I’m not a racing guy, either in gaming terms or even in sporting terms. That said, one of my favourite games of all time, hands down, is Wipeout 2097. Man, the hours lost, the Red Bull consumed, and the ringing in my ears that continues to this day because of Prodigy’s Firestarter... well, you get the idea.
I’ve always thought I’d never find a game that would beat that – even later Wipeout titles – but, oddly along has come TrackMania 2 and made a fool of me. It’s an amazing exploration of not only how far you can strip back a racing game to its core components, but also the kind of craziness you can pack in with just a bit of imagination.
Stripping it back
To say that TrackMania2’s controls are simple is possibly the biggest understatement in gaming. Basically, it’s this – you go fast, you slow down; you turn left, you turn right. In fact, the control scheme is so simple that you can in fact play the game one-handed; which, you know, is great if you like to game while also performing grip-strength exercises.
However, do not for one minute think that simplicity in control means no complexity in execution. Every tap of the breaks pretty much lets abruptly turn into a slide, effectively a handbrake turn without needing the handbrake. Combined with a range of grippy (or not so) surfaces to hoon around on, the challenge of the game appears. And it’s pure challenge, too, as developer Nadeo has opted to let all players use the one vehicle. You can choose an array of skins, and make your own, but the underlying handling is identical. This creates a level playing field and strips back every race to pure skill, not a bitching match between players fighting about which engine or kitout is best.
About the only other mechanic is how simple it is to restart a race when you inevitably crash out. One key, and you respawn – again, simple, and again, a great design choice. In singleplayer modes, earning medals goes from easy to ‘Oh God, kill me now” hard, so having the ability to quickly easily restart a map when you go a touch too wide is a Gods-send.
So what about the actual racing?
Messing you up
Thinking back to Wipeout, one of the great things about that game was the impossible tracks. You could tackle some really out there tracks in those super-fast hover racers, but I really do think if you took a pilot from that game and dumped him or her into TrackMania2, they’d go nuts and shoot themselves in a few hours.
This game is nuts.
TrackMania2 does for physics what some crazy thing did for some otherwise staid other thing. Racetracks twist, turn and then turn upside down. You’ll be banking up walls so steep that a Nascar racer would cry just thinking about it. And you’ll crash, rince, repeat and do keep doing so.
The singleplayer stuff is challenging, and unlocking new maps and earning medals is certainly a great way to train, but the real game’s online. TrackMania2 is a stat-tracker’s dream, as it lets you look at folks in your state, country and all over the world to beat. Want to be the fastest racer in New South Wales – can do. If you’re good enough. There’s a mess of race modes from outright challenges to cross the line first to timetrials, and they’re all made hella fun by that combination of simplicity and ease of restarting. Given you can aim for fastest on track, fastest time point, fastest in state, country and so on... there’s a lot to race for. Shaving off microseconds suddenly has real meaning.
You’ll cling to that meaning, too, when you start playing on player-made maps. The TrackMania2 map-making tools are robust and pretty easy to master (though the scripting is beyond us), but the results defy easy description. Suffice to say, your brain will hurt.
But in a good way, and you’ll most definitely come back for more. Hopefully the local playerbase will grow a bit more, as for now it can still be a bit hard to find players online – hear me?