What's the meanest, most brutal driving game around? There was a time when, fresh from a stint in the untamable Ferrari 312 around classic Spa in Grand Prix Legends, I would have told you that it's always been Papyrus that have been the masters of cruelty, happy to nonchalantly flick you off the track should you be so absent-minded as to not get enough temperature in the brake pads. Then there have been other times when trying to duck and dive through the blandly realized British countryside that I'd tell you that it's Richard Burns Rally that's the real bastard - get a hundred yards down any of those roads without scoffing the scenery and you can consider yourself a pro.
There's only one real answer, though, and it's one that crystallized for me when soaring through drinkably blue skies for the umpteenth time at an improbable angle while trying to land an impossible jump. TrackMania always has been the toughest racing game around, and it likely always will be. Nadeo's sprawling PC odyssey punishes with beautiful skill, and it's a legacy that's carried on well by Valley, the third official expansion for 2011's TrackMania sequel.
At the heart of this expansion is the same toned arcade driving that's defined the series, and it's no less brilliant here. Valley introduces new tracks with a rally tilt, its insane ribbons of dirt and tarmac pounded by a squat car that looks like an aggressive, muscular and contemporary take on a Renault 5 Turbo. It drives as it looks, too - fast and to the point, its squat rear can be flicked out with more ease than Canyon's more pendulous motors, and when on the loose stuff all it takes is a quick lift of the throttle to get the whole thing sideways.
Compared to the scalpels that cut through Stadium's scenery there's less precision here, though they turn more severely than the beasts that prowled Canyon. It's a fun middle-ground, essentially, that the 65 new solo tracks do well to explore, winding through crisp late summer countryside dappled in vivid light. It's a looker, is Valley, and the shockingly handsome visuals introduced in Canyon have certainly never looked better: foliage is dense, the clouds look almost edible and the cars shine like fresh, premium toys.
Beneath the pretty boy visuals, though, is a thirst for fenders and a desire to get you tapping busily away at the reset button. Among the solo track set the less than deliciously named C13 is Valley's own alternative to Canyon's A08, a steep sharp lesson in TrackMania's own quirky physics that's about mastering flying just as much as it is driving, and the wilder behaviour on dirt combined with some savage scenery placement makes for a new and often ferocious challenge.
It's fitting, actually, that some of TrackMania's most memorable tracks carry such functional names. Valley's a game of crisp design when up and running, but it's surrounded by a front-end and UI that's stubbornly, almost heroically atrocious. So poor are the menus and so clumsy the ManiaPlanet interface that houses them that it's almost as if Nadeo's wearing them like a badge of messy honour.
For an experience reliant on content produced by its community it's a rough road that must be mastered. The implementation of Steam Workshop for Valley smooths things a little, but even then Nadeo manages to conjure up some unnecessary bumps. You can download tracks found while browsing through the Steam Store, but they're then deposited within the ugly nest of TrackMania 2's menus without you getting so much as a pointer as to where that might be. Tracking them down becomes an unwelcome puzzle game, so I hope you won't mind if I spoil the solution - they're in the Local Play menu.
It's a shame to see the one addition Valley's made beyond its cars and courses stumbling a little, and leaving TrackMania as obtuse a proposition for the outsider as ever. Beyond the straight thrill of earning medals in the campaign's time-attack lies a web of possibilities that takes a little too much dedication and practice to untangle, and Nadeo's not about to start explaining its strange, twisted magic any clearer.
Once you're in it's hard to be frustrated, though, and sometimes the aesthetic strangely works. Sitting in a multiplayer match with its multiple multicolour menus is a little like finding yourself lost in a cascading GeoCities page. When the timer starts clicking down, though, and you're swallowed by the swarm of overlapping cars excitedly sniffing out split second gains, and when the thick sun breaks over the impossible crest of a skyward road, a certain dishevelled Gallic charm snaps into focus. TrackMania 2 Valley's another Nadeo title as brilliant as it is scruffy, and I wouldn't want it any other way.