Chances are you didn't play last year's TrackMania--at least, not if you live in North America. Despite being one of the most addictively simple and wholly enjoyable racers of last year (not to mention one of the only decent racers on the PC last year), TrackMania never found the same level of popularity here as it did in developer Nadeo's native Europe. Thankfully, because the game was a success across the pond, Nadeo and publisher Enlight have produced a sequel with TrackMania Sunrise. Nadeo has ramped up the wonderfully addictive style of stunt driving and expanded upon the community-driven elements of the original, creating more ways for you to share your own crazy creations and to download others. Throw in a better overall sense of presentation and an insanely deep track editor, and what you've got is a truly great sequel.
Despite being a racer at its core, TrackMania Sunrise isn't really about its cars--it's far more about all the crazy crap you can do with those cars via the completely insane roster of tracks. This game is all about stunt driving, with loop-de-loops, huge ramp jumps, massive bursts of speed, and general track layouts that seemingly only the most insane people could possibly concoct. The cars in the game have a very toylike feel to them, though the car physics found in Sunrise are a big improvement over the original TrackMania. Cars run at ridiculous speeds and tend to bounce a lot when they land. However, turning feels a whole lot better than it did in the original, and you no longer have to worry about overshooting a turn completely by putting just slightly too much pressure on the turnkey. Between the high speeds and wacky track designs, no two races ever feel quite the same, and each race tends to be a lot of fun.
When playing single-player, there are a number of different single-player race modes to choose from. Nearly all the races in the game are time based, so you'll find yourself racing against other cars. However, these other cars are actually only there to give you a visual guide of how close or how far you are to beating the required time for a race. Each opponent car represents the specific time needed to win the bronze, silver, and gold medals for a given race. There's also no car collision in the game, effectively making your opponents ghost cars--though, you'll also encounter a ghost car version of yourself if you've already raced once on a track. The different types of offline races are broken up into the categories of races, which are the aforementioned time trials: ramps, which are jump-heavy races where your goal is to only use a minimal number of checkpoint resets before you reach the finish line; puzzle races, where you are provided a certain number of road pieces and an environment, and you have to lay out those pieces in a specific way to get from point A to point B in the allotted time; and, crazy races, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like.
Each one of these races starts off easily enough, but then becomes increasingly challenging over time. Once you beat a series, a new series will open up, provided you've earned enough gold medals. And therein lies the primary challenge of the offline races. Reaching the goals so you can get a bronze or silver medal is not usually too tough, but getting a gold medal can be nearly impossible in some cases. Make no mistake, this can be quite a tough game when it wants to be, and at times it can become a bit frustrating--especially in the puzzle races, in which the solutions sometimes initially just don't make any sense at all. But even with that said, the frustrating portions of the game are dwarfed in comparison to the enjoyable portions.
There's also TrackMania Sunrise's track editor to play around with offline. Like the original TrackMania, you can create utterly insane courses of your own design using Sunrise's track editor, though now with more options. Trying to list everything you can do with this mode would take us forever, so we'll just sum it up quickly by saying that you can literally spend hours upon hours creating a track in this game, and the amount of variety you can throw into your creation is pretty staggering. Like the previous version, the actual variety of pieces isn't gigantic by itself, but where the variety does come in is more in the way that you can format the pieces to fit your own twisted design. The one fault with the mode is that it isn't the easiest thing in the world to grasp from the get-go, as the menus aren't super user-friendly and there is just so much to sift through. However, once you get the hang of it, you'll have a blast coming up with the wackiest tracks you can think of.
The best part is that you can take your tracks online, or you can just download other people's created tracks, if you're so inclined. All you have to do is pause during a race, select "save track," and voila, it's instantly downloaded into your game. If you just want to hop online and get into a few quick races, it's quite easy to do, thanks to the game's simple yet effective server browser. Those who are creating matches can set up basic time trial races, rounds matches, and even team-based races. Despite the fact that nearly everyone we played against was from Europe, we never had a single problem with lag playing online. The online play is just like the offline, in that again, you're racing against ghost cars without collision detection of any kind. But considering that the races are mostly all time based, that's not shocking, nor is it a problem. If you don't feel like playing the game online, Sunrise also features LAN play as well as hot seat multiplayer. The online play is really where it's at, but these other features are suitably enjoyable as well.
The biggest problems in the original TrackMania fell squarely with the graphics and sound. In TrackMania Sunrise, these categories are where the game shows the most improvement. Gone are all the muddy textures, overly simplistic car designs, and lackluster lighting schemes of the last game. The tracks look much, much better now, with nicely reflective lighting and textures that, while not overly impressive, are far more pleasant to look at. There are still only three types of cars, but each features multiple available skins, and there's also a customization mode that lets you paint and decal your car to your heart's content. Even better, the visual upgrades have had little effect on the frame rate, though occasionally frames do seem to chug ever so slightly here and there. Sunrise also introduces a more dynamic camera system, one that zooms out or in quite a bit depending on the situation. If you're going through a loop and need a close-up view of the road to make sure you stay on point, the game automatically does it for you. There are occasions when the camera shifts can be a problem, though, rather than a help, but these are infrequent problems at most.
The audio has improved mainly because the soundtrack has improved. Instead of the oversimplified, looping smattering of generic songs found in last year's game, in Sunrise you get a number of well-produced, licensed songs, though not necessarily from any artists you've ever heard of. Regardless of the lack of name value, the music is a lot more enjoyable and serves as good background ambience to the racing. Apart from that, the sound design features a lot of solid crash effects, tire screeching, engine noises, and what have you. Nothing that stands out too much, but the sound is still good in spite of this fact.
TrackMania Sunrise is pretty much exactly what you would want from a sequel to the original TrackMania. Nadeo has simply taken everything that was great about the last game, added a bunch more to it, and then killed off some of what wasn't so great. Like its predecessor, Sunrise isn't going to appeal to diehard driving fans, mainly because this isn't really a game for fans of racing so much as it is for fans of stunt driving and building the most ludicrous stunt tracks imaginable. Sunrise is more toy than racer, and that is in no way a bad thing. Fans of the first TrackMania will love the sequel, and any stunt-driving fans that ignored the first game really ought to give Sunrise a look, as they will find themselves pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer.