowerUp expansion), and I am already looking forward to the freshly announced Sunrise addon. Do yourself a favor and pick this game up if you’re tired of everyday racing games.
Score : 8.3/10
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