Reviewed: July 5, 2004
Released: June 24, 2004
Anyone here old enough to remember a game called Hard Drivin’ or perhaps Race Drivin’ back in the days of arcades. It was one of those big sit-down-behind-the-wheel games where you raced a car around a stunt track and if you made it through the checkpoints you could keep earning bonus time and keep playing.
A few years later the PC got their own version of this game called Stunt Driver, but rather than replicate the arcade experience Spectrom Holobyte (anyone remember those guys) included a stunt track editor that essentially gave this game eternal life. Over the course of the 2-3 years I actively played Stunt Driver I created nearly 200 tracks and some of my fondest racing memories.
But that was nearly 20 years ago, and while I still have those floppies full of track files lying around (somewhere), I never dreamed I would get to have that much fun on my PC again…until now.
TrackMania is the hot new arcade racing title about to hit the US from overseas courtesy of Enlight Software. One glance at the box had me flashing back to those wonderful days spent designing, laying out, and then racing my own custom racetracks, because just like the games that obviously inspired this latest racer, TrackMania is just as much about designing the tracks as racing them.
Despite this title’s emphasis on track design there is a substantial game with multiple modes awaiting the casual arcade racing fan. Yes, this is arcade racing so leave your steering wheels and pedals under the desk and break out that gamepad. You can probably muddle your way through this game with a keyboard but a nice analog gamepad like the Saitek P2500 works wonderfully.
Solo gamers will want to tackle the Series races where you can try to break records, earn medals, and collect “Coppers”. As you complete each race in a series the next event unlocks. You can race each event as often as you like, trying for better medals and more prize money. The included tracks get increasingly more challenging the deeper into the game, and you will need to watch your speed on critical jumps and maintain straight racing lines on elevated tracks with no barriers where one slip can knock you out of the race.
The Survival mode is a very cool concept. It presents all of the tracks in a BINGO card style interface. You are allowed to choose from 2-3 randomly selected tracks spread across all three environments. Your goal is to place at least 3rd out of the four cars or trucks to advance to the next round. If you place in first or second you are allowed to "skip" tracks of your choosing in the next selection phase. You keep racing until you come in last place or retire from a race.
Puzzle mode is quite clever and actually makes a game out of the track editor. You are given the start and finish lines and a selection of track pieces and you must connect the two ends using only those pieces available to you. There are multiple solutions to each track puzzle and once you complete the track you get to race on it. The trick is that in order to get the “best time” on a puzzle track you have to create the optimum route and drive like a pro.
Creating your own tracks is wickedly addicting and totally fun. The track editor couldn’t be easier with an intuitive interface that allows you to pan and rotate the screen and lay down sections of track. Anyone with any experience in the “roller coaster construction set” genre will feel right at home here. There are also plenty of unique track pieces (more than 2000) that you can purchase from TrackMania shop using your prize money (coppers), and some of the very rare pieces must be unlocked in the Puzzle mode.
One interesting twist to the reward system is that prize money can only be used to buy blocks for the environment they were won in. There are three environments, Snow, Rally, and Speed, so if you win a bunch of coppers in the Snow races you can only use that money to unlock building blocks for snow tracks.
TrackMania offers multiplayer support for up to four people on one machine (taking turns) or you can play on a LAN or over the Internet. You can also share your track designs and create custom challenges and share those as well. Considering the game hasn’t officially been released in the U.S. yet, I was surprised to find no less than 50 people online at any given time when I wanted to play online. The community seems very strong at this early point and should really take off in June.
Visually, TrackMania is surprisingly good. Even though you are racing on tracks that resemble roller coasters more than NASCAR ovals there are some really great textures, not only in the track pieces, but the environments, and even the subtle details on the cars. Water shines and reflects and you get that heat-reflection from the tarmac. Dust kicks up on the desert tracks and snow and ice create a slick and challenging driving surface. You’ll see the trucks and muscle cars careen around corners bouncing on independent suspension, and the animation whips by at solid framerates, even at 1600x1200 resolution.
The car graphics are excellent with a nice variety of paint schemes and decals. You get to pick your favorite car for each of the three types of racing. There is also a feature that lets you pick an icon to represent yourself online. The include icons are all variations of smiley faces but you can create your own to give your online presence a more personal touch.
The interface for the track designer is well-organized and easy to use and the menus full of track sections and decorative landscape features are nicely done. The menus are simple yet informative show your which races you have won and how many bronze, silver, and gold medals you have earned in each series.
The audio presentation is merely adequate. There seems to be only one theme song per environment so by the time you race the ten or so races in each environment you will be sick of the music. Thankfully, the options allow you to turn the music down or off. You might even want to get you MP3 or CD player running in a background window, especially when you settle in for a lengthy track design session.
The engine effects are pretty much all that’s left and those sound really good, whether it’s the high-pitched whine of the rally car or the throaty roar of the General Lee look-alike. You also get the typical squealing tires and the sliding sounds of the cars as they skid across ice, snow, and gravel.
TrackMania is one of those games that will sit on your hard drive longer than anything else in your game collection. It’s easy to pick-up and play when you have a few minutes or a few hours. I’ve had the game just over a week now and I’ve honestly played it every day, even if it was just to do one or two challenges or tinker with a track design.
The online community is really taking off and there are already over 1000 user-created tracks already online. Combined with the 52+ tracks that come with the game, TrackMania is only over when you stop playing it, and it won't be for lack of content. Even if you don't have the skills or desire to build your own crazy stunt tracks you'll find countless hours of gameplay with all of the downloadable content.
Guaranteed to delight and entertain all who play, this is one of those rare games that is fun for the entire family. Whether you are looking for a quality arcade race experience, challenging puzzles, an in-depth racetrack design tool, or all of the above, TrackMania is one game you won’t want to miss out on. Once you start playing it you just can't quit.