Ahead of next month's launch, we've been on the track getting some practice in.
It's time for another race around the Trackmania, with Nadeo returning to the racing franchise for another PC-only iteration that will once again bring players together with its emphasis on community, track design, and pure racing.
Racing fans will know well enough what Nadeo is all about, but for the uninitiated, this is a studio that makes games where the car and the track are the only focus. You can forget about engine tuning and fancy manufacturers, ultra-realistic torque and surface physics, you can even forget about a traditional career mode where your rookie races their way up the ranks to superstardom. Trackmania leaves all those trimmings at the door and instead focuses on fiendish track design and personal bests.
Trackmania's intentions aren't subtle, either. From the menu, you're not asked if you want to retry a failed run, rather you're invited to "improve" and shave a second or two off your best time. To that end, the controls are very simple, and you'll spend most of your time simply accelerating and braking around corners, and slaloming in and out of chicanes while trying to maintain your speed and an efficient racing line. Of course, that's easier said than done.
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The surfaces you drive on are always an important factor in any serious racing game and that's the case here, too. While Nadeo has delivered traditional tracks, you'll also find yourself driving around on dirt and ice, and there are various gates that you pass through that alter your current state, either speeding you up, slowing you down, or even cutting your engine completely. This set-up means an ever-changing status quo where you can never get comfortable.
Even, for a moment, forgetting about the various effects that change your approach, the roads themselves quickly leave the realm of realism with crazy constructions designed to be thrilling above all else. If you've played the studio's past games, including Trackmania Turbo, you'll have a fair idea of what to expect, with normal-feeling tracks that cut through fairly basic scenery complemented by high-walled icy corners that look better suited to an Olympic bobsleigh race. Throw in ramps, jumps, and enough camber to make a Sunday driver sweat through their faux leather gloves, and you've got an experience the likes of which you simply won't find in any other top tier racer.
And best of all, it's a hell of a lot of fun. Judged from the perspective of an arcade racer, it's simple to pick up and easy to play, but Nadeo doesn't waste much time in revealing the game's true challenge, and that's an experience that's three parts racer to one part high-speed puzzle. In the same vein as high-level Trials requires you to master more than just the two wheels of your bike, Trackmania wants you to think about more than just driving lines and sensible braking. The early access version that we played included a variety of different challenges across a range of surfaces, and it's not long before the game's various elements are being thrown together in a way that will challenge more than just your reflexes.
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Trackmania is at its most intense when things are coming at you fast, and once the speed boosts are thrown into the mix, that happens all the time (it doesn't feel Wipeout-fast, but it's still nippy). One minute you might be sliding around a hairpin corner before the next you're trying to take speed bumps as fast as you can without sending your car into a somersault. The tracks are designed in such a way that you can't just pull the trigger and accelerate past each checkpoint, you also need to apply the brake with care and consideration, otherwise, you'll find your ride spinning off the track and into digital oblivion.
Speaking of which, we mentioned the absence of car manufacturers earlier but it bears repeating. If you're after a racing experience that lets you build a garage of cars and tweak their engines to get things just how you like them, then this probably isn't the game for you (or, rather, it isn't a game that you should look to if you're only after that level of realism). In Trackmania, all cars are created equal and the focus isn't on what you drive, but rather how you drive it. This no-nonsense approach ensures that the focus is entirely on the track itself, and on the joy of racing, pure and simple.
Once the pre-prepared tracks have been completed and you've been given your shiny medals (bronze, silver, and gold - you know the deal), it's time head over to the track editor and start making your own. It's this portion of the game that gives Trackmania its longevity, and that doesn't look to be stopping any time soon. We've briefly mentioned a bunch of the mechanics that we tried during the demo, but one that didn't make the cut yet was a gate that made your car "fragile" (we're not sure exactly how), which will no doubt give players plenty of extra ways to be mean to one another via their creations. It's not a part of the game we spent a whole lot of time playing if we're honest, but what's there seems easy to use and accessible and we were able to throw together a super-simple track in just a few seconds without any tutorials. Content creation is the very backbone of Trackmania and if the series' legacy is to continue - and we see no reason why it would slow down now - then the track editor will be a fundamental part of that. We'll find out for sure when the game hits PC on July 1.