Last night I spent most of the evening attempting to transfer over expanses of water using huge half-pipes, carefully measuring the hastening effect of boost pads against my trajectory and trying to avoid ending up in the water - or on my head.
Well, on my car's head.
This is Platform mode. A new addition to TrackMania Sunrise - follow-up to the PC cult favourite - it's the first of two brand new game modes, and involves negotiating ridiculously large jumps, half-pipes and intricate arrangements of platforms and boost pads without landing on your roof and having to reset your car to the track. The fewer times you reset to the last checkpoint, the better the medal you're awarded - with a gold reserved for those miracle attempts that unfold without a single rollcage moment. It's cars brilliantly masquerading as skateboards.
For me Platform mode pretty much exemplifies the appeal of TrackMania. Playing Platform mode is compulsive. The more you play it, the more you want to do it perfectly; the more you find yourself reaching for the Del key to warp back to the start point and try and get the routine completely right. Each level is a cleverly constructed maze of ramps, jumps and other obstacles that are tough to negotiate and even unravel, and which require countless quick-fire attempts to learn and overcome.
As you make progress it throws up even more challenging arrangements and demands not just skilful manipulation of the car but a certain amount of lateral thinking. On one level, for example, the only way to progress is to get through a large window located halfway up a vicious quarter-pipe, but there's no obvious way to get through by just running at it - whatever the angle. The key, it turns out, is to use a seemingly ornamental half-pipe nearby. Hit it at the right speed and angle, however awkward it seems, and you can propel your car through the gap and roll to a neat stop. Hopefully.
It fits in perfectly because it's attractive in exactly the same way as the series' surviving modes Puzzle and Race. It's all about starting with no idea and then gradually getting it as right as possible. Puzzle mode involves experimenting by placing track pieces until you've linked start and finish posts as efficiently as possible - and then putting in a performance on the track you've constructed that brings you home within tight time constraints. Race mode gives you a complicated track to begin with and demands that you master its layout, quirks and shortcuts if you aim to get the Gold. Platform is about feeling out the route, working out how to use the track layout to make any progress at all, and then trying and trying again until you get it right.
TrackMania, in essence, is about working things out for yourself and then using quick-fire trial and error attempts to test a supposition, and Platform uses the same approach to the same effect - thanks to the game's near-instant reset-to-start function, the hardest part of it is willingly giving up and trying something else.
It's a similar sensation to playing shareware classic Action Supercross/Elasto Mania - right down to using the directional keys more or less exclusively for control. Except, in the case of TrackMania, it's full of different game modes, and the simplicity of the Puzzle mode - upon which the whole game is effectively built - gives it an incredible lightness and inherent versatility that's also served to fuel a massive online community, which trades endless amounts of custom tracks that take up virtually no disk space and spends even longer racing against one another using them online. And with the advent of Sunrise, TrackMania also manages to look really gorgeously detailed without sacrificing any of its immediacy, and does a much better job of integrating that customisation into the heart of the game.
The menus give you easy access to all the modes, but also to online options including the ability to download custom tracks - which literally takes only seconds and has already allowed us to extend the lifespan of the preview build by toying with some really challenging home-baked tracks and challenges - and playing online is incredibly simple too; effectively it's just click-and-go. Nothing that you might have to download to play takes that long to get hold of and the numerous online modes are often tailored to fit the appeal. The Time Trial-esque option, for example, can have more than ten people time-trialling the same track, appearing as ghost cars on everyone else's machines, and at the end of five minutes or so the winner is the person who's managed to post the best lap time. If the instant appeal of Platform mode doesn't convince you that developer Nadeo knows why its game is fun and what to build on, the online options certainly do.
Visually the detail levels have skyrocketed, and yet the game still runs surprisingly well on relatively under-specced kit. The huge vistas, dazzling reflective effects and varying lighting conditions coupled with much more detailed car models and more exotic track design make for a much more exciting spectacle - but at no point does Sunrise seem to lose track of the simple building-block feel that underpinned its predecessor. Tracks are still built out of blocks, even if the blocks are now more complicated, and experimenting with the editors for a few hours will yield tracks that look just as fantastic and weave just as fantastical routes as Nadeo's pre-rolled offerings.
The quality of the tasks in our preview build is undoubted. The early Puzzle tasks aren't that different to what's come before, but that's blatantly not going to stay the same for long, as the complexity of the Race and Platform levels demonstrate. And it's easy to see how downloading custom Platform levels could become just as addictive - and even more pointed, actually - than our first stumbling steps with Quake's mod content when we first "got the Internet" back in the 90s. Plus, the ratio of DM6s to levels-which-are-just-floating-lava-blocks-in-the-air will probably be a lot better this time, and the tools are superior. Given that we were playing Elasto Mania back then too, you could argue that TrackMania Sunrise is reaquainting us with our old gaming behaviour.
And we haven't even seen all the game modes yet. In fact, we've seen only a fraction of the content - all the more reason to be impressed at the manner in which it swallowed an entire weekend.
As much as we've enjoyed it though and as much as we enjoy talking about it (and we love talking about it; the way it works and its conceptual purity makes us feel warm in the same way games like Ico, Rez and Zelda always have, which is always a recommendation of some sort), there are a few things we weren't entirely happy about. The way the camera follows your car is sometimes confusing - particularly in Platform mode when you're trying to guestimate the right way to angle your car to land a 200-foot blind jump off a half-pipe - and the default race-car design is a bit too easy to turn irretrievably onto its roof compared to the original game's vehicles. With them you could usually affect some sort of self-righting roll. Here you'll find it's a lot easier to come unstuck and have to reach for the reset button. Perhaps it's necessary for Platform mode, and it's not quite as terminal as some of the people playing the beta demo have declared it to be, but it does add a touch of frustration in places. And while we're on the subject of the cars, the digital keyboard control still leads to a lot of over-correction, although the presence of analogue options suggests that it might be worth digging out our PS2 joypad converter when the review code turns up.
Likewise the way the track editor tool works. Nadeo's seemingly grafted elements of mouse control onto a system that previously relied more or less exclusively on the keyboard, and it helps - but it helps more for people who already know how to use it than it does for newcomers. Seemingly obvious mousey behaviour is also seemingly wrong, and to the average gamer arriving with assumptions based on management and strategy-based mouse control it'll probably seem counter-intuitive. Fortunately it gets easier to instinctively whip the camera round to where you want it to be, to delete and replace track pieces without fumbling for clickable buttons on the HUD, and so forth, but it's definitely geared towards using both hands, which is worth remembering.
Other than that though, our criticisms are generally things like "My preview build crashes on one particular level, which may actually be because my hard disk is dying anyway so I probably shouldn't mention that in the preview text" and "The car sometimes looks like it has a layer of fur hugging it when driving up a steep hill more or less into the sun". Which isn't exactly cause to go to war.
Certainly we're impressed. Platform mode seems to prove that TrackMania was no fluke, while the updated and expanded design, the wealth of game modes, the better integration of online elements and the skill with which it's all been brought together fill us with confidence that TrackMania Sunrise could end up one of our favourite PC titles of the year. At this stage though, it makes us smile with pleasure and it's ridiculously difficult to stop playing it.