For me, it all started on my seventh birthday when I received a gift that would guide my interests for the next forty years: two Mattel Hot Wheels cars and some track to run them on. At the time, there were only a handful of cars available; it was, after all, 1968. And if the car selection left a bit to be desired, well, you wouldn’t believe the state of the track situation. Back then you could build any race course you wanted, as long as it was arrow straight. Yep, there were no turns back then. You built your track basically straight down the stairs, and gravity did the rest. Keep in mind, though, that this was a much more interesting way to roll things down the stairs than the former pass time: trying to get a slinky to “walk” all the way down without stopping prematurely.
With that humble beginning in mind, you might be better able to appreciate my never-ending awe at the multitude of options available today for those that want to create their own tracks and race on them. For the true aficionado, there are various third-party track editors that can be used to design and construct virtual models of real world race tracks, or for the more imaginative, completely original “fantasy” tracks for high-end simulators such as the SimBin series. Naturally, those editors come with a pretty steep learning curve and the effort to design and build a nice looking, functional track can easily become prohibitive. For the other end of the spectrum, the more casual builder that doesn’t want to spend six months building a track, there is TrackMania.
TrackMania, the first version of which came out five years ago, is by no means a racing simulation in the manner of SimBin’s Race and GTR series. Rather, it is more akin to the super box set of Hot Wheels cars. It comes with all of the track you could ever want, an easy to use track editor for putting together your own designs, and some cars to drive on your creations. Also included is a texture editor that will allow you to paint your own cars. Once completed, tracks can be uploaded to community servers for sharing amongst other players. There is also a multi-player component that allows players to race against track times set by other players from around the world.
With five years of incremental development under their belts, one would expect Nadeo to have pretty much reached the pinnacle of sophistication with the release of the latest version, TrackMania 2 - Canyon, and you would be correct. While the basic collection of capabilities remains essentially the same, the overall polish that comes with half a decade of work is apparent from the get-go. The first and most obvious feature is what put the “canyon” TrackMania 2 - Canyon: the tracks are built in an arid region reminiscent of the southwest territories of the United States, up to and including the stark canyons that are so common in that region. While that isn’t the first type of geography one thinks of when it comes to areas in which to build race tracks, it somehow feels just right. With all of those open fissures to work with, it seems natural to have vast open areas to jump over built right into a track as if it is the most common thing in racing to fly hundreds of yards through the air on every lap.
There are a few dozen tracks included right out of the box (to use an arcane expression) that can be used for the single player mode, but the real fun is in the track editor. There are two flavors of editor, one being a simplified model for novices, and the other being an advanced model for more experienced designers. In both cases, the designer is provided with collections of building blocks that can be spread across the desert environment in countless variations. Many of the blocks include inclined sections of track so it is a simple matter to design in all three dimensions. The blocks aren’t just plain sections of track, though. Most include highly detailed scenery objects too, such as grandstands, billboards, etc. All of this combines to make it childishly easy to create sophisticated and attractive race tracks once you get the hang of positioning the blocks so that they will fit together. Oddly enough, that seemed easier to do in the advanced editor since it allowed more latitude in moving the viewpoint to better show if blocks were in alignment both horizontally and vertically. In my first efforts, it was not uncommon to come up against completely unreachable portions of track. It’s easy to erase blocks and replace them, so there’s very little cost to trying new things until you get it just the way you want it.
Once you’ve built up a track to a usable state, you “validate” it by driving it over and over trying to set your best time. This is a matter of pride; if you eventually upload the track for other players to compete on, it is these validation times that they will be racing against. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I cackled with glee every time I beat the track developer’s best time in some of the tracks that I played in the singe-player mode, as if the guy that built it would be the most successful at racing on it. That’s as nonsensical as expecting Jack Nicklaus to win every golf tournament played on a course he designed, but it was still quite gratifying when I was able to better the time of the person that should have known the track the best.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the score that matters. The real challenge is racing against the times set by the thousands of other players worldwide that have driven on those tracks. That was far more humbling. Sure, being ranked 24,768 out of 43,543 means I was faster that 18,775 other drivers, but it was the 24,767 that were faster than me that rankled. And it didn’t help much to be ranked 263rd out of the 400-something players in my state, either. I felt almost as if I needed some kind of excuse for my poor performance....
I found that excuse in the controller. I was pretty disappointed to find TrackMania to be essentially uncontrollable with my Logitech G25, but I was even more disappointed with my first efforts using the XBox controller that I keep handy for just these sort of events. The controller worked fine for steering (in fact, I think this is the only game where I have been able to really use a good drifting technique), but it used buttons rather than the analog triggers for the accelerator and brakes. That was a bit of a shame and it made it difficult to finesse the car through turns that weren’t of a tight enough radius to benefit from a drifting style of turning. On the plus side, it’s a level playing field and the rest of the world was faced with the same challenge. Not that that helped my bruised ego any. It didn’t.
Having mastered (well, reached a level of low adequacy) the single-player mode, I tried out the online multi-player (as opposed to the local split screen multi-player available for the first time with this release) wherein I would be racing with up to 200 ghost cars driven by players from the far off reaches of the planet. It sounded like it would be fun, but I have to be honest: it wasn’t. The problem wasn’t so much with the crowd of other cars on the track, although I did find them to be distracting, but with the tracks themselves. Now this may come off as just the whinings of a spoiled, arrogant American, but I am simply used to roads that are, well, contiguous. In the multi-player mode, you find yourself unceremoniously dumped at the starting line, and within seconds you’re out of the starting gate and flying full-tilt at.... who knows what! I encountered tracks that would look like you were to follow the turn of the track but in fact were expected to fly off the edge of the road to jump to another piece of track, I found myself on tracks that just stopped and left me lost in the desert wilderness, and I tried to get through tracks that required me to make flights hundreds of yards long into a tiny slot placed in the middle of a gigantic, sheer, concrete wall. I never did figure that last one out. It didn’t take long for me to retreat back to the relative sanity of the single-player mode, although at the highest level I’m finding that I can’t get the car all the way around the loop-the-loop tracks either.
All in all, TrackMania 2 - Canyon is good, clean fun. The driving model, while not ultra-sophisticated, is very well tuned for the over-the-top action one finds when hundreds of thousands of players are turned loose with an easy to use track editor. The scenery is sharp and attractive, as are the default paint jobs on the cars. The frame rate is spectacular, especially considering the visual complexity and the fact that I’m using a five year old PC. The background music, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a way to mute, was distracting due to its similarity to the soundtracks of low-budget porn, but not to the degree that it was offensive. I would have liked to have been able to use a better controller and I didn’t get quite the thrill from the multi-player that I expected, but at the end of the day I found myself smiling as I knocked three seconds off my best time on a track I designed and built myself. And the fact that 24,767 other people will probably beat that time? Well, that’s just life.