Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: June 1, 2007
Racing games come, and racing games go, but for my money TrackMania has always been the best of the best. For sheer laugh-out-loud value, the fun I've had with this franchise is unequalled. The latest iteration, TrackMania United, is the fourth in the series (not counting Mini TrackMania, a Flash game developed for promotional purposes). The question posed to us, the potential consumer, is this: "What has Nadeo, the developers, put into this game that makes it worth buying over any of its predecessors?" Let's take a look and see what the answer might be.
I suppose I can break my usual habit of describing the basic mechanics of the game. I'm sure by now you've all figured out it's a racing title, that much wasn't exactly oblique in the opening paragraph. What separates this entire franchise from other "get in a car/truck/buggy and drive till your eyeballs bleed" tiles is the stress on physics manipulation. It isn't particularly important how quickly you can go around corners, but what does matter is how well you can navigate a 100-foot airborne launch off of a ramp at 300+ miles per hour. (That would be 482+ kilometers per hour, for those of you living outside the USA.) Now, what separates TrackMania United from prior TrackMania versions is the focus on multiplayer competition and community involvement. If I had to try to phrase this in mainstream terms, one could think of this experience as a massively multiplayer online racing game. The only thing that's missing is a persistent world.
The theoretical concepts behind TrackMania United look great. Upon installing the game, you are prompted to create a user account which is registered with Nadeo's master servers. This account logs your geographical location, your status on the world race boards, how many "coppers" you've generated, and what purchases you've made. Many things can be purchased with these coppers, like new skins for your vehicles, new vehicle models, new maps, and other content like behind-the-scenes videos. How does one generate coppers? Well one way is to just wait. You gain 10 coppers every day, and if you have TrackMania and TrackMania Sunrise installed you get 10 additional coins too, so that long-standing fans of the series get 30 coppers a day just for their patronage. Beyond this, the way to make more moolah is to attempt "official" times on the tracks.
The single-player component of TrackMania United is simple enough — you race through a series of tracks, trying to get a better and better times. You're up against the clock, and you're up against yourself. You can choose to include scripted "A.I." cars on these as well, which will help you track your time. For example, if you put the Bronze A.I. on the track with you, and you're behind it, then you know you aren't placing bronze. Completion of these maps unlocks the next level of challenge, etc.
However, you can also run them in "official" mode. The first attempt costs nothing, but if you fail to place a good enough time and try it again, it will cost you. If you do succeed, however, you get a copper bonus for each medal time you place. Let me try to give you an example: I decide to run the Stadium D2 map in official mode. I manage a run in 0:54:37 time, which doesn't quite place me on the British Columbia boards (The 10th ranked BC player as of this writing had a time of 0:48:46 on Stadium D2), but it is a bronze and silver medal time, so I get 15 coppers (5 for the bronze, 10 for the silver). In effect, you can practice the same race over and over, honing your skill until it's razor sharp, then make some shekels by placing an official time for all to see.
TrackMania United plays out in more or less the same as previous iterations. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there are precious few titles out there that can offer the same kind of fun-factor. Like HotWheels on methamphetamine, the wild blasts of speed and airborne tricks are excellent. The build I had to work with for this preview contains what I suspect is a beta selection of single- player tracks to run. For now, there are five maps each for "Starter," "Easy," "Normal," and "Hard," and only one "Extreme" map. I'm fairly certain that this will increase at launch, especially when you take into consideration how many challenges TrackMania Nations has to offer.
TrackMania United uses a tweaked version of the same graphics engine upon which Sunrise and Nations were built. The color palette is the same rich and vibrant display it's always been, which helps furnish the entire experience with a bright, rich mood. The lighting seems to have been given some attention and feels more realistic and warm than before. One new upgrade to the graphics that really caught my attention are the reflective shaders. Metal looks shinier than ever, an effect that is subtle but highly effective. Also, in the advanced visual settings, you can force motion blur and dynamic color. When activated, these options make TrackMania United look stunning, but they still need some optimizing because they brought down my frames-per-second significantly, and I'm running a GeForce 8800GTS.
Overall, I think that Nadeo is looking to maintain the status quo with TrackMania United. There aren't any paradigm-shifting elements that change the flavor of the experience itself, and they're even sticking to their guns by including Starforce Pro 3. (They're one of the few remaining companies that are willing to do so.) However, I believe that the new online system the devs have put together will "unite" the community in a whole new way. It's the fans that have kept this franchise vibrant and alive, and this will clearly be a game for the fans. How could that possibly be a bad thing?
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