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 itís been part of the PC racing scene forever, and yet the latest game is the first true sequel.
And itís 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 itís 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 gameís 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 gameís 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 youíll be building with. Alongside an expanded selection of over 240 TrackMania blocks, thereís 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 youíve initially set them down in the wrong place.
The game handles annoying things like the niceties of putting in the corner pieces, meaning you can simply lay down the road and then switch to test mode to try it out with no fiddly bits to spoil your fun, and thereís an advanced constructor for people who want to get much closer to the design.
ManiaScript, meanwhile, is a tool that will allow veteran players to construct their own game types. Thatís where the future is, perhaps, but even the most basic editing options should be enough to keep a lot of people happy: TrackManiaís an instantly gratifying experience when youíre behind the wheel, and itís not too bad when youíre behind the scenes either.
Itís so gratifying, perhaps, because itís all being kept so simple - and itís all being kept so simple because itís now part of a much larger ecology. TrackMania 2ís destined for a life as just one part of ManiaPlanet, an ambitious online network that will see gamers getting out of their cars from time to time to play - and create - RPGs in QuestMania and FPS games in ShootMania. Tools, editors and even file types are similar across every game, by the looks of it, and if Canyonís anything to go by, fans of all three can expect the same clear-headed approach to design basics along with the option to buy new content over time.
With its twisting courses and its endlessly satisfying editor, it looks like TrackMania 2 is getting the balance just right, then. This is a game where the player base is expected to come up with a lot of the fun, certainly, but even those who donít want to turn designer will still be able to try out all the user-generated game types and levels, as well as race against both ghosts and friends in massive online tournaments.
The series has been building towards something like this ever since its first player laid down their first loop-de-loop: building towards a game thatís both focused and expansive, immediately charming and dizzyingly deep.