Version tested: Wii
TrackMania and Wii make for unlikely bedfellows, even if, as you launch off one of the game's gargantuan ramps, the console's name is the first thing your inner child wants to yell. It's an unusual match because TrackMania is a pretty harsh mistress: the finest of margins separates winners and losers, a single gentle nudge of the analogue stick often the difference between total success and complete failure. In other words, it's bloody hard.
Therefore it doesn't really seem like the kind of game your average Wii owner is going to be interested in. But then Nintendo's expanded audience is probably not the market Focus Home Interactive is aiming at. Believe it or not, some of us Wii owners actually relish a challenge, and those that do are in for a treat. Whether those same players will feel quite so pleased after their umpteenth attempt at Rally C5 is another matter.
If you've never played a TrackMania game before, you might be surprised to learn that it's not really a racing game in the traditional sense. You can see your opponents, sure, but they're ghosts rather than obstacles, simply representing the three times you have to better to achieve bronze, silver and gold medals. The idea is to beat them all in very short point-to-point races, get the gold and move on. Simple.
Well, it is to begin with. Practice tracks are fairly straightforward affairs, offering a few gentle turns, perhaps one or two bumps and the occasional small ramp, but you'll still need to be careful not to make mistakes if you want the gold medal. One misjudged corner is all it takes to see the pack whizz past - or even through - you, and we're talking about the easiest setting here. From here on in, it only gets tougher. There's no tutorial as such, you learn by doing: the best way to eradicate carelessness from your game.
There are six different racing environments, each with a different vehicle type whose handling model must be mastered before you can attempt the tougher stages. In the Stadium levels, the miniature F1 car hugs the track tightly but cornering can be tricky at speed. The Island tracks pass by in a blur as your super-fast sports car glides impossibly around sharp corners and catches some serious air off the world's biggest ramps.
Pick-ups chug around the Snow levels, boosted by acceleration strips across the track, while the comically large Roadsters almost take up the entire width of the narrow coastal circuits. Rally and Desert tracks are some of the toughest to master, the former slowing and skidding should but a single tyre encroach onto the grass, while the desert tracks often see you take bends on two wheels with a car that's all too easy to oversteer.
You'll need to learn the idiosyncrasies of every one if you want to access the later levels, as there's only a certain number of gold medals you can miss in each difficulty level to access the next. But by the time you've finished the patronisingly-named Practice stages, each a mere thirty seconds long at most, you'll already be hooked on the pursuit of gold.
Just as there's a fine dividing line between first place and second, TrackMania constantly walks a tightrope between addiction and frustration. One feature keeps it from teetering over the wrong side, and that's the instant restart. Jab the minus button on the remote and you can immediately try again. As in the similarly tricky Trials HD, you'll learn to do it the second you make a mistake, because in that awful moment you know that on anything above the lowest difficulty, the race is lost.
Lightly brushed a wall? Restart. Missed the optimum angle of approach on a jump? Restart. Skidded a tiny bit round that last bend? Restart. Before you know it, a quick go has turned into an epic war of attrition: you versus the track.
Having completed the Easy tracks - no mean feat in itself - you'll unlock the Medium difficulty, which is really where TrackMania literally and metaphorically drives you loopy. Tracks get longer, harder and more intricate, even the bronze medal AI drivers post seriously competitive times, and the tiniest of errors can ruin an otherwise perfect run. Your telly will likely be subjected to a regular tirade of foul-mouthed abuse, and at some point you may well consider stamping on your stupid Wii remote. At which point, it's probably high time you explored the other game modes.
The Track Editor will be some players' first port of call, perhaps because those of us old enough to remember it will be reminded of their first time constructing a Scalextric kit. The tools are flexible, the tutorials thorough, and the interface is simple enough to make complex tracks a relatively painless process (even if it's probably a good deal quicker and more intuitive on the DS game).
Once you've validated your first track (simply by driving around it) you unlock the Puzzle mode, a brilliant mix of construction and racing. The idea is to create the fastest route from start to finish with a limited set of track pieces, ensuring they pass through all the checkpoints on the way. Initially there's only one way to solve each puzzle, but they get progressively more fiendish. It's just a pity they're so limited in number - just 21 in all - in comparison to the races.
The final mode on offer is the Platform mode, where gold, silver and bronze are achieved not through the fastest times but the least number of retries. Levels here almost resemble stages from a Sonic game, with looping sections of track, speed boosts, huge jumps and giant bumpers to swerve around. The vehicular acrobatics triggered vague memories of Geoff Crammond's Stunt Car Racer in this former Amiga lover, though that might be because it was three in the morning and I was starting to see funny colours in front of my eyes after 32 attempts at the same level. By this stage I was definitely addicted, but not entirely sure whether I was still enjoying myself.
And that's TrackMania all over. At heart, it's a big bundle of contradictions. It's a game with dozens of crazy tracks which forces you to jump through hoops simply to get to them. It's a game where you wonder whether you're on the ideal racing line while midway up a half-pipe the size of a skyscraper. Its cars are fairly bland in look but gloriously quirky in feel, while the wackiest track designs you'll encounter in any racer are couched in sterile environments. In short, it takes having fun extremely seriously. As long as you've got the patience to handle it, you'll find that's no bad thing.
7 / 10