Slot car fantasies come to life in TrackMania United, the latest addition to the zaniest, most addictive arcade racing franchise to ever hit the PC. French developer Nadeo may stick a little too close to the original TrackMania and its sequel TrackMania Sunrise, but the concepts introduced in those games have been refined to near-perfection here. Dozens of insanely catchy tracks, fantastic online support, and a few new gameplay hooks will have you craving the next race the second you finish the last one.
If you decide to download this game from Steam (the only place it's available in the US), be aware that this a racing-game throwback--not the usual hardcore sim with a capital "S" that you tend to get on the PC. Ripping around and having a blast is the point here, not running telemetry until you can blow the doors off everyone at Daytona. Vehicle types here come with loose physics and a slidey feel more fitting of toy cars than of real hunks of metal and plastic. Cars even bounce when they fall from great heights, whether they hit pavement or water when they come down. Tracks are even more fantastic, typically featuring insane jumps, hoops hovering in midair, snowboard-style half-pipes, precipices high above desert canyons, and tropical-island highways that come to abrupt dead ends. And if you can think of a design even nuttier, you can make it yourself with the powerful, easy-to-use track editor.
All of this speedy craziness is experienced in three modes of play. Race is the most down-to-earth option. Like in Sunrise, you run time trials alone or against gold, silver, and bronze pace cars. However, opponents are just ghost cars to push you to better times, as you can't collide with them. Races take place in seven different track categories that unlock as you collect a requisite number of gold and silver finishes. Categories offer different scenery and racing styles. Stadium, for example, sees you guiding formula one-style cars around racetracks in concrete domes, while Desert features trucks on dirt roads. Rally boasts rally cars on grass in windmill-laden pastoral Europe, and Snow takes you to the mountains on ATVs.
Repetition is a bit of an issue when racing, despite the dozens and dozens of tracks included in the game. Each map type repeats the same scenic elements, only varying the time of day and adding glitz like red sunsets and neon nights. Still, you don't spend enough time on any one track to get bored. Tracks range from 10-second drags in the opening stages to slightly more winding treks that take a minute or two to complete. Also, the challenge is strong enough that you can find yourself running a race a couple-dozen times in a row to try to catch the perfect performance of the gold car. Just the slightest mistake puts you in second place, so don't underestimate the toughness of what looks to be a shiny, happy arcade game.
Racing can also be taken online. TrackMania United boasts an awesome online community in both Europe and North America, which lets you hook up with a race day or night. Lag is a slight problem at times, although typically only when loading and starting races. Once you get going, everything smoothes out. Nadeo keeps online leaderboards for different tracks, and also allows you to check your times against others by running official races in the solo mode. So if the basic gameplay doesn't keep you playing, trying to hit the top of the charts likely will. There seem to be thousands of different tracks available over the Net as well, testimony to the game's European fan base and the usability of the editor. These tracks can be downloaded and installed on the fly, although you need to purchase them in solo gaming with coppers earned from activities like posting good official race times.
But while races and the challenge of besting online times will hook you, platform mode will keep you coming back for more. This fiendishly addictive game (a revamped take on Sunrise's ramps tracks) challenges you to simply make it from start to finish without hitting a checkpoint restart too many times, but that's easier said than done when you have to deal with jumps that don't line up, holes that drop you into watery graves, tunnels that whip you around like a pinball, and outrageous one-after-the-other leaps to floating platforms suspended in midair. These tracks beautifully balance learning with driving skill. Even after you've run through a track a few times and memorized its pitfalls, funky driving is still required in order to stay on the road. This means a lot of trial and error...along with a lot of laughing as you continuously miss turns and cinematically sail off ramps to plummet hundreds of feet into the drink in front of gorgeous sunsets. Swearing alternates with the laughter, though, as getting a gold medal requires perfection, and perfection is gamepad-throwingly hard to come by.
Compared to the above, the puzzle mode of play is a big letdown. As in Sunrise, this option sees you building tracks from a top-down perspective. It's an interesting concept, though it seems as out of place with the other two modes as pizza does with rice, and solutions rarely seem logical. As the other options are such pure fun, puzzle really isn't worth much of your time.
But while puzzle makes you question what the developers were thinking, the visuals make you ask how the heck they managed to make a game look this good and run this fast. Frame rates fly on even a low-end machine, and tracks load in seconds (restarts are instantaneous), even though the appearance of the game hasn't been compromised at all. Tracks are designed around postcard vistas like tropical beaches, historic countrysides, and snowy cliffs. Big jumps often trigger the camera switching to a panoramic view of the action, further emphasizing the attractiveness of the backdrops and adding a Fall Guy feel. In-game advertising is the only sore point. When you're logged in online, the scenery is marred by billboards. It's not like tracks are clogged with signage, though, and the ads are region-specific (in Canada, for instance, you get billboards for Rogers and those irritating Bell Canada beavers), so you might see something of interest. Still, having to endure commercials in a retail game is every bit as galling as having to sit through ads in movie theaters.
Audio quality almost makes you forget about the annoying sales pitches, at least. Atmospheric effects are dialed way down for what should be an over-the-top arcade game with lots of squeals and smashes, although the selection of great tunes on the soundtrack mitigates this minor issue. Each song matches its setting, so you get a nifty country honky-tonk in desert races, a scratchy hip-hop beat in the city, and so on.
Overall, TrackMania United has a dreamy, fantasy vibe that could fulfill a kid's slot-car dream. Veterans of the previous two games in the series might find it too much of a been-there, done-that sequel, but it's perfect for anyone who appreciates speed, imaginative track design, and a definitively offbeat take on running cars around in circles.