Somehow, I’d gotten the wrong idea about the Trackmania series. I knew some of them were free (before free-to-play became the model of choice for so many games), but my impression was of a fairly standard racer with an emphasis on community participation.
Well, I was half right. Judging by the amount of people, servers and user-created tracks already present in the Trackmania 2: Canyon beta, there’s going to be no shortage of fellow racers or new courses to try. Many of the servers quite happily list “67 tracks” or more, and over a time period of about three hours, I’ve yet to drive on the same track twice.
As for the ‘fairly standard’ racer part, well, my misconceptions were joyously exploded as I took my first corner at speed, ramped up onto a narrow section of track and promptly drove off the edge into a deep ditch.
That was probably a one-off, I told myself.
That cannot be good.
Trackmania 2: Canyon is not a standard racer by any stretch of the imagination. It is like the late, great Stunt Car Racer reborn with more responsive controls, a massive multiplayer base and a near-endless potential for new, absurdist courses. By the end of each track, your car is likely to look like it was just pursued into a Paris underpass by some hungry Paparazzi. At one point, the bonnet (aka: the ‘hood’, US fans) of my car flew off simply because I was driving too fast.
As you’ll probably have ascertained by now, Trackmania 2: Canyon has no desire to be a simulator. This beta allowed me to choose between several cosmetic car designs (as well as create one myself), but there are no statistics about gearbox types or complicated graphs showing windscreen wiper arcs here. It’s all about rapid arcade racing on ludicrous, twisting stretches of asphalt and dirt.
The controls couldn’t be easier. With no gears to worry about, you just have an accelerator, break pedal and the good old handbreak turn. Unfortunately, having not played the previous Trackmanias, I can’t really comment on whether any changes or tweaks have been made to this system. All I can say is that the beta handling felt like a good, tight fit for Trackmania 2: Canyon’s high-velocity driving antics. It plays fine with either the default keyboard controls or a 360 controller (although it did interpret the buttons in a somewhat bizarre way; A to accelerate, LB for handbreak and Start for the horn? … sure, why not).
Most corners can be taken pretty easily if you ease up on the gas, but as you’re always aiming for the best possible time it’s tempting to push it just that little bit further. Do this, and you’re at serious risk of joining an impromptu space program or partaking in a spot of deep gorge mining.
That’s not really a problem though, thanks to Trackmania’s splendid instant-restart system. If you screw up and are unable (or unwilling) to recover, the click of a button will take you either back to the start of the race or to the most recent checkpoint. There are no load times, and no hanging around. Just straight back on with trying to conquer the track and a chance to shake your fist in the faces of the racing gods.
This works so well because the majority of the game’s modes are time-based in nature. Indeed, although the beta appeared to offer other modes of play, every single server I came across was running ‘Time Attack’. That’s not such a bad thing, because Time Attack is a lot of fun.
Every participating racer (and I’ve seen upwards of 30 on some servers) repeats a single lap of the track in an effort to get the best time possible. After a set period (usually four or five minutes), the podium is decided by who has the best time. There’s no penalty for restarting, other than the fact that the main clock is continuously ticking down. It’s also worth noting that there are no collisions between vehicles, so you only have to worry about being distracted by the motions of other drivers.
With so many user-constructed tracks on each server, you might be worried about a variance in quality. A slightly ropey course might pop up every now and then, but the community seems pretty good about self-policing the weaker entries. Many servers also feature a voting system, allowing you to rate tracks as they appear.
Editing plays a major role. As you can see from the image above (and previous screenshots), it’s possible to edit your car and indulge your most horrendous colour-clash fantasies. This is achieved through a relatively simple tool, allowing you to alter the base coat and ‘shininess’ of your ride and letting you add images, text or (in my case) random squiggles of colour over the top.
Rather more important in the grand scheme of things is the map editor. In the current beta, this appears to only be accessible in ‘advanced’ form (there’s also a ‘simple’ version, but this refused to work for me). Despite this setback, it wasn’t too tricky to put together a course. The main track pieces are rotated and dropped as individual blocks, so you’re basically constructing a virtual Scalextric track. Terraforming is possible too, if you fancy adding some terrifying cliff pathways or towering rock formations to dodge.
As the suffix to its title suggests, Trackmania 2: Canyon uses a canyon-based tileset for all of its courses, so get used to driving to a backdrop of coarse, desert landscapes and barren cliffs. More may well be on the way, but for now that’s all the game has.
Once you’ve cobbled together some sort of a track (you can see my efforts above), it’s a straightforward case of letting the game add some lighting and ‘validating’ the course. This just means driving around your own course to prove that it’s actually possible to finish.
In fact, here’s a video of me doing just that (apologies for any artifacts and stuttering, that’s my fault, not Trackmania’s).
Trackmania 2: Canyon is the first step in developer Nadeo’s ‘Maniaplanet’ project, which ultimately plans to encompass Shootmania (an FPS-creator based on the same model), Questmania (for RPGs) and Xenomania (where you play a renowned British songwriting team … unless I made that one up). In theory, it’s a great idea; bringing the same ease of creation of Trackmania to other genres. I can see it working for basic shooters, but I’m not so sure how it’ll cope with the complexity of RPGs.
For now though, Trackmania is the main focus and Canyon looks like it can’t really go wrong. There’s a substantial global community already playing the beta version, so there should be no worries about a lack of user-created material. Servers seem responsive and lag-free (there’s a handy tool that recommends nearby servers for you, based on the location you enter). The game also offers a fair amount of graphical options, so it should be possible to scale it to ageing hardware. It certainly ran fine on my six year old box.
If you fancy getting in on the on-going beta, it’s actually possible to buy-into by purchasing Trackmania 2: Canyon through the title’s website before its 14 September release date. It’ll set you back £20 GBP/$25 USD.