TrackMania Sunrise Hands-On

We get our first chance to play the sequel to last year's charming and addictive racing game, TrackMania.

TrackMania was one of the best games no one played last year. At least, it's one of the best games that practically no one in North America played, which is a pity. This simple, fun, and addictive racing game from French developer Nadeo found a strong following in Europe, but much less so in the United States. Still, with enough success on its home continent, TrackMania warranted a sequel. Now, with TrackMania Sunrise, Nadeo is ratcheting up the graphics and the gameplay, as well as adding in the elements that it hopes will make the game more appealing for American gamers this time around.

As with its predecessor, TrackMania Sunrise is all about high-octane, over-the-top racing. If you ever played with Hot Wheels cars and you built racing tracks with gravity-defying loops and jumps, then you'll have an idea of what to expect in TrackMania Sunrise. The focus in TrackMania games is all about the sensation of ridiculous speed (often up to 400 kilometers per hour or higher) coupled with insane tracks that consist of loops, half-pipes, and extreme jumps. In fact, though you'll race against other cars, the game deliberately does not model car-versus-car collision, which means you won't have to worry about slamming into another vehicle. Those cars are just there to measure your performance; all you need to do is focus on what your car is doing. And if you fly off the track, that's no problem, as the spectacular wipeouts are almost as fun as the racing itself.

TrackMania Sunrise will look sharper and more colorful than its predecssor.

We've been playing with an early version of the game, and we can safely say that the simple and fun gameplay of the original game remains intact. TrackMania Sunrise is remarkably easy to play; all you need to use are the four direction keys on your keyboard. Up is for acceleration, down is for the brakes, and left and right are used to steer. If you flip, wipeout, or fly off the track you'll have to jab the Enter key to reset at the last checkpoint or push the Delete key to start the race over from scratch. The game's physics and sense of speed are almost outlandish, but that's part of the charm of the series. You'll try to execute crazy stunts and driving maneuvers, which include increasing your speed so you can fly up one ramp, hurl sideways through the air, and land on another.

For TrackMania Sunrise, Nadeo has upped the look of the series in a big way. The first TrackMania game featured a fairly basic graphics engine with somewhat bland textures and models. The emphasis in that game was more about keeping a high frame rate than about eye candy. But with TrackMania Sunrise, Nadeo is looking to have both. Using the latest version of Nadeo's proprietary 3D graphics engine, TrackMania Sunrise is a huge leap up from TrackMania. Gone is the blandness of the first game; TrackMania Sunrise looks colorful, detailed, and sharp. There are also some fantastic environments you'll be able to drive around, such as sleek cityscapes and island paradises. Another big improvement is that you can now choose what time of the day to drive in, which affects the lighting conditions in a beautiful way. Florent Castelnérac, director of Nadeo, feels that this is an important new upgrade, as it can really change the mood of the game. In the original TrackMania you could only race during the day, but now you can race at dawn, noon, dusk, and at night.

The game will come with several driving modes. In terms of single-player gameplay, you have a choice of official campaigns that will ship with the game as well as community campaigns made up of user-made tracks. Each campaign will feature three modes: race mode, where the goal is to get the best time; platform mode, where the goal is to finish a track with the least amount of resets; and puzzle mode, where the goal is to create the fastest track possible that links a series of checkpoints together. If you're looking for some human competition, the game's multiplayer mode will feature a couple of options. You'll be able to race online and over a network, and you can participate in a hot seat mode that will let multiple players take turns challenging each other on a single computer. One of the hot seat modes is time attack, in which each player has a countdown timer. The first player will race and establish the best time for the track. The second player will then race with the goal of beating that time. However, until the second player does beat that best time, his or her countdown timer will tick down. If the second player manages to get a faster time before the timer runs out, then the first player has to beat that time before his or her timer expires. The first player to run out of time loses the match.

The new lighting conditions do a lot to enhance the mood of the game.

While the game will come with a variety of designer-made tracks, there will also be a huge community effort to create new tracks. You'll still have the ability to design your own track using the game's built-in, tile-based track editor. This is one of the hallmarks of the series, as the original TrackMania has countless user-made tracks that are shared among the community. What's impressive is that each track is a miniscule 10 kilobytes in size, which means that you'll practically download new maps instantaneously whenever you play online. You can also create your own custom paint jobs and apply your own decals and textures to your car to personalize it. To help sort through all the user-map content that will be out there, Nadeo will rank the tracks, and players will have an opportunity to add comments to help identify the best tracks.

Even at this early stage, TrackMania Sunrise is proving to be a fun and simple game to play. Nadeo is still working to put the finishing touches on the game, though, and we won't see it ship until later this year. Currently, the plans are for the game to come out in Europe a few weeks before its North American debut, which will be sometime this summer. Hopefully, this time around the series will find a bigger following in the US.

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