Trackmania United (PC) review
"If you persevere with the single player racing mode, you'll find beautiful scenery, gravity-defying tracks, and uber-fast speeds. If you're unlucky, you may also encounter another issue - crashing into the barriers occasionally causes the player to become impaled right through the scenery."
Remember when Scalextric sets were ridiculously popular? The selections of click-into-place pieces of car racetrack that you'd get in each set were such a simple concept, but so delightfully fun. Entire weekends would go by in a flash, as you built track after track to race your toy cars around on. The only real drawback was that these sets were rather expensive - you'd have needed some serious pocket money to be able to build any tracks of significant scale.
This is where the TrackMania series comes in - the games take this simple concept, add to it, mess about with it, and repackage it nice and neatly into a unique gaming experience. The emphasis is on creating your own racetracks using the selection of blocks available in-game (including many physics-defying loops and upside-down sections), and racing on them, against your friends or the computer, with a large selection of pre-made tracks also being available to race on. The cars you'll use to race with are generally fairly standard, as the key focus here is enjoyment rather than spending hours remodelling your vehicles. It's a fascinating idea, and one that has held true throughout the series.
TrackMania United is the latest game in this series, and has added to this basic premise in one very simple way - racing can take place online. This takes place by means of uploading your own, home-created racetracks, and allowing others to compete against you to try to beat your best time. In exchange, you'll be able to race these other players using their home-created tracks, and there are literally thousands of them available. As if that wasn't enough, there are also hundreds of pre-created tracks waiting for you to download and race on, with a world of opponents as your competitors. It's a fascinating concept, and the online aspect of play is extremely well-executed. The central aim is clearly to have fun, but be warned - more often than not, you'll see some insane times listed while playing online. It's clear that someone, somewhere, is cheating, but how and why this is happening is something of a mystery.
There are plenty of other options open to the player, however, so even if you don't want to compete with the hardcore enthusiasts online, then you won't have to. In fact, you can while away hour upon hour just playing the solo modes and never feel like you're missing out. The general race mode in the single player game involves beating the clock, and stages range from the reasonably easy to the frustratingly difficult. In fact, this is where the first cracks in the game appear - the difficulty level is simply set too high. Right from the easiest level of the very first track, the whole game starts to seem less like a rather clever racing game, and more like some bizarre kind of torture. This isn't an issue of a steep learning curve, either: the bar is quite simply set too high. This not only leads to much glaring at your PC in abject disgust and outrage, but also much anger, potentially leading to violent outbursts and the wanton destruction of personal property.
If you persevere with the single player racing mode, you'll find beautiful scenery, gravity-defying tracks, and uber-fast speeds. If you're unlucky, you may also encounter another issue - crashing into the barriers occasionally causes the player to become impaled right through the scenery. I don't know quite how I managed it, but it seemed to happen with startling regularity on a couple of the levels in particular. Since not crashing is something of a principle in this game, then obviously you'll want to avoid this. A simple restart will sort the game out, but it would have been far better for none of these glitches to have made it into the game in the first place. It's a shame really, since otherwise this could have been an excellent game.
There is also a puzzle mode, and this is far less glitchy. Puzzle levels involve building a track around a predetermined set of checkpoints, passing through each one and leading from the start to the finish. You'll then have to race on the track you've built from beginning to end, aiming to achieve the best possible time. These levels are surprisingly fun, much easier than the race mode (although the small matter of staying on the track can, as with the racing levels, be tricky to master), and very well-made. The track placing element of these levels adds a degree of strategic play, as the shorter you make the track, the quicker it'll be to complete it. This adds a certain depth that is rarely seen in racing games, and offers players like me, who are really rather crap at games like this, a chance to shine.
Where TrackMania United is really a step above the rest, however, is in its track-creating mode. In place of modifying your vehicles, as you would in other racing games, you'll get to lay your own racetracks using a Rollercoaster Tycoon -esque method of placing segments from start to finish, in whatever manner you see fit. The only way in which you're restricted here is that you have to have a start, and you have to have a finish line. Seems somewhat obvious, but the freedom you're afforded is almost daunting - as if you expect there to be a catch. The array of track types that are available is seemingly inexhaustible. There is so much available that it's hard to envisage the novelty ever wearing off. It's extremely satisfying to see a racetrack of your own creation take shape, and fulfilling to race against the computer or other players (using the online upload option) on these tracks.
This game isn't without its flaws, but on balance the positives do outweigh the negatives. If you buy TrackMania United, you'll find a fun little game that'll keep you entertained for weeks, assuming that you don't end up sitting in the middle of the crash barriers, or cursing the game for being so difficult. Here's hoping the next instalment isn't quite so glitchy.
Freelance review by Lisa Harrison (June 25, 2007)
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