Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: June 14, 2007
With Trackmania, Trackmania Sunrise, and the free Trackmania Nations ESWC before it (hint hint!), Nadeo has produced quite the pedigree of a game, and developed it into a series with a fairly singular niche among hardcore gamers. This is the long tail of racing games, and it loves it. It is a game that is perhaps doomed to a certain mild sense of obscurity by its non-mainstream stylations, but is just unique enough to attract a certain audience with its charming visuals, nothing-quite-like-it, over-the-top play style, and incredible levels of customizability. Having had four years to make its name, Nadeo's latest release, Trackmania United, polishes and enhances the series to a new, mirror sheen, and adds a truly immense amount of free online functionality.
Before you even start playing Trackmania United, you will be asked to create a username and password, and select your region by country and state/province. This is important because it will define which scoreboard you play on. In one of the most interesting variances in recent gaming history, Nadeo has state/province-specific scoreboards for every track in the main game, and national scoreboards for many downloadable tracks. If you live in Alaska, you will be facing off against a small number of fellow Alaskans (including yours truly), and while larger regions may have more players, this method ensures that you will have a decent chance of getting the fastest time on your scoreboard on a particular track. For anyone who has experienced the joy that is getting the #1 high score at your local arcade, even if you know it's not a world record breaker, this is practically a sign from above, bringing new heights of competition and the joy of a palpable, almost real victory to most every player who has even the basics of the game down.
To be fair, this is only bolstered by the formula of Trackmania United. Anyone who has played the old game Race Drivin', or its sequel Hard Drivin', and played on the (in?)famous Stunt Course will find some familiarity in Trackmania's stylations. The earliest courses will have you spinning through loops, jumping for massive airtime, and maneuvering in mid-air to fly through surprisingly tight targets with ease and a sense of speed that few other games possess today. Of course, with that sense of speed come controls precisely calculated to leave you in control while sending you sliding, flying, and generally wildly careening from point A to point B.
The difficulty comes from clearing the courses (and in the "puzzle" mode, making the tracks to clear them with) and figuring out every tiny inefficiency in your "solution" to get the fastest possible time. While the "easy" courses (trust me, those quote marks are there for a good reason) tend to quickly favor optimizing once the player has grown familiar with the game, the difficulty ramps up to levels that will make old-school Nintendo fans, the type who develop frame-perfect runs of the NES Mario games, scream in frustration, while old-hat Trackmania experts race by them for world-record times and pursue real prizes at the Electronic Sports World Cup each year. (It's perhaps a good thing that local scoreboards serve to isolate you from the world-record times, for it makes you feel like a much better player than you really are in the grand scheme of the game.)
Trackmania United keeps things varied enough with three race types, seven track styles (with distinct cars, graphical styles, soundtracks, and multiple "moods" for each), and 25 levels between each combination of track style and race type — a total of over 500 tracks, ranging from 10 seconds to a couple of minutes in length, just long enough that every mistake fixed counts. As if this weren't enough, the "Get New Challenge" button spends coppers — an in-game currency earned by setting official times — to give you even more tracks in the combination of race type, track style, and difficulty level you prefer.
Nadeo seemed to think that the Trackmania community could use a little help in providing enough challenges for players, though. All of the game's graphical styles are simply lifted from previous Trackmania games. In particular, the Stadium style will seem very familiar to those who have played Nations; this might diminish its value to some, but it also means that courses from the previous games are compatible with United, meaning many of the best will show right up to provide for literally thousands of challenges. It is also good to note that tracks developed in United add many new types of block to each of the seven track styles, advancing courses far beyond what was possible in previous offerings.
To call Nadeo's latest effort a simple collection is certainly inaccurate, however, for one reason: the online functionality. Trackmania United takes the common idea of online games and twists and turns it so much that its effects will be felt on even the likes of World of Warcraft in its own way. Players can custom paint their vehicles for each of the seven modes, create custom tracks for every race/track/difficulty combination, put their own music in the game's soundtrack, and download or create a variety of distinctive graphical mods. All courses, official and downloaded, have world, national, and state scoreboards, and the game automatically decides which to use, based on how many times the track has been used.
Online races against other players can be enjoyed at full pace, regardless of latency, thanks to the interesting decision by Nadeo to have players be unable to influence one another in races. You see other racers but simply clip through them if you touch them, making your opponents a little difficult to distinguish from the ghost timers in single-player mode. While this may seem a little confusing at first, it suits well with the game's puzzle-styled, optimization-centric atmosphere. All of this is run on a solid background, mixing peer-to-peer and server connections on a mode-by-mode basis to provide for fast downloads, low latencies, and decent, if not perfect, stability. All of these features are built for and designed to highlight a fairly large, friendly but fiercely competitive player base and community.
From a presentation standpoint, Trackmania United is certainly not the most impressive game ever. Block-based tracks do have their limits in making things supremely beautiful and realistic, although all the models use a nice mix of texture and polygon count to look solid, and the water and lighting effects are legitimately beautiful, if not top of the line. Then again, given how unrealistic the game itself is, avoiding extreme special effects may be a good thing in favor of a very large variety of items to place on the stages, different stage and car styles, moddability, and an engine that holds up with even the craziest courses without losing frame rate. The game's musical soundtrack is not precisely exceptional, but is far from annoying and easy enough to replace, while its sound effects are perhaps somewhat repetitive but clearly tuned to provide information to players rather than be whiz-bang awesome.
Trackmania United is not precisely a casual game, in spite of its short courses being well-tuned to casual play. It's not a traditional racing game in any style, in spite of some cars that might seem familiar to players of more traditional sorts. Instead, Trackmania United targets a specific niche amongst racing game fans and does everything it can to emphasize and cater to this niche, creating a game where precision matters, skill is clearly and easily quantifiable, and yet where fun can easily be had, even in failure. There are no explosions, no special effects, and no opponents except for the clock as set by other players. For this, United is one of the most fun games on Steam, and a quiet(ish) hit for Nadeo. Plus, you can't beat having a demo as large as many complete $50 games in Trackmania Nations ESWC. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in United give its direct prequel a try first, to be sure the gameplay style suits them. Existing fans should find the community-centric features strong enough to validate getting this fourth game in the series.
Note 1: If you don't like Steam, Trackmania United needs it for the most common distribution. Strangely, though, the updater is not in Steam, but in a separate game launcher utility, from which Steam simply launches. The game can be found in box form without Steam; however, be aware that the boxed version of Trackmania includes a very tiny implementation of the highly controversial Starforce protection system.
Note 2: Saitek Keyboard and Logitech G-series mouse users, beware! This game glitches out in varied ways with your choice products. I had to go to a decade-old P/S2 mouse and keyboard to run this title, though most other USB brands appear to work fine.
Note 3: The Internet is critical to this game. Even in single-player mode, you will not have a complete experience with Trackmania United without an always-on Internet connection.
More articles about TrackMania United