It’s easy to start any discussion about online PC gaming with tired jokes about lonely nerds with no friends, but the fact of the matter is online gaming is so much more than that now. You don’t even have to be a gamer to know that World of Warcraft is played by millions the world over, and if you have an internet connection and a liking for games featuring guns you’ve probably also heard of the twin behemoths of online FPS gaming, Counter-Strike and Team Fortress. I’ve played both myself. But you may not know what the biggest online racing game is. It’s a UbiSoft game, produced by a small French company you’ve likely never heard of. Read on, because I’m going to introduce you to the relentlessly addictive world of TrackMania.

TrackMania

TrackMania Nations

Depending on how you look at it, there have either been three or twelve instalments of the TrackMania series, basically pre-dating the Grand Theft Auto IV release model of releasing a full game and then tacking on additional games based on the same engine but not requiring the original game to be installed. The breakthrough came when they had the bright idea of making one of these packs freeware, and TrackMania Nations was the game that got many people into the TM series – me included. Think of it as a demo with enough full features, graphics, and fun gameplay to fill many full-price games – almost makes you wonder what the point is in paying for the other editions, right? But pay many people did – again, me included.

TrackMania

But why? How can this pokey arcade racer be so popular? It doesn’t even have a damage model! Sometimes I find myself wondering this when I’ve crashed headlong into a wall for the umpteenth time and ruined my run. You see, the one gameplay mode of TrackMania is a race against the clock. It’s pure time trial – get from A to B in the shortest time possible. Your rivals are ghost cars, so it’s just about keeping your eyes on the road (or rather, on stalks) and getting to the finish. And sometimes this one goal can really wear one’s patience out – especially when playing online, which in many cases can lead you into a depressing cycle of annoyance, frustration and failure.

TrackMania: Irritating

Much like any form of user-made content, the levels can get very obnoxious and irritating by design; in many cases the online tracks demand absolute perfection to even reach the finish, let alone get the fastest time; something which is impossible for a) ham-fisted individuals like me with the reaction times of a sloth on tequila and b) people who have never raced the track before. And with such head-crushing variety of maps on most servers, you have to really stick to a server for a long time to even start repeating the tracks and learning them. But the game encourages you to keep moving up a ladder of servers to match your skill levels via a ‘ladder points’ system which rewards you for going on tough servers and penalises you for being the big fish in a small pond.

TrackMania Appeal

So you wind up on servers full of obsessive compulsives who race off into the distance whilst you mash the reset button again and again because letting off the gas for a nanosecond in one corner means you didn’t make the ridiculously huge jump five corners on from that one.  And then you finally nail that perfect run, the one where you’re convinced it’s not possible to go any faster – and realise you’re 20th out of 21 people on the server. And the guy in 21st was AFK eating a burger.

So it’s a game that can get very frustrating very quickly. And repetitive too, especially in Nations/United where nearly all of the online tracks take place in the same style of track in the same environment. But this is no different to any other online game; many Counter-Strike players probably never leave the DE_Dust map, playing it thousands of times until every dust particle is memorised. It seems repetition and grind are pretