What I’ve Been Playing: ManiaPlanet (TrackMania 2, ShootMania)

A disappointingly small number of people are talking about Ubisoft’s ManiaPlanet service. I wanted to rectify that by talking a little bit about my recent experiences with it — championing the “underdogs” is what we’re all about here at Games Are Evil, after all. This is by no means a comprehensive review of everything the service offers, rather more of a reminder that it exists and is a thing that you might want to check out — particularly with the changes it has seen since launch.

For the uninitiated, ManiaPlanet is an online platform designed to support three games: TrackMania 2, ShootMania and QuestMania. TrackMania 2 is the fourth entry in the sleeper hit stunt racing series (what is it with Ubisoft and numbering sequels badly?); ShootMania is a competitive first-person shooter; QuestMania is, as you might have guessed, an RPG. Each of the three core products will see several paid releases with different “environments” on offer — at present, TrackMania 2 has a “Canyon” environment and ShootMania is currently undergoing beta testing with its “Storm” environment. Details on QuestMania are pretty much nonexistent right now, but we can probably expect more information once the release version of ShootMania goes out the door in January; we can also expect two new TrackMania 2 environments around the time of ShootMania’s release, one of which is a remake of the classic “stadium” setting from the previous TrackMania games, and the other of which is an all-new rally-style “valley” setting, pictured below.

If you’re bristling at the mention of the words “online platform” in connection with Ubisoft — they don’t have the best track record when it comes to “always-on” DRM, after all — then don’t worry, as the games are actually the creation of French outfit Nadeo, with Ubisoft handling little more than publishing duties, along with plastering their branding all over in-game billboards. That said, ManiaPlanet is made to be experienced online. The reason ManiaPlanet is its own thing rather than integrating with an existing service like Steam is that the three Mania games are far more than simple games. Each of them is a “sub-platform” in and of itself for players to play, create and share, and allows anyone who jumps aboard to get involved as little or as much as they please.

Let’s take TrackMania 2 as an example, as that is technically “finished,” though it’s already undergone a few tweaks here and there since its release last year and will be further shaken up when Valley and Stadium come out. It incorporates a number of modes for you to explore, including single-player challenges with offline medals and online leaderboards; single-machine “party play” modes including hot seat and split-screen competitions; competitive online multiplayer with built-in support for worldwide “ladder” rankings — ideal for e-sports; a full track editor allowing you to quickly and easily build anything to equal or surpass the quality of the challenges you get included with the game; and an incredibly comprehensive (and massively unintuitive) replay editor suitable for creating everything from poorly-framed shots of your best races to some fancy-pants machinima. The game is extremely simple to play — you can play it one-handed using just the arrow keys, for heaven’s sake — but takes hours to master. It has a highly active online community, particularly in its native Europe, all of whom split their time between competing against each other, making new content and exploring that which others have created.

ShootMania is less fully-featured in its current beta state, but already has the framework for a solid game that is a distinctive experience from almost every other competitive multiplayer shooter out there. At present, it only offers online multiplayer (complete with the worldwide online “ladder” ranking system from TrackMania 2) and the level editor, but that’s plenty — servers are fairly active, depending on what time you jump online, and there’s a wealth of custom content out there to discover already. And best of all, like TrackMania, ShootMania is incredibly accessible to newcomers while remaining rewarding to veterans — it pares the shooter experience down to its basics by giving everyone the same weapon and rewarding players for hitting rather than killing opponents. This means the game becomes less about knowing where the big caches of weapons are or who has played long enough to unlock the most devastating perks and killstreaks, and instead becomes all about skill and tactics. At the same time, the hit-based scoring system means that even the most useless FPS player (such as myself) can score respectably and even win a match if they’re careful. Those who prefer objective-based modes are well catered to, also, as there’s already an array of different ways to play available, with more doubtless on the way.

In both ShootMania and TrackMania 2, a huge part of the attraction of playing online stems from the immense creativity displayed by the community who are busily creating levels. In TrackMania’s case, veteran level designers know the game’s physics system so well that they can design rollercoaster stunt challenges with pixel-perfect accuracy; in ShootMania’s case, the “tiles” available to build a level have actually led to some FPS experiences I don’t think I’ve ever had before — most notably, a deathmatch in the midst of a pitch-dark forest at night-time, with the only light coming from a large building in the middle of the map. Terrifying, particularly when you see the neon glow of a rival player’s weapon shooting through the darkness mere inches from your head.

If all this sounds interesting, good! ManiaPlanet is already an impressive platform that, despite a somewhat clunky interface that hasn’t really been improved significantly since the older TrackMania games, already provides an exciting place to playCouple that with the ability to express your creativity through level design, customizing vehicles and models and all manner of other modding goodness, and you’ve got an online hangout that will keep you busy for years to come — particularly if Nadeo, Ubi and the community keep churning out the content.

You can find out more about ManiaPlanet at the official site. TrackMania 2 Canyon is available to purchase now; prepurchasing ShootMania Storm nets you a saving on the full price of the final game (due out next January) and immediate access to the beta.

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Our occasional “What I’ve Been Playing” articles provide brief, completely subjective, personal impressions on the subject of titles our contributors have been playing recently and found interesting or worthy of note.

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