As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I’ve been a semi-rabid TrackMania fan ever since I first picked up TrackMania United in a Steam sale several years ago. It was a game that found itself regularly entering my rotation of games due to the fact that it struck the perfect balance between pick-up-and-play simplicity and teeth-gnashing frustration in the pursuit of perfection. This is also the reason why it has, over the years, become such an important part of the e-sports community, too — its straightforward rules make it eminently suitable for competition, and its massive flexibility and customizability mean that every game you play can potentially be completely different, helping put everyone on an even playing field when it comes to playing against one another. This also makes it an excellent party game thanks to its hot-seat multiplayer mode.
For the uninitiated, TrackMania (in its many forms) is a time-trial game in which you drive a car as fast as possible around a track. Most races are of a “point to point” nature and are generally over in less than a minute, but the game’s wilful defiance of the laws of physics and how cars actually work in the real world mean that you’re in for a white-knuckle ride on some utterly terrifying tracks. All the games in the series feature an “official” single-player campaign in which you compete against preset time ghosts (or ghosts downloaded from other players), plus an online multiplayer mode in which each server runs its own playlist of custom-designed tracks and, in some cases, slight variants on the game rules. There’s a worldwide ranking system, leaderboards and clubs for those who are into the competitive side of things, and for more creative types there’s a fully-featured track editor, replay editor and paint shop for your cars. You can import custom models, textures, sounds and music into the game, and there’s a thriving community that focuses on creating these mods as much as actually racing.
Naturally I was always going to pick up TrackMania 2 (actually the fourth game in the mainline series and the twelfth title to bear the TrackMania name, counting major updates/expansions and console versions) when it emerged. I initially wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that either Nadeo or Ubisoft (but probably Ubisoft) had made the decision to split the game into separately-purchasable environments rather than bundling everything into one game a la TrackMania United, but spending a bit of time with TrackMania 2 Canyon when it was first released in 2011 revealed the wisdom of the plan. By concentrating on a single environment at a time, Nadeo could concentrate on getting some spectacular-looking visuals and some wonderfully refined handling in place before moving on to something else, rather than splitting their attention between a wide variety of different vehicle and block types. The Canyon cars are a joy to drive, and the increasing fiendishness of the tracks in the official single-player campaign (not to mention the ridiculous nonsense that creative players have come up with for the online maps) made it consistently fun to play.
I was intrigued and a little skeptical to see that the next release in the TrackMania 2 series was to be the Stadium setting, however. Stadium, if you don’t know your TrackMania chronology, was the setting of the free TrackMania Nations game, and is still very popular in United’s multiplayer mode due to the combination of the car’s straightforward handling and the flexibility of the track blocks. Stadium races can be anything from rollercoaster rides through tracks suspended in the sky to offroad races on dirt tracks. It’s certainly an iconic setting of the TrackMania series — but we have seen it before in two separate (if closely related) games. So does it warrant its own purchase purely to slot it in to TrackMania 2’s ManiaPlanet platform?
Well, frankly it’s a little early to tell, as it’s only just hit open beta with a limited set of single-player tracks and not-quite full functionality… but certainly on paper there’s a lot to like. While it looks fairly similar to when we last saw it in TrackMania United, TrackMania 2‘s improved engine means that the clean lines and bright colors of the setting really shine on a powerful machine — and if you put the “motion blur” setting on then thundering down a 45-degree slope towards the ground at 500 km/h has never looked so terrifyingly realistic. New blocks allow track builders to put together even more fiendish challenges for even the most skilled drivers. And behind the scenes, the improved infrastructure brought about by ManiaPlanet, which has been undergoing a constant process of tweaking and refinement ever since Canyon came out, allows for a considerable amount more flexibility than the last time we saw the Stadium setting. It’s much easier for creative types to put together packs of content, create custom game modes and import 3D objects, while competitive types are well catered to with ManiaPlanet’s team and competition management facilities. So while TrackMania 2 Stadium may initially look somewhat like TrackMania Nations, there’s actually a lot going on under the hood to help ensure the game will enjoy a healthy community for many years to come.
Perhaps the best news of all that accompanied the release of TrackMania 2 Stadium’s open beta, though, was that all the ManiaPlanet games — which presently include TrackMania 2 Canyon, the open beta of ShootMania Storm (last explored here) and the open beta of TrackMania 2 Stadium — are now available on Steam. You can join the two open betas for free simply by downloading them through Steam, and both TrackMania 2 Stadium and ShootMania Storm are available to preorder for 10% off their normal price — $8.99 and $17.99 respectively. TrackMania 2 Canyon, meanwhile, will set you back $19.99 and is worth every penny.
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.