With the engine off, you could almost mistake TrackMania for a normal racing game. The car model is glossy and nicely detailed, and the tarmac of the road looks suitably rugged - despite the faint suspicion that the course has something strange planned as it heads towards the horizon. Then you put your foot down and your car comes to life. By the time you hit that first jump - the one that sends you zooming into the sky with almost nothing to hold you back - the TrackMania difference is clear.
One of the differences, anyway. TrackMania is about building as much as it is about racing. This is hair-trigger stuff: punchy Matchbox motors running over the most bizarre corkscrewing Scalextric tracks you can think to construct. It feels like it’s been part of the PC racing scene forever, and yet the latest game is the first true sequel.
And it’s a sequel in which returning players will immediately feel right at home. Driving on those narrow, intricate courses, nestled behind either a keyboard set-up or a control pad, your race will take you over huge jumps, through brain-jangling loop-de-loops, and up precarious wall-runs. Sure, TrackMania 2 will include damage modelling for the first time, but it’s kept things purely cosmetic. Nothing has been allowed to meddle with the fierce arcade predictability you need for these twitchiest of racing tracks - even if a little internal meddling has already given the cars a touch more weight as they lurch and drift around corners.
The new game’s called TrackMania 2: Canyon - or at least the first part of it is, as Ubisoft is approaching this as a platform, offering players the chance to buy additional content packs sometime after launch. Each pack will come with new scenery; Canyon offers a suitably rugged collection of red-rock mountain ranges and sun-blasted concrete dams, showing off the new game’s sharper texturing very well. But, as always with this game, the stuff that the developer has made is just the jumping off point.
Step away from the trackside itself, and the constructor screen is almost effortless to use. Graphical menus allow you to grab the tools you’ll be building with. Alongside an expanded selection of over 240 TrackMania blocks, there’s also a range of scenery options, spanning everything from clumps of trees to dinky little factories. You can now select and reposition groups of items at once if you’ve initially set them down in the wrong place.