The first time I read the title TrackMania United out loud in my head, I was pretty sure it was going to be all about racing. And with it would come its own share of fast cars, great sceneries, and anything from been-there, done-that to breath-taking cruise experiences.
Little did I know that this game was actually nothing like Need for Speed, Daytona, or Test Drive - let alone the uber realistic rFactor. TrackMania is actually an arcade racer series with a four-game family - TrackMania United, published by Focus Home Interactive (Loki, Silverfall, Sherlock Holmes), being the latest installment of this long running series.
So while casual racers rummaged through a wealth of racing simulations available, there was another racing game out there that was offering to relieve stressed racing fans from gear-shift grinds and offer something a tad different. And best of all, one of them was actually available for free.
French developer Nadeo had sculpted the series since the original TrackMania (not to be confused with TMO, or the TrackMania remake on the Sunrise engine, TrackMania Original) way back in to something some players are finding difficult to resist.
But the game's positive facets only showed up once you viewed TrackMania from a totally different angle, simply because it wasn't just a typical arcade racing game either.
Ready, steady, think, GO!
Of course, new players couldn't tell the difference once they found themselves squeezed into an adequately detailed all-terrain racer aimed down a standard fare, properly detailed course. So you probably couldn't blame me for not knowing any better and for playing like any struggling racing gamer would do - that is, gear-shifting my way to first place.
But as soon as I finished the first set of tracks, a new inkling began sinking in. It was rather strange that every succeeding track would not only demand competent driving skills but also a little of forethought. In fact, one track managed to find faults in my racing sim mannerisms and punished me for not having a plan in mind before slamming pedal to the metal.
Now this is where typical arcade racing fans will most likely get really confused. The racing style of TrackMania United is what you'd expect from a run-of-the-mill arcade game of box racers, with a few changes here and there. It will remind you of your slot car days as a child (or maybe even today), though you'll be behind the wheel of every racer available in-game.
It's likely that people getting into the game were expecting just continuous, non-Formula 1 savvy goodness, but TrackMania is more than just racing - its also about creating your own tracks (hence the crafty name). Thus, Nadeo twisted TrackMania United's game modes and mechanics around that idea.
Tallabeta Delights - making your own super speedways
TrackMania United also focuses on encouraging custom-created courses. This is 100% user content, as expected, and blows up the available content for TrackMania United to unbelievable proportions.
There's a myriad of user-made courses available online, ranging from the subtle, curvy track for the casual driver to the incredibly insane, technical track aimed at the hardcore racer. The online collection is a rough mixture of both - with some qualifying as in-between - available either on the official TrackMania Network and the user-created TrackMania Exchange.
But if you're more artsy than fussy, you may also create dramatic in-game videos of driving sequences across a full level. It's this fountain of creativity that spawns totally unique driving experiences for every map you download. And each one can also inspire you to create something reminiscent of your own driving tastes.
But Nadeo's approach to getting players 'round to making tracks has one requirement. The editor used to create the tracks is readily available offline, but in order to get the parts of the tracks you'll be putting together, you'll have to buy them online using in-game currency known as copper.
And you earn copper by completing the levels offered in TrackMania United's solo experience. How well you do on each level will determine how much copper you earn for every level you finish.
Hold on to your seats, gentlemen
And thus, we return once again to the game's "confuzzling" portion: the single player campaign. The whole game itself may not be centered on it, but it is where a newbie's first impression of the game are to be had. And strictly speaking, some players may not be satisfied at what the game offered in that mode alone, though there are two other modes.
Don't get us wrong: the game plays fast and fluid, with framerates never dipping below 40 for a mid-end PC. And its graphics are still defined in great detail, with objects in the distance having several levels of detail as you come closer to them. The physics, while definitely arcade-ish with considerable airtime in leaps, is actually on level with some racers available today.
But once a player sifts through a couple of tracks, he may find them surprisingly short - some even anti-climactic - and a little out of place at times. Though they're there to introduce the player to the possible tracks he can design, it's the idea that he needs to complete each one considerably well before buying some parts that might turn the mood sour.
The levels vary in theme, which also changes the vehicle (and of course, the handling of the vehicle), as the player progresses through the game. But without patience a racer might not touch this facet of the game, and that's pretty sad. Some good driving segments can be had at the later levels and themes (I'm a truck driver, I'm a truck driver!).
Putting "United" into focus - that's TrackMania United
So the true beauty of TrackMania United all boils down to three things: a growing international community that's amazingly friendly to newbies, a seamless multiplayer experience (with hot-seat play, gamepad support included) online or offline, and a never-ending collection of tracks you can chew into.
We can see how TrackMania United can capture audiences from Asia, Europe, and the US. The community itself was designed around the idea of addressing a worldwide audience, instead of a few select regions only. It attracted the attention of gamers from Dubai, Hong Kong, Rome, Cape Hope, Toronto, Brazil - and the list just keeps going.
And even though Nadeo has a new installment cooking in the kitchen, these people keep coming back to TrackMania Network, reveling in the world of arcade racing on custom tracks. And we're talking about TrackMania United - a game that was released more than a year ago.
Perhaps Nadeo intended the game to have this effect on players, thus dubbing it TrackMania United. If so, then the game actually achieved its purpose, and for US$ 30, it's worth a try. But if you find yourself wanting to play and yet you're skeptic of your own curiosity, you might want to wait for Nadeo's next offering, TrackMania Forever, which may come out later in the year.