At 1.30am last night, I couldn't tell you whether I loved or hated TrackMania. What I can tell you is that I was playing it. Or more specifically, playing one track. Again and again. Determined to beat it. Increasingly tired, and as such increasingly unable to make the perfectly timed turns to get that Gold medal that sat between me and sleep.
Right, so there's some confusion to deal with. What exactly is going on with Nations Forever? It's free. Utterly and entirely free. As was the previous TrackMania Nations - a stripped down version of the series created for use in the Electronic Sports World Cup. However, Forever is also a free add-on for the most recent retail release, TrackMania United. The result is, United is now called TrackMania United Forever, and when purchased new will come with 3D glasses to take advantage of the new 3D mode. Muddled yet? Well, wait.
United's big hook was the online play. You could play the game in the offline mode, and then at any time attempt an "official" run, which would upload the results to the international database, and rank you alongside anyone else who'd attempted that track. Well, now the same appears in Nations Forever, along with 65 completely new stadium tracks, for both solo and multiplayer racing. Previously Nations was completely separate from the rest of the TrackMania series, but now Nations Forever and United Forever are fully integrated. People with Nations can race on the Nations-specific tracks against people playing United.
Just in case anyone's not clear, TrackMania is about flinging zippy cars around utterly impossible tracks, looping loops, bouncing on water, all combined with taking perfectly timed corners to shave a hundredth of a second off the previous best time. It's about undiluted fun, combined with precision driving (although without any stupid "realism" to ruin the fun). And since United, it's about being better at that track than anyone in the world, or at least, in my case, trying to be better than someone in the South West of England, which is as specific as it gets in its league tables. With United you get various modes of play familiar to all in the non-free series: racing, platform and puzzle, with a large variety of vehicles. Nations, however, is all about the racing, and about driving the Formula 1-style cars.
But what's most important about TrackMania - what makes it stand out from everything else - is the instant restart. Screw up, and you will about 39034 times a day, and you just stab "Enter" and it takes you back to the last checkpoint, or hit "Backspace" to get to the start of the race. It happens so quickly you'll wonder if it's psychic. This is exactly how games should treat you. A second's load time and it might get annoying. The split-second restart ensures you'll play until your fingers fall off.
So if you download Nations Forever, as is, what exactly are you getting? As I mentioned, it's 65 new tracks in five difficulty bands, unlocked by successfully completing earlier tracks in each category. And as is becoming fantastically familiar with Nadeo's series, they are superbly designed and novel courses, created with a precision that makes scoring a Bronze engagingly simple, and achieving the Gold maddeningly tricky. These medals are represented in-game by "ghost" cars, meaning you literally race against the goal times, which is a billion times more satisfying than keeping an eye on the clock. It also means you can study their technique and steal it for success.