By Alec Meer on September 21st, 2011 at 7:39 pm.
I’ve spent three or four hours playing Nadeo’s latest slice of science-defying racing absurdity – nowhere near enough to tell you conclusively Wot I Think, but plenty to witter about what I’m starting to think.
If there’s one factor that’s bedevilled the ever-joyous Trackmania series, it’s that naming conventions and cross-pollinated content has made it ever harder to work out exactly which one’s which. While the 2 here marks a chance to start with a clean slate, the series’ latter day focus on being a service rather than a self-contained entity means the confusion doesn’t quite go away. Initially, as a relatively casual player of Nadeo’s driving fantasy games, I struggled to quite appreciate that I was playing a different Trackmania to whichever the last one I played was. Be it product or be it service, Trackmania is also a state of mind, and 2 took me right back there. I knew how to play, and knew it well.
Of course, things are different in all manner of ways of you could dryly list on a webpage somewhere. The point is that it’s an evolution of what the community has made and demanded, but it’s sticking closely both to the spirit of the previous games and, in a way, to our mental conception of what they are/were. If I went back to Trackmania United now, I suspect it’d look weirdly small and low-key. In my mind, though, it looks like Trackmania 2 does: vast, sweeping landscapes, tracks composed of impossible architecture stretching to absurd heights, cars plunging to their incredibly short-lived doom in graceful metal cascades. Earlier Trackmanias only seemed to look like that. Trackmania 2 actually does look like that.
It’s a glorious sight, and it’s not purely aesthetic show-offery: it’s about realising the fantasy at the heart of this car game. This is about the dream of being a race driver, not the bland, cyclic, fussy reality of it. The laughably vast, mountain-high, man-made plateaus, the epic jumps from ramps that would cost millions to build, the science-breaking plunges through tiny holes in the sides of cliffs… What if anything could be built, no-one could die and cars could be replaced infinitely? That’s Trackmania’s world, and that’s because it is laser-focused on fun first, simulation second. Not even second, to be honest. More like 117th.
That said, the handling has changed from the skittish, almost weightless vehicles of yore, into something heavier, more focused on dramatic corner-slides and, unfortunately, unchanging. The game-as-service thing has me strongly suspecting new types of vehicle (and indeed of landscape – they’re not kidding when they call it ‘Canyon’. That’s all you’re getting, but the track types they build within this impressively John Waynian setting are reliably varied enough to keep this problem at bay) will be introduced and charged for in some way later, but right now you’re just there with a racecar you can repaint endlessly but not change model or tuning thereof.
This does mean that, in its current state, it seems to be far more a perfectionist’s game rather than a tinkerer’s game. That was always in the brain of Trackmania anyway, of course – shave off milliseconds in order to see your online rank go up – but now it really is all about mastering specific tracks rather than specific car types or varied challenges. Gone too are the absurdist puzzle modes, platforming with cars – players can create something in that vein with the Editor (something I haven’t looked at yet) but without an official mode, as it were, it does feel like the game’s had a major organ removed.
Despite its back-to-basics, almost puritanical approach, TM2 somehow manages to be incredibly confusing too. There’s a virtual currency system in there that it never bothers to explain, but before too long it’ll start talking about how many Planets you need even though you’ve not seen hide nor hair of even one. I’ve steered clear of that element so far, happy just to make my way through the 60-odd singleplayer challenges without worrying about my ranking, but the long-term meat of the game is in attempting to do these with ever-better times for ever-better rankings.
I stuck my nose into a few multiplayer bouts too, where the game’s no-collision, instant-restart philosophies instantly made themselves adorable. Tracks made of gigantic loops and deathly plunges could be filled with cars without anyone actually getting in the way of each other, but what they did do is try to follow each other, convinced that the guy ahead must know the best route around it. If he didn’t… well, then you’ve got a whole lot of cars plunging to their doom at once. In my wishful dreams, I will become amazing at TM2, then become a Pied Piper within it. The cars will follow me in their droves, in awe at my skill and desperate to ape it. Then I’ll drive into the sea, and they’ll come tumbling straight after me, and I will laugh at their cursing.
Of course, disaster in Trackmania is incredibly short-lived. The series’ single best feature has forever been the instant restarts, and that’s all present and correct. It becomes a reflexive, compulsive action to hit Backspace at even the hint of error, so quick it is to set you back at the start with a clean slate. Like I say, this is a perfectionist’s game: even I, as clumsy a man as you could ever meet, find it hard to brook any error, when I know I can immediately try again.
So, I will definitely be playing more: I’m overwhelmed in all the right ways by its tarmac-coated architecture, though I’m a little underwhelmed by how incremental an update it feels in some ways, especially as it’s actually removed a whole bunch of stuff in the process. It feels a little too modular, like there’s a lot still to be plugged in yet also like it’s been built for an existing community first and a more relaxed audience second, but at the same time it’s got that out-and-out joyful Trackmania magic in abundance. What if everything about driving a car was a giddy rush of speed and wonder, with none of the risk? That’s Trackmania.