Too often the racing game genre is discussed with broad, sweeping generalisations that fail to differentiate between the frankly gigantic variety of titles. Sure, we might call them 'racing games', but outside of aiming to cross a finish line what on Earth do Gran Turismo 5 and Mario Kart Wii have in common? Yet still, we comfortably sit them under the umbrella of 'racing games'. Okay, so when we get down to the nitty gritty we can pick apart the bones and see what they're really made out of. But still, the point is the 'racing game' genre is home to a fairly robust library of significantly different titles, and whether you're into your realistic simulators, or your chaotic party games, there's something for everybody.
So where does TrackMania 2: Canyon fit in? Somewhere between the aforementioned two titles, with an additional lean towards the often undersung glory of arcade racing. Take a quick glance at TrackMania 2 and you'll see realistic looking environments and cars, and a seemingly traditional racing formula. Spend a minute with the game and you'll find yourself speeding around corners at breakneck speeds, soaring across ravines, and defying gravity as you drive across a wall. Realism is nowhere to be found in TrackMania 2, instead drawing its inspiration from a heritage of manic arcade gameplay.
Anybody who has played any one of the original TrackMania games will know the scoop, but for those catching up here's how you play the game; you drive forward, you steer left and right, and occasionally break to prevent yourself slamming into a wall. Yep, it's that simple. The series forgoes ultra complex simulation and an abundance of button combinations for back-to-basics controls. But don't be fooled by this simplicity. The reason for simplistic controls is to give players solid ground to manipulate their vehicles, as mastering corner drifts to maintain maximum speed and balancing the perfect launch from a ramp with a clean landing demands a high level of player control.
Unlike a traditional racer where coming first is 'good enough', the arcade roots of TrackMania 2 makes the game all about race time. The goal is to either complete however many laps are required, or simply make it to the finish line of one long track, as fast as humanly possible to match bronze, silver or gold medal requirements. Though achieving gold is fairly easy on the early tracks, the difficulty quickly ramps up and you realise why having simple, precise control over your car is so important. This is the kind of game where shaving off half a second around that tricky bend and can make the difference between silver and gold, and so highly responsive, simple controls are of the utmost importance.
This style of racing might sound tedious, but Nadeo's heart is in the right place, and they know exactly what it takes to make this arcade gameplay addictive. With the stroke of a single button players can reset their wayward cars back on the track, and with another start the race over entirely. Don't be surprised to find yourself restarting a race multiple times until you make a perfect jump, a non-issue given the short and snappy nature of majority of the courses, lending more evidence to Nadeo's know-how on making a true arcade game.
One of the more interesting components of TrackMania 2 is the manner in which it is structured, as a unique community driven experience blurring the lines between traditional single and multiplayer offerings. Though standard medals are awards for solo play, players are able to load in ghost data of multiple other racers and use them as benchmarks for besting race times. This ghost data is loaded from the game's group and scoreboard features. Basic scoreboards and ghost data is loaded from regional settings allowing us, for example, to go head-to-head with the top ten best times of all Victorian players, but with a few clicks players can find new groups to join, or even create their own, to share scoreboard data and ghost times with a specific group of people.
A heavy community focus, streamlined for simplicity, is one of TrackMania 2's greatest charms, creating a surprisingly strong sense of community without too much effort on the players part. Those not interested in joining groups and loading ghost data are likely to feel left out though, as the solo medal system of TrackMania 2 is fairly bare bones. Medals must be awarded to unlock courses for use in both single and multiplayer, and though the intention to give some kind of unlock progression to the single player is good, it is in reality quite pointless, as most players will be eager to jump right in and race, not spend time unlocking all the tracks.
Granted, these qualms about unlocking tracks are soon forgotten once the community aspects takes hold. TrackMania 2 isn't just about racing with your friends and other TrackMania 2 fans, it's about sharing, building and creating. Like previous TrackMania titles, TrackMania 2 ships with a fully featured track editor, offering both simplified and advanced tool set options. Racing the stock standard maps is fun, but creating your own is another joy entirely. Best of all, the editor is quick and easy to learn, and single click test mode allows you to try out your latest creation in its current state without a single pause or load.
Looking beyond the track editor, TrackMania 2 also encourages players to personalise their profile and cars. The latter of which includes a snazzy decal and paint tool to create your own patters and car style. Unlike the track editor, we found the car personalisation tool much clumsier to learn and use, lacking the same intuitive control scheme features. However, with a little patience and learning, players will be able to whip up some great looking paint and decal jobs that separate their wheels from the other schmucks.
Outside of the hybridised solo and multiplayer modes, as well as the community focus, we were pleasantly surprised to find TrackMania 2 supporting local multiplayer modes, including the often forgotten yet immensely enjoyable split screen. Though the PC platform isn't as well suited to split screen as your traditional consoles, there's no reason a game with basic controls like TrackMania 2 couldn't support the feature on a single keyboard. It's nice to see Nadeo feel the same way, offering a feature far too many PC games do not.
Powering TrackMania 2 is a fantastic graphics engine that manages to render huge draw distances and tons of cars on screen, all at a silky smooth frame rate. Numerous scalable graphics options are available for those with older hardware looking to squeeze as much performance out of the engine as possible. Regardless of chosen graphical settings, TrackMania 2 manages to be quite the looker, thanks to a lovely attention to detail on the cars, tracks and surrounding environments. Speaking of which, we would have liked to see more variety in locations, as implied by the game's 'Canyon' subtitle. The majority of the game's locales are just that - ravines, canyons and other desert style environments. Given the budget price of the package it's a small complaint, but certainly makes the prospect of expansion packs to spruce up the variety quite welcome. We were also a bit disappointed with the audio, not so much the production values of what's there, but again the variety.
As polished as the engine is, TrackMania 2 does slip up a bit on the user interface. The previously mentioned accessibility differences between the two editors spreads across to general menu management and setting up races, with some features of the game quick to access and customise, and others requiring a little trial and error and menu exploring to work out. Though far from a disaster, the game's front end, as a whole, is somewhat lacking the tight accessibility that one would expect from an arcade game, and could do with a few tweaks here and there.
It seems that a lot of developers these days have abandoned classic, arcade style gameplay in favour of 'realism' and 'cinematic' experiences, and so it is thankful that games like TrackMania 2 are around to fill in the gaps. It's a game that prides itself on a history of grounded arcade mechanics, fueled by leader boards and addictive OCD gameplay where a slightly improved lap that knocks off 0.05 of a second can separate first from second place. It calls back to a time of slotting coins in arcade machines, and getting a 'quick fix' of gameplay that's easy to learn, quick to start, yet hard to master. Cherry on top community aspects evolve the arcade roots to a modern era, taking the traditional arcade cabinet leader boards to a digital word to allow gamers all across the world to compare and share.
And though it might slip up a little in its overall presentation and featured content, TrackMania 2 doesn't present itself as a AU$95.00 retail release. Instead, the entire TrackMania 2: Canyon package, with the promise of future updates, is available for purchase and download for a measly US$24.99 (~AU$24.09). A budget price for a far from budget game promises fans of arcade gaming will get all their dollars back in great entertainment, and then some.