TrackMania United Reader Review
United is the fourth game in the Trackmania series, an online arcade racer for the PC sustained by a relatively small but dedicated community, particularly in continental Europe. United, which is currently only available to buy online and download, is an amalgamation of the previous incarnations but with a graphical and front end tune-up. It can be played offline, but it's essentially a community game, so that would be missing the point. The concept is quite unique amongst racing games - you race against your opponents, but they are ghost cars so there are no collisions between players. You simply race for times, for the fastest lap, like an elaborate qualifying session but without the Schumacher style 'mishaps'. If you crash, it's your own fault and therein lies the essence of the game: The only limiting factor is your own ability, or lack of.
Jump onto a server and you get a set amount of time, usually around 5 minutes per track, to put in your best time. One of the most impressive design features is that if you do screw up, you can instantly reset yourself back to the start line. You'll screw up a lot, everybody does, but there's no wasting time completing a crappy lap. It's about the pursuit of perfection, the Holy Grail that is the 'perfect drive'. It's about fine technique and control, choosing the right line, nailing every corner, and positioning yourself perfectly with every jump, loop and wall ride. 'Wall ride?!' Ah yes, I was coming to that.
You see Trackmania isn't just about racing down straights and round bends. A typical track might have you driving at 800 miles an hour along a vertical wall, through loops and jumps, across turbo boosts and a finishing with a 360 degree reverse roll with pike. But whilst it certainly isn't a simulation of any real life sport, the cars handle perfectly predictably, sliding when you corner with too much speed, losing speed if you don't nail a jump, responding believably to gravity, with added arcade touches like a small degree of mid-air control. You'll spend your time trying to identify where you are losing speed compared with your opponents. 'How on earth did he manage to beat me by 0.21s? I must be braking too much on the approach to that tight left'. Sometimes a track won't even let you make a jump unless you're on a near-flawless drive.
There are literally thousands of tracks created by the online populous, filling the entire spectrum of quality. Creating a track is simple using the marvelous in-game editor, creating a great track is another thing altogether, requiring patience and imagination in large quantities. There are some first class track designers in the community creating some truly inspired tracks, that when driven well provide an exhilarating satisfaction that's rare in the gaming world. The key is to find a few servers you like with a good range of quality tracks (look for the ones that are usually pretty full, particularly in France and Germany). There are some tracks which have taken on legendary status, and it's nice when these are dropped into a playlist occasionally. Be warned though, most good tracks are pretty unforgiving, and there are newbies complaining in the chat channel.. I've never really practised a game in my life before I played Trackmania.
I've always taken the rather arrogant view that I'm a more than competent gamer, certainly in my social circle and the few online games I play. Trackmania humbled me to begin with (look to the amazingly free TM Nations as the best place to begin), it took a few weeks, well - to be honest, months before I was fully in tune with the nuances of the game, and there still remains at least a couple of echelons of players above my level - the online ranking system always lets you know where you stand. But that's the great thing about this game, if you're anything like me and you hate knowing there are people out there better than you - it makes you want to improve, to prove to yourself that you can match them. It's a rigorous test of gaming skill, nerve and concentration, but on the occasions that you best these opponents, you will feel truly proud of yourself. Are you up to the challenge?
9 / 10