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TrackMania² Canyon Review4
by Jeff Gerstmann on
TrackMania 2: Canyon is a weird, wonderful driving game, but everything surrounding the game itself feels like it's actively trying to discourage you from playing at all.
You drive cars in TrackMania 2: Canyon, but it's not really something that I'd call a racing game. Actually, it's sort of hard to pin down what, exactly, TrackMania is. I suppose it's a time trial, really. Rather than racing against cars, wheel-to-wheel, it's primarily about getting the best lap times you possibly can--even if you're doing it on a server filled with up to 200 players, that really just means you're connected to a chat room full of other people doing the same thing, and you can see their racing ghosts as you all try to best one another before time expires. It's also a predominantly online game with a weird, vibrant community that's pumping out so many new tracks that you might not ever see the same one twice. It's quirky and does an awful job of explaining itself to new players, which might make it practically impenetrable, but the core of it is astounding and exciting fun that's perfect for sucking up whatever free time you happen to have available at any given moment.
There's a single-player component to TrackMania 2 as well as an online side, and between them you end up with a few different (and sometimes confusing) ways to measure progression. Offline, you can race on the game's official tracks. By default, there are three different ghosts to choose from, which gives you a visual representation of the track's bronze, silver, and gold times. But you can also turn to the game's online leaderboards and download the (way faster) ghosts of the speediest strangers in the world. After beating the gold medal time, you'll be offered the chance to set an "official" time on a track. This is the one that gets sent up to the game's centralized leaderboards, and depending on how you do, you'll earn a number of "skill points," which in turn gives you an overall ranking for your offline performance. If you totally crap it up on your official run, you can try again--but you'll have to wait five minutes before you're allowed to try again. You could probably use the extra practice time, anyway. This has been a somewhat controversial change amongst the game's community, as in the previous game you could simply try your official run again right away after sending in a nominal amount of your in-game currency. Personally, I think they're sort of freaking out about nothing, but maybe that's because I don't put a lot of stock in the game's single-player side to begin with.
But if you do care about the single-player side of TrackMania, you should know that Canyon is reduced compared to TrackMania United Forever. Part of that is made obvious by the name. This is strictly a Canyon environment, and not a collection of seven different tile sets, like United was. But on top of that, many of the modes and level styles found in the previous game are simply missing. So if you liked Platform, Stunts, or Puzzle, you'll be disappointed with the solo portion of TM2. The game also seems as if it doesn't track stunts at all, yet stunts is still listed as a game mode in multiplayer. Again, this isn't something that's really dragging me down, as the Canyon environment is quite good and the time trials and online racing is the part about the game that really gives TrackMania its staying power. But it's a little odd to see a sequel cut so many features.
That Canyon environment is probably the biggest change in TrackMania 2, since it provides both the look of the game and the way the car handles. Yeah, I said car. In TrackMania, all cars are created equal on a per-environment basis. So there are multiple skins to choose from, and you can find a handful of user-created 3D models online, but the car will always handle and drive the way it was designed to handle and drive. The Canyon look gives the game a Southwestern vibe, with plenty of plateaus and caverns surrounding the tracks. The car handling feels sort of similar to the Island environment from the previous TrackMania. The car's capable of super-fast speeds and it's very easy to kick the rear end out into a drift, in case you need some help making some corners. Figuring out when you can take a turn at full speed and when you'll need to drift around a turn is one of the keys to keeping your lap times low.
But maybe I'm beating around the bush. The best part about TrackMania is that it's weird. The block-based track editor makes it relatively easy for folks to construct their own tracks, and thousands of tracks have already been created. So if you get online and start hopping around the various servers, you'll usually be able to find a ton of tracks you've never seen before. Some are designed to be "full speed" tracks, where you never need to take your finger off of the gas once you've lined up the right angles for all the corners. Others get more technical, requiring you to think about when to drift and how to line up and handle tricky sets of curves. Some are just ridiculous, gimmicky tracks built around figuring out and exploiting some little secret. You'll start to recognize a lot of the various blocks used to make tracks almost immediately, but the best track authors are putting the blocks together in crazy ways. The amount of variety, as you might have guessed, is what gives TrackMania its replayability. But it'd sure be nice if it was easier to see all this stuff.
TrackMania's community is extremely dedicated. They'd have to be, because TrackMania 2: Canyon's cooler options and features feel hidden below the surface. You can import a lot of user-created content, from new car models and skins to tracks, horns, avatars, and so on. The game has a built-in system of user-created minisites that let users hawk their wares for an exchange of in-game currency. But this system feels buried and is poorly explained, leading to a better alternative: community websites built to distribute tracks, modes, and other in-game information. Via the server software's plugin system, users have created mods that sit on top of the server and add music players, better chat options, widgets that let you vote on if you like or hate tracks, a unified records system that tells you the fastest times on a given track, regardless of which server the time was set on, and so on. Much of these plugins were created for the previous TrackMania, and it's kind of insane that Nadeo hasn't worked to integrate more of these now-crucial features directly into the game itself. Out of the box, a TrackMania 2 server simply tells you what place you're in at that moment. It's great that the community has filled in the gaps, but in some ways it's disheartening that so little has changed.
That's the only major problem here. The main change in Canyon is the new environment and a new, higher standard for graphics. When you turn it all the way up, it's a great-looking game. But it's surrounded by an awful UI that feels like it wasn't designed to be used by actual humans and, due to a serious lack of an instruction manual for this digital-only release, it's not easy for new players to figure out what, exactly, is going on. It all holds TrackMania 2: Canyon back a little bit. A streamlined front-end and more clearly spelled-out progression would probably go a long way. But if you're up for digging around and find the idea of a driving game that's a little left-of-center exciting, TM2 is kind of incredible.