The brand of simplified, highly customizable driving game that Enlight Software and developer Nadeo's TrackMania aims to be hasn't really seen much attention since the days of the legendary PC game Stunts. Though there have been some games of similar concept--that being the concept of providing players with the means to create wild and wacky tracks of their own twisted design--it has been a long, long time since any game of this type has really stood out. Thankfully, TrackMania puts an end to this prolonged drought. The game has been out in Europe for a while now, and since its European release, it has drawn quite a following overseas. After you play the game for yourself, it isn't hard to see why. Its earnest simplicity and pure addictiveness shine through over its few presentational and control rough spots, providing a wholly enjoyable game with plenty of lasting value and charm.
In TrackMania, simplicity is the theme of the day. TrackMania has only two primary single-player modes. Race mode is a progression through the game's three unique race worlds--a picturesque countryside, a barren desert, and a frigid, snowcapped landscape, respectively--trying to beat each specific racetrack provided in a certain amount of time. The other mode, puzzle mode, is a bit more unique. In each level, you are provided a start point, an end point, and a specific number of customizable road pieces. Whether they are ramps, standard roads, or other types of set pieces, you have to use them to build a path from point A to point B. Once that's done, you race your created path and try to beat the allotted timetable. While race mode is pretty straightforward--and, admittedly, isn't all that interesting--puzzle mode is quite a cool feature. Even though not all the puzzles are terribly hard, there are enough brain teasers here to keep you entertained for quite a while. Of course, the real purpose of this mode is to earn credits that you can use in the game's track editor--which is, of course, the reason to own this game.
TrackMania's track editor is rife with options. Once you've picked from one of the three race worlds, you can create almost limitless possibilities for tracks. Want a 360-degree loop to go into a jump over a rock wall onto a high-up road that takes you into a tunnel that leads to one of several different paths--only one of which actually gets you to the finish line? You can do it. Though the actual variety of set pieces and road types isn't humongous, the ways in which you can use what is provided are near limitless, as can be seen by some of the more creative tracks already provided in the game. The interface is rather austere in design, simply giving you point-and-click access to each type of piece, as well as the ability to rotate pieces, move the camera to a different angle, and so on and so forth. All told, the track editor is pretty much worth the price of admission by itself, though it isn't the only thing the game has going for it.
TrackMania's other big draw is its multiplayer component. On a LAN or over the Internet, you can participate in multiplayer races for up to 10 players. There are three distinct multiplayer modes in the game, including round, team, and time attack. While each mode has differing rules and designs, they all still focus around the basic concept of completing a course in the fastest amount of time. You can race on premade tracks or race using your own tracks. The online performance in the game is quite solid, though lag is readily apparent on some of the servers we found ourselves on, leading to a lot of cars jumping and teleporting all over the track. However, on the servers we found without much lag, this problem was reduced to almost nil. The other issue with the multiplayer modes isn't so much an issue as it is just a design choice. There is no collision between cars in the game (both in the single- and multiplayer modes), so essentially you're just racing against collision-free ghost cars at all times. Since the game is based on timed races, however, this isn't a very big deal at all. Overall, the online play is great, and it adds another bonus to the game's otherwise solid package.
While it's easy to heap praise on TrackMania, the game isn't without its caveats. The game's driving mechanics heavily lean toward the realm of arcade-style driving. This is in no way a bad thing, but the way in which the cars handle can be more frustrating than enjoyable at times. Essentially, you have one type of car for each race world--though there are a multitude of skins available for each car type. The countryside level, for instance, features more rally-inspired cars, whereas the desert level features more muscle-bound hot rods. You'll definitely notice a difference between how each car type handles, though all three types can be rather hard to deal with in certain situations.
Basically, all of the cars are super powerslide-friendly, and they tend to take turns and the slightest bumps in one direction a little too much to heart, leading to generally unwieldy controls. It certainly isn't impossible to get used to the car controls, but were there a bit more in the way of crash physics or damage modeling in the game, the wacky controls might have been a bit more satisfying. As it is, all you can really do is roll your car and send it flying off ledges or jumps, but the end result is rarely all that thrilling. None of this is to imply that the driving is devoid of fun; quite the contrary. It's just that the driving mechanics aren't as well put together as the other components of the game, which gives it a bit of lackluster feel by comparison.
Presentation-wise, TrackMania doesn't have a whole lot going on. The car models are simplistic and small, and the track designs and set pieces are similarly minimal, using fairly basic textures and not pushing much in the way of polygons. However, this isn't really so much a knock against the game's graphics, as it is just a simple fact. Technically, the game holds a steady frame rate (thanks partially to the game's minimal graphics card requirements) and doesn't really have any bugs or glitches to speak of. The same theme of unimpressive-but-functional goes for the game's sound design. You get one basic, looping song per race world, and a marginally catchy menu theme song for music; the sound effects don't really go beyond basic engine sounds and occasional bumps and crashes. Again, it all works just fine, but none of it will really stand out while you're playing.
At its $30 price tag, TrackMania is completely worth it if you have any interest in PC driving games or ever liked miniature cars as a kid. Sure, the driving mechanics aren't perfect, and it isn't much to look at, but on the whole, this is a great game with plenty of depth and lasting appeal. And with Nadeo already having released an additional program that lets you import custom online avatars and custom car skins into the game, it seems as though TrackMania could potentially find itself with a solid fan community (in North America as well as Europe) and plenty of downloadable goodies in the future. But even without the promise of future content, TrackMania is a rock-solid out-of-the-box retail product, so if you have any sort of interest or affection toward this type of racer, it's completely worthwhile.