Whee! Crash! Gently…

When I were a lad, and this blog was all just fields, I was totally addicted to the classic Stunt Car Racer on the Amiga. After programming such racing classics as Revs and the superb abstract puzzler, The Sentinel, Geoff Crammonds vector classic was probably the first successful attempt at moving racing games into a third dimension, that of “up” and “down”, by the introduction of tracks that had huge hills, jumps and drops.

Stunt Car Racer
It looked better when it moving. Honest.

In the nigh on twenty years since Stunt Car Racer, it surprises me that no-one has really done justice when trying to improve the concept – things like the Burnout series or Destruction Derby had a suitable platform to build on yet seemed to get sidetracked on the way by fancy physics and the endless pyrotechnics of crashing. Despite the outrageous circuits, SCR was still about the racing, the point of the game was to set a time, to beat your opponent rather than beat them up.

Anyone who knows me knows I love my racing games – I’m also (buffs nails on lapel) bloody good at them. But somewhere along the line, they stopped being fun. I tried to get into Need for Speed: Underground but was rapidly turned off by the teeth-grindingly focus-grouped “yoof” bling appeal. I did love Gran Turismo right from its first appearance on the PS1, but I find that each subsequent iteration sucks yet more fun out of the series. Even Burnout, which in its second guise was a complete classic, manages tomiss the point in favour of needless eye candy.

Gran Turismo 4
Here in Gran Turismo 4, your author is speeding in his 372bhp Skyline GT-R 34S, on racing tyres with a suspension setting of 50 over 3.14, brake balance is 32.4% and a gear ratio of twelvington.

I’m not quite sure why I bought Trackmania United. I haven’t bought a PC game since The Orange Box, and I’m not exactly into PC gaming. Especially the racing sort, which seem to require a ridiculous investment in force feedback wheels and pedals  which only serves to emphasise that you are in your bedroom and not really driving around the Nurburgring at all. TMU on the other hand, seemed to be the sort of instant hit, fun gaming that I so desperately crave and keep meaning to write about. So, twenty quid later and I’m downloading it.

Put simply, TMU is Scalextric crossed with Stunt Car Racer. Control a car around a series of tracks of ever increasing loopiness. There are 8 classes of car, each with about 16 tracks. When you start, you are in Training Mode. Training is the offline, solo mode, allowing you to practice tracks to your hearts content. Each race awards Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, beat the time, gain the medal. Ghost cars are used to show you what you need to do to hit the medals. (Cleverly, you can turn off certain ghost cars, so if you are aiming for Silver, switch Gold and Bronze off.) Once you have set a time, you also have your own ghost car to race against.

I’m not going to go into the mechanics of the game too much, as I should leave that to the pros. Suffice to say that the real hook, the thing that changes TMU from fun diversion to crack injected directly into your eyeballs is the Official mode.

Woohoo! Wahey! Missus! Aargh!

Each Official lap sometimes costs you in the form of Coppers – an in-game currency you get for completing modes, even logging in each day gets you 50 Coppers. (It isn’t real money, and you can’t buy Coppers.) When you make an Official lap, the time is recorded on the Trackmania servers. The times are then posted to the locale that you set when the game was installed – I’m in NW England, so any times I set are ranked in my locale, country and worldwide. (Note: you still race offline, your ghost and time merely uploaded at the end.)

So you get to a point where you fancy a shot at the leaderboard – you are suddenly racing against yourself, the clock and the current leader. (You even download their run as a Ghost). It really nails the pressure on. Even if you don’t manage to set a top time, you can still earn Coppers for setting a medal time.

Trackmania Leaderboard
Me in third place in the North West, there. I'm trying to get the top two disqualified for using illegal steroids.

I suppose the difference is this: In, say Gran Turismo, you compete in a championship, win a trophy and car, and move on. Your actual performance doesn’t matter, as long as you come first. Whether you win every race by a minute, or the last one by a second, it doesn’t make a difference.

In TMU your performance is everything. Even if you clock a Gold Medal time, you can see from the associated leaderboards that it is possible to go faster. I’ve got to the point where I have two Training times that are better than the current NW leader – but my Official time is somewhere in the lower 30s. In a normal game, it would be “I’ve got Gold, move on” – but I know I’m capable of better, I’ve got the ghost car to prove it and by Jove, I’m gonna nail that top spot on the board. TMU keeps intermediate times at checkpoints, so you know that even when you’ve set your best time, you have done better in one or two of the previous sectors – the lure of that perfect lap grows stronger.

There are 200 tracks built in, plus an editor to build your own. Downloading other courses are free or cost Coppers, and then you set official times on that as well. So you can build yourself a track, practise the hell out of it, set a time and watch as some bastard beats you by three seconds on your own creation. Right… I’ll show him.

Another killer idea is the instant respawn/reset. Since races are against the clock, one screwup can be the difference between a place on the leaderboard and gnawing your knuckles in frustration. To counter this, Nadeo have allowed you to hit a single key and instantaneously either respawn at the last checkpoint or restart the race in its entirety. The key word is instantaneously – no waiting, no reloading, press! – bang! – Begin countdown! Having suffered through far too much “Pause – Do you wish to restart? – Are you sure? – Loading – Reset Race Achievement unlocked! You can now access the SuperMegaUltra Car! – loading – intro movie – wait – begin countdown – go!” (yes, I’m looking at you Burnout 3) it makes a real change to just sit there and play.

Reading reviews and comments, it is easy to see why so many people miss the point of Trackmania United. They want it to be Burnout or Gran Turismo, yet the game ploughs its own furrow (oh-ho). By far the biggest complaint is that the opposition are ghosts, there are no collisions. This ignores the fact that to bring in traffic would ruin the entire game mechanic. The other cars exist to show what is possible, and to challenge you to be as good as they are. To be utterly frank, some of the tracks are tricky on your own that if the makers were to add traffic, it would be nigh on impossible to complete a race.

I suppose I ought to mention that TMU is not for the fainthearted. It is incredible fun, but the difficulty curve goes from Easy to Bastard quite quickly – as long as you are prepared to practice, practice, practice then it is possible to nail Gold on the races. It doesn’t demand perfection, but you have to be willing to accept that someone is willing to put in a phenomenal number of hours on a particular course.

Trackmania United is as far from the shallow pyrotechnics of later Burnouts as it is possible to be, while shoving Gran Turismo into the bin marked “dull nerds nerding it around in nerdland”.

And I haven’t even touched the Multiplayer racing, the Puzzle mode, Platform mode…

Twenty quid. Utter bargain.

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