My first encounter with the TrackMania series was as a Steam sale special.
I remembered a friend of mine had played an earlier installment in the series -- TrackMania Sunrise, as I recall -- and really enjoyed it, so I picked up TrackMania United for very little money out of mild curiosity. This, as it happened, turned out to be a somewhat life-changing decision.
Well, all right. That's a bit of an exaggeration. But it is true that this first experience with the series was enough to well and truly put small French developer Nadeo on the map for me. Ever since that time, I've been an enthusiastic follower of the Mania series, which has since added a first-person shooter to its lineup, with a role-playing game to follow at some indefinite point in the future.
I won't lie, though, I was a little concerned when TrackMania 2 -- actually the fifth game in the series -- was first announced. Rather than a single game encompassing several different environments and vehicles, as all previous installments were, it seemed publisher Ubisoft had decided TrackMania 2 would be better off split up and sold to players piecemeal, beginning with the new "Canyon" environment and proceeding through several others. Since Canyon first came out, we've seen Stadium, which is a remake of the popular environment first seen in the free TrackMania Nations, and now we come to the latest release, Valley.
Am I still concerned about TrackMania 2? No. Not at all. Because releasing it this way actually has a few nice benefits for players: firstly, you get to play each new environment as it's finished, rather than having to wait for a complete package; secondly, each environment has clearly had a lot of care and attention given to it -- something that's particularly true with Valley, easily the best-looking installment in the series to date; thirdly, the pricing of each environment is rather friendly on the wallet, which is nice.
For those of you who are yet to experience the joy that is TrackMania, let me explain. Take a typical arcade racing game. Then throw out pretty much every convention of that genre -- time limits, racing against other cars, lap-based circuits -- and replace it with an experience focused almost entirely on point-to-point time trials against ghosts. Oh, and the tracks are frequently complete physical impossibilities, consisting of rollercoaster loops and corkscrews, vertigo-inducing jumps and finish lines that tend to either see drivers hurtling straight into an extremely solid wall, or flinging themselves off ridiculously high cliffs.
That description doesn't really do TrackMania justice, however, because aside from a hefty single player campaign that will have you gnashing your teeth for weeks as you miss that Gold Medal time by a hundredth of a second for the fiftieth time that hour, TrackMania is -- and always has been -- one of the most extendible, moddable games in existence. And with Valley, that side of things is better than it has ever been thanks to enhanced support for Steam, including Workshop.
TrackMania isn't really a game intended to be played alone, either. Sure, the single player campaign is fun -- and actually acts as a pretty good "tutorial" to teach you how to handle both the vehicles and the various track features you might encounter in your career -- but it's the various multiplayer features that are the real star here. The campaign features online leaderboards and downloadable ghosts for asynchronous competition; there's dedicated server-based online play; local network support; simultaneous split-screen play; and a "hot seat" mode that, if you have your PC hooked up to a TV, makes TrackMania one of the greatest unsung heroes of the "party game" genre ever created -- with its simple, accessible controls, anyone can pick it up and play.
Online play, meanwhile, clearly demonstrates that despite its seeming simplicity, TrackMania is also taken seriously as an eSport -- most servers run a combination of mods that track players' performance and records to an absurdly detailed degree, and while these myriad leaderboards can sometimes clutter up the screen significantly, it's easy enough to tune out of the data in your field of vision and concentrate on the road ahead. The fact that most multiplayer servers also have literally thousands of tracks installed means that more often than not, everyone is on a relatively equal playing field, since it's rare you'll have the same experience online twice.
Or perhaps you prefer to create? Valley, like its predecessors, features a suite of creative tools that allows you to create your own tracks, edit video replays and paint your own cars. You can import your own 3D models if you don't like the standard car model; dedicated modders can even create their own game modes and additions to the already extensive lineup of blocks available in the track editor. All of your creations can quickly and easily be shared via Steam Workshop, which is a lot more straightforward than how previous incarnations did things -- either via the game's weird proprietary sort-of-Web page Manialink system, or simply via the open Web. Like other creation-centric games, you can have a completely satisfying experience with TrackMania even if you never once jump behind the wheel yourself.
Suffice to say that Valley, much like previous installments, offers a comprehensive package of possibilities for anyone who likes flinging fast cars at improbable speeds around physically-impossible courses, regardless of how seriously you take your virtual racing. But is is actually, you know, any fun?
Valley's rally cars handle markedly differently from Canyon's drift-heavy NASCAR-esque vehicles. There's a pleasing sense of weight to the new cars -- they feel heavy and powerful -- and Valley's beautiful European countryside setting highlights the markedly different effects that various road surfaces have on their handling. Tracks frequently take advantage of this fact, requiring quick adjustments on the part of the driver -- one moment you'll be screaming along at top speed on a wide freeway; the next you'll be merging onto a narrow country lane; after that, the road surface will disappear altogether and you'll be skidding sideways down a dirt track through one of the most convincing woodland settings I've seen in gaming, trying not to clip an unfortunately placed rocky outcropping that will flip you onto your roof.
TrackMania has always prided itself on providing short, snappy, thrilling experiences, and indeed that pattern continues for the most part here -- the vast majority of tracks in the single player campaign take less than a minute to traverse, meaning that making a small mistake and having to restart isn't usually too frustrating. There's an element of brutally difficult platform games such as Super Meat Boy in the game's structure; restarts and respawns are instant with no loading breaks, so there's no harm or shame in immediately starting over just because you weren't happy with how well you came off the start line.
There's the odd blip in the game structure here and there with longer "Multilap" circuits that often take two minutes or more to complete fully -- and which are extremely frustrating to mess up on the last corner -- but these are relatively few and far between and thankfully seem to have much more forgiving target times than the short point-to-point races that make up the majority of the single player campaign. Online, meanwhile, most server operators tend to favor short tracks that players can retry a hefty number of times in each round's 5-minute time limit rather than lengthy, difficult ones that are nigh-impossible to traverse even once.
