Last month, the TrackMania franchise premièred on Steam with their title ‘TrackMania Nations’; a freeware game that has been often described as a joy filled, causal experience that everyone should try at least once. Indeed, it is not inaccurate to call TrackMania the new virtual drug; everyone’s doing it, it certainly has addicting qualities and some of the tracks really give you a rush that would rival most extreme sports. TrackMania pushes boundaries and, for an independent set of developers and partnered publishers, does so rather effectively.
Alongside the aforementioned free of charge game, their promotion department have created small Flash diversion entitled ‘Mini TrackMania’ in order to advertise the second game of the series and have finally taken to trying out new digital distribution systems such as Steam and Metaboli to increase sales. Certainly such a company willing to embrace the technological revolution to distribute content must be given serious kudos, but how does the series itself play?
The title I had the fortune to sample was TrackMania United Forever; one often considered to be a compilation of all the previous games. Whilst being amongst the most recent additions to the series, United Forever keeps all the major elements of its predecessors, including huge areas of player customisation, a thriving developer-sponsored community portal and a friendly user interface. It appears that the developers, Nadeo, have kept all the important features of its previous incarnations whilst adding few new ones.
Again, it is difficult to condemn a game for not fixing what wasn’t broken to begin with, especially given the risk of strong community backlash, but certainly releasing a new title which barely brings anything new to the table aside from simple aesthetic changes as lighting. Nadeo have admitted to not really focusing upon new content, but rather aimed to change the engine design in United Forever: something that loyal fans will be positively charged about, yet newcomers to the series will be left wondering if the older, cheaper (and actually free) iterations are worth more than an update that only a small minority of dedicated players will choose to invest in.
That isn’t to say that United Forever isn’t worth trying out. The game is available from outlets throughout the Internet, and you can get stuck into the real depth of the game literally seconds after start up. Account creation is instant (something the Battlefield series should learn from) and thereafter you are free to pick your game type from a huge list of options. It is through this that the improvements in United Forever really shine: The interface is accessible for even the most illiterate of users, and you can freely pick whether you take part in races by yourself, locally (down to your very region) or on a global scale.
Whilst single player may seem like a valid option to warm up to the game’s design, racing around the same track by yourself repeatedly begins to get boring exceedingly quickly. It is a shame that the game does not give an option to battle against the any AI bots (even on the simpler tracks) and you have to create challenges for yourself (or download them from online); this does little more than to place emphasis on where the real action lies: Between other people.
Even on a seemingly quiet, independent title as United Forever, the online circuit is hot as a radiator on a rocket-powered, first generation Dodge Viper. Thousands of players are online simultaneously, constantly setting new records on the hundreds of servers, sponsored by their own goals or those of the many clans and gaming groups that frequent the community. There are little restrictions as to which servers you can opt to join as any new maps that require downloading take mere seconds on the slowest of connections; low ping is a universal standard, not just exclusive to your locality.
A huge amount of work has evidently been put in to reach this kind of gaming grace that puts its well-funded traditional superiors to shame. It is only during gameplay that both the real selling points of the title shine through, as well as the more disappointing side.
Firstly, the game looks awesome: Whether you’re playing on a short circuit or tackling a literal mountain of tarmac, United Forever certainly makes every moment of the game look gorgeous, from the paint on your car (which is branded with your country’s colours) to the twilight that is cast across the stadium. You hardly have time to appreciate such wonders, as all players on the server play on the track at the same time.
As well as the motivation of battling against a physical manifestation of your competitor being present, this also helps prevent against cheating, as some of the tracks can really provide some strange exploits that, on occasion, some of the more infamous side of the playerbase choose to take advantage of. Still, usually this (albeit rare) flawed design is the fault of the track’s creators, rather than United Forever’s developers who, on the whole, have gone to considerable lengths to prevent this sort of foul activity.
On the contrary, United Forever does everything to encourage players to make and play their own maps: The editor is sufficiently smooth and tracks can be thrust into existence after a matter of minutes. The exchanging of such work is also enforced by the currency given for doing so: Adding your own maps to the community allows the player to create bigger and more complex ones in return; it is a cycle of positive conditioning not unlike those found in the more mainstream online games: Get ability, use ability, get more abilities for using the first.
It works; and those players who buy into the system end up creating elaborate and downright fantastical designs that rival the greatest in Garry’s Mod architecture. Seeing a player tackle such a course is a mystical sight to behold, particularly when some of the maps resemble puzzles that challenge the likes of Portal than looking like racing courses; even so, such novelty only adds to the flamboyant originality and creativity that developers and users alike invest in this game.
The options for track design are nigh on endless, and as long as you possess the essential artistry that is being slowly been required by players across all formats of gaming, then you certainly could do a lot worse than United Forever.
That isn’t to say that the game is entirely spotless. A significant negative I noticed, as a huge fan of old racing games such as Mario Kart, was the lack of clipping between cars on the same circuit. Although the advantage of having such physics is obvious; that players don’t bash or bug into each other as they spawn in the same place at the start of a race, or to prevent unfair circumstances (as players can restart the race whenever they wish, clipping may be irrelevant altogether).
Regardless, the developers obviously focused a lot on a new physics engine for United Forever, helping aid immersion by highlighting the impact of collisions around the track; this sort of captivation is ruined, however, the moment you can drive straight through your fellow player. Think of the friendships or enemies that could be formed on Trackmania thanks to the wonders of crashing into other users. Think you’re going to beat my time by 0.03 seconds? Tough; I just sent you plunging one hundred feet to a sticky end.
I admit that such incorporation of an element would cause chaos at the busier times, yet would certainly help to aid competition and add to that all-important ‘fun factor’ which Trackmania seems to focus all of its gameplay around; even just as an optional control for servers. The community itself is also open to corruption, as the exchange is regulated mainly by players who are free to submit whatever they like. The majority of the time, the greatest of tracks are only allowed to rise to the top, although occasionally a tiny, impossible or downright atrocious design makes a break towards popularity, to the misfortune of its downloaders who were charmed into playing it.
This will always be a problem with user-created content, unless the developers find some way to thoroughly moderate all new submissions. As Trackmania grows in popularity, the familiarity between community members descends into fleeting greetings between old friends, making the loyal fans victims of their own success for promoting the game; constantly being at risk from ignorant newcomers. Again, this is a reoccurring problem across all formats and online games and often the older player base have solved such problems by themselves, thanks to the easy creation of new groups.
Overall, it is hard to be negative about TrackMania United Forever. Most readers will have an idea of what to expect from the game from their own experiences or those of their friends. Many of you will already know what to expect from this franchise which focuses mainly on custom content, rather than developing excess gameplay features. If you’re a fan of the genre, or simply looking for a causal play, then give at least one of the TrackMania series a try; although be wary of the price tag if you’re more of the latter. Any problems with United Forever would apply across the series and poking fun for the exclusion of trivial attributes is like cursing Hitman because it doesn’t include enough nukes.
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