Time is money, some say. That’s a mantra for fools. Time is time, and time is everything.
TrackMania 2: Canyon (TM2) is the central bank of time, storing it like precious metals, dispensing it carefully and always trying to take more of it from you. This game could be Exhibit A in the ‘are games addictive?’ debate; the point at which players and writers will be forced to give a Gallic shrug and say “Yeeeeah, I guess they are … but you know what? That’s great”.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the TrackMania style of play, here’s a quick run-down: lap times are all-important, cars cannot collide with one another (that might sound rubbish on paper, but it’s necessary) and real-life physics are banished in favour of stunt car calamity. Each race is based on skill and skill alone, because, cosmetic differences aside, every car is identical.
Solo play is a joy, with the emphasis squarely on (guess what) setting the best possible time. Medals are awarded on each track according to your performance in traditional hues of bronze, silver and gold (plus a special one if you beat the track developer’s time) and global rankings subsequently calculated and recalculated. 20 of the 65 tracks are available at first, with the rest unlockable at a sensible pace. You’ll breeze through the first couple of dozen, until courses begin to require gold medals on the previous few circuits.
Every fifth track is a five-lap course, but otherwise courses all take under one minute so it’s always a quick, easily-repeated process. This means there are no gruelling memory tests, but it also ensures that every single corner counts. When a gold medal time is under 20 seconds, you’ll begin to measure success in partial fractions of a half-milli-moment.
Most importantly, the racing feels tight. The TM2 cars have a newfound weight for the series and it works a treat. It’s a purely arcade racer, so all you have to concern yourself with is an accelerator, break, steering and the trusty handbreak powerdrift, but these simple options keep the playing field resolutely equal. Swerved off the racing line into a crash-barrier? Your fault. Missed a crucial jump and smashed into the side of a mountain? Your fault. Clipped a piece of rock, spun out of control, hit the next checkpoint and bounced over a cliff into the water? Your fault. And hilarious.
See what I mean?
The only time you can claim some sort of mitigating circumstance is when, as is occasionally the case, the title takes it upon itself to make your car drift ever so slightly to the left from a standing start (which seems to happen with both keyboard and gamepad controls).
Like previous TrackManias, TM2 has an instant-restart button that’ll reset you to the beginning of the course (with a blank time) or the nearest checkpoint (with the timer still running), so whatever screw-up you’ve just made can only ever momentarily delay a fresh assault on the lap times.
TM2 marries its rigid, meritocratic equality to the hyper-competitive nature of a multi-laddered reward structure. Every single action you take in the game is ranked and rated. Whether you’re finishing a course, playing a bit of multiplayer or frankly just dicking around, it’ll inevitably affect your global ranking in some way. At every step, you can compare and measure your driving self-worth with others from the world, your region or a hand-picked list of companions. In-course, you can race against ghost laps completed by people in any of those lists.
Here’s where the game makes one of very few mistakes. Once you’ve claimed a gold medal on any given course, you can try for an ‘official’ time that’ll be uploaded to the TrackMania servers for all to marvel at (or scorn, if you’re me). Unfortunately, you can only make one of these attempts every five minutes.
The theory behind this is twofold, Nadeo wants you to feel like the official attempts are a big deal (and to an extent this works, giving you suitably sweaty palms) and probably wants to avoid server overload.
It’s a defendable approach, but for a player who’s completed all the solo courses and has nothing left to do in single player except set official times it must be an irritant. The timer ticks away happily in menus, so you don’t have to literally sit on the track waiting, but it applies to all tracks, meaning once you’ve made an official attempt on one course (successful or not) the waiting period begins all over again. I don’t have a great suggestion for improving this system (while still preventing server strain and maintaining the pressure of official attempts), but the current method doesn’t feel ideal.
If you were hoping for more TrackMania puzzle or platform levels, these are gone from solo play (which is now about setting lap times, lap times and more lap times). Though it’s clear that Nadeo intends to release more material for TM2, there’s no guarantee this will include such levels (or that you won’t have to pay for them).
Of course, another returning (but still marvellous) aspect is the ability to build any kind of tracks for yourself. The editing tool is much the same as it was when I, with the addition of a ‘simple’ mode that reduces the number of tiles you can drop and presents a slightly less overwhelming interface. Advanced mode is moderately trickier, but is still based on selecting, rotating, raising and dropping blocks of track like a great big Hot Wheels set, so it’s possible to create quite complex and/or demented courses with a bit of experimentation.
You can see exactly how demented they can get by hopping on to one of the hundreds of multiplayer servers and sampling the thousands of community-created tracks out there. In theory there are different multiplayer modes available (Rounds, Cup and a couple of others) but in reality 99% of servers run Time Attack games.
Time Attack is pretty much a multiplayer version of solo play, featuring courses packed with other (un-collidable, remember) cars and an ever-changing leaderboard as people try to set the fastest lap time before an external timer of six minutes or so reaches zero. It’s terrific fun, especially when a horde of eager cars finds itself following a clueless leader up an ill-advised ramp and into temporary vehicular oblivion.
As is so often the case with multiplayer, it’s important to get on a server with reliable people who can recognise a decent track from a half-arsed circuit or impossible ‘gotcha!’ efforts littered with crash-bait (entertaining for a while, but these quickly become a bit old). If you’re not already part of an outside gaming forum with its own server (or similar) it might take you a short while to nail down some dependable locations to play, but it’s well worth the endeavour. It’ll likely be quite some time before you even play the same track twice.
Local multiplayer is possible too, offering hotseat modes or the now all-too-rare option of split-screen.
With so much of TM2 being clear and concise, the more obtuse elements of the interface stand out like a car with crudely painted flames on its side. At various points in the game (after winning a medal, say) you’ll be rewarded with some in-game currency called ‘Planets’. These are spent on activities like setting up friends groups (itself a bit of a chore) and … well … probably other things too.
The point is, the game is merrily silent on what exactly you can do with them. By the time I actually came to spend any I’d gathered about 6,000 of the things (more than enough for the 200 odd I was spending) so they’re not exactly restrictive, but they feel oddly irrelevant at present.
Nadeo has a grand plan to launch additional community-driven games through its online ‘ManiaPlanet’ platform (of which TM2 is the first), so I’d imagine the Planets will be of more value when titles like ShooterMania get underway, or fresh material appears for TM2.
It’s less easy to explain why the game sometimes obfusticates information that seems as if it should be a fair bit clearer (why, for example, can’t I have a simple display of which medals/times my friends have got on each solo track instead of a kind of amalgamated summary?), and why the replay editor is the evil, Satan-worshipping twin of the track editor’s ease of use.
Those are tiny annoyances, engaging the mind for about as long as it takes you to think “oh well” and have another go at securing that elusive final gold medal, or start work on your next masterpiece of course creation. This review has honestly been a bit of a struggle to write; not because there’s any shortage of things to say about TM2 but because I simply want to get back to playing it.
Aside from improved visuals and the (admittedly rather welcome) handling changes, there’s no radical departure from the TrackMania formula here. If you read that as a criticism then, well, maybe you’ve already overdosed on previous releases. For everyone coming fresh to the track, TM2 is a rapid-paced, rapid-restart extravaganza and still an absolute delight.