The beauty of TrackMania's customizable nature, however, is that if you do want to run an endurance race, there's nothing stopping you -- here's the Steam Workshop page for a 100km long Stadium track that will take you at least 20 minutes to complete, for example.
The only real irritant in Valley's formula is that the interface is still atrocious. Lack of native Xbox controller support -- not to mention a bizarre default gamepad configuration -- is a pain for those who prefer not to use the keyboard controls, and even when you do have it set up to your liking, the ability to navigate the menus with a controller is very, very inconsistent. When playing in the hot seat party play mode, too, you'll have to set up controls for each player individually by signing in and out of the game with each player's different profile, otherwise you'll get some rather strange behavior. Fortunately, once you've done this once, it's done. Alternatively, you may just wish to stick with the default keyboard controls, whose digital nature is actually quite fitting to the series' arcade-style racing.
The menu layout also doesn't make a lot of things particularly apparent. It's not immediately obvious where downloaded Steam Workshop tracks end up, for example -- it's in the "Local Play" menu rather than "Single Player," if you were wondering -- and the game doesn't do a particularly good job of explaining a lot of its more obtuse features. New players will have little to no idea what the in-game "Planets" currency is for, for example -- they can be spent on downloading new content and setting "official" times on single player events, and earned through performing well at the latter -- and the way in which the game awards its various "points" for progression ("Skill Points" for setting "official" single player times, "Ladder Points" for performing well in multiplayer) is hard to fathom at times.
It's testament to the "fun factor" that TrackMania has always possessed that none of this matters in the slightest, though. TrackMania isn't a game you play to admire the clunky menus, and indeed they cease to matter once you're racing; it's a game you play to admire the poetry of an overpowered rally car being flung through the air, only to miss its landing spot and land hood-first in a lake fifty feet beneath the suspended finish line. It's a game you play to compulsively retry the same track over and over and over again for hours at a time, just until you get that perfect racing line. It's a game to play with friends, laughing and joking as all of you fall off a particularly precarious piece of track at exactly the same point.
Most of all, TrackMania has always been a game with which to have fun; a tradition proudly continued with Valley.
The best part of our review system is that I don't have to tell you what TrackMania 2 Valley is, because Pete already did that. I can tell you what it isn't.
Valley is not necessarily a replacement for a AAA racing title, like the Need for Speed series or the DIRT games. Even if the cars are heavier than the only other TrackMania I've played (the free-to-play TrackMania Forever) they still feel light and almost unreal. Valley feels like a return to the old arcade-style racers like Outrun, so if you've gotten used to modern arcade-style and simulation racers, prepare yourself for some adjustment.
The two games I brought up before were mentioned for a reason: on-road, it doesn't feel at tight as Need for Speed and off-road, Valley doesn't impart the same sense of control as DIRT. I found it easier to tap out small course corrections on my keyboard and Xbox 360 controller's analog stick (I didn't have the same problem with controller support that Pete did) than trying to carefully steer. Sometimes when you're off-road, you're just going in a direction with little ability to stop yourself and it's probably best just to reset yourself back to the nearest checkpoint.
The game looks great, especially in those aforementioned off-road sections. Sure, it's missing some of the graphical bells and whistles of a full-fledged AAA game, but Nadeo is building on and backward-compatible with a game that came out in 2011. Plus, it's only $20, what did you expect?
For your $20, what you're really buying is TrackMania 2's absolutely silly number of tracks. Most of these are user-created, so there's an endless amount of variety. I can only count one track that I raced more than once during my multiplayer run. The flipside of this endless variety is users aren't trained level designers. Frequently, part of finishing the race is figuring out where you're supposed to be going on- and off-road. Sometimes you'll come careening out of a corner, thinking you're making good time, only to slam head first into a wall or fence. You'll miss turns and jumps, hit fences, go flying off into nowhere, and sometimes find yourself deep in a forest. Your best bet is to just reset yourself and try again. Once you've learned a track, you usually have another chance to get a better time.
Speaking of multiplayer, you'll be racing against ghosts. These ghosts may be live players also racing the track, but there's no physical substance to them, so you'll pass right through them. No slamming takedown action here, Burnout/Need for Speed fans.
The entire package is wrapped up with a great track and car editor. The track editor allows you to create the wildest, most incomprehensible tracks, limited only by your imagination. The car editor lets you paint your vehicle, but I admit it took me a while to figure out how to choose my paint jobs for the real game, because the menus are a bit of a mess. They're unintuitive and finding things can be a bit of a pain.
In the end, it comes down to that $20 price tag and the wide variety of tracks available. If you can get used to the feel of driving in Trackmania 2 Valley, you're in for a lot of fun. If not, then hey, you're only out $20.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: The best-looking TrackMania to date, and the first to feature dynamic scenery. While not quite as polished as some triple-A offerings, it's still quite a looker.
- Music: The default soundtrack for single player racing is unobtrusive and works well with the arcade racing action; online, the choice of tracks is at the server operator's discretion and tends to err on the side of hilariously cheesy Euro dance anthems.
- Interface: Once you're into a race, the game is simple and immensely accessible; unfortunately, the convoluted, clunky menus can make navigating the game's various options a pain.
- Lasting Appeal: Given the game's strong focus on multiplayer and user-generated content, there's potentially limitless fun here if you enjoy flinging floaty, drifty cars around physically-improbable courses.
Valley may not be a significant evolution over past TrackMania titles -- right down to the clunky menus -- but it was never trying to be; instead, what we have here is one of the strongest installments in the series, with impressive visuals, cars that are fun to drive and a wealth of customization options.