I don't know about you, but Christmas at my house was always a battery-fuelled orgy [ouch -Ed] of high-pitched racing cars. Forget cranberry jelly, stuffing, Peggy Mitchell and dreaming of snow, our afternoon activity of choice was weaving bits of plastic track through an Amazon of chair legs, discarded wrapping paper and crumpled Christmas cards - eventually tugging on a flimsy plastic trigger control and watching a toy racer catapulted halfway across the room and into Uncle Biggles' [no-one has an uncle called Biggles -concerned Ed] house of cards.
Batteries Not Included
What good news, then, that somebody has finally developed a suitable electronic replacement: TrackMania. It cuts out the mess, safeguards the kittens and replaces high-pitched whizzing with manly engine noises (and, er, jangly banjo music). But, crucially, it still lets us build outlandish racetracks full of right-angle turns, loops, jumps and speed boost pads, and then race around them. And, this time, that fabled "one more go" is just a button press away, and not hidden among dust-fluffed Polo wrappers under the sofa.
Developed by newcomer Nadeo and due out in Europe this November 28th from publishing upstart Digital Jesters, TrackMania is a racing game construction kit where the next part won't cost you £4.99 and take two hours to rescue from the moulded plastic wrapping. It's split into two distinct modes, Challenge and Race, and the common goal is earn medals and unlock the next track by breaking the developer's lap record. The difference being that, in Challenge mode at least, you design your own route from A to B.
Using a simple top-down, rotatable 3D view and mouse controls, you can drag and drop your idea towards fruition, carefully plotting straights, sharp and slight turns, speed pads and jumps so that your car can make it from Start to Finish past any requisite checkpoints in the shortest possible time.
Tracks are split into three distinct environments (desert, countryside and snow), and each challenge gives the player a specific set of blocks to plot a course (straights, bends, jumps, etc, of which 300 variants will apparently make it into the final game). Along the way there will be obstacles (cactus plots, rocky outcroppings, mountains, canyons, etc) that cannot be built over and must be circumnavigated or overcome creatively (or aerially), and before long it becomes clear that your track needs to be as direct as possible. With such sharp bends and less-than-Lamborghini levels of acceleration, keeping your speed up is hugely important.
Fortunately the tools for concocting your track designs are extremely simple and self-explanatory. Although at first we had to fumble for the right keys to lay lengths of track (that's what happens when you don't print out the manual you were emailed), before long we were snaking track all over the place (hold space and drag), giving up on our eccentric ideas and wiping the board (backspace), deleting individual blocks of stupidity (delete), and zooming in to head out for a test drive (enter), without more than a passing mutter of "how do I do that again?"
On the track, securing bronze medals proved to be fairly easy, with most terrain and start/finish posts placed forgivingly enough for even the most inefficient designs to work, but it took some serious thought (Evil Kneivel-style two-way jumps over a wall of rock, broad-tracked S-bends rather than wide turns to conserve speed, etc) to hammer out some silver and gold medals - and you'll only unlock so much by feasting on bronze.
Helpfully, it's the sort of game that commands persistence and rarely seems unfair. And if you do get stuck, Nadeo promises that track designs will be swappable, downloadable and just a few kilobytes in size. If for some reason you can't be bothered to cook before you feast, Nadeo's pre-rolled tracks are incredibly fiendish themselves. Ten of them made it into our preview build, and securing gold in each literally had me sitting up until 2am with glazed eyes, MP3s blasting through my headphones and fractions of seconds gradually sheered from my lap times. The original Midtown Madness is about the only arcade racer I can remember that feels this compulsive. We want the other tracks now, and were this a shareware title, we'd be wrestling with WorldPay pretty much right now.
Again, Nadeo owes a lot to simplicity. TrackMania races are best played with three fingers on the directional buttons, as players struggle to judge the tight turns, exploit the Hollywood, Driver-esque physics, and repeat themselves hundreds of times in order to manage each turn, jump and kook as efficiently as possible. Remember pausing and restarting Mario Kart time trials for many a long evening? Well, now all you have to do is stab delete or enter...
Imagine RollerCoaster Tycoon where you can hop in a truck and zip around after you've laid the final block. That's TrackMania. And like RCT, there are plenty of example roller coasters weaving their way through the countryside, and you get to ride on those too. The simple graphics engine is smooth as silk on our Athlon XP2200-based test system, and still manages to look surprisingly detailed (the forests of cacti look great) even though there's no difference between the edit and play screens - the camera's just zoomed in a lot more.
If we have any concerns at this point, they're mostly superficial. Although we're once again saddled with a digital control scheme that means lethal over-correction is commonplace, it's so addictive and accessible to the fingers that you won't sit there cursing it with every replay, and Nadeo's target times feel exactly right. And although we're not that fond of the audio, being able to turn it off from the launcher means that we can set Billy Corgan off in our headphones and revel in the gameplay as we witter tunelessly about street heat and zipper blues.
No, the biggest problem is the price. £29.99. We're just not suuuure. It's a great game, but it has that Elasto Mania, fifteen-quid-for-the-rest-of-the-tracks sort of sensation about it. We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we suggest you head on over to the demo/beta sign-up page, where a playable version of the game - including the multiplayer mode, which we'll be examining in more detail in our review - is due tomorrow. If you've ever wanted to drive a Ferrari round Space Mountain, this could be just the game to spend Christmas with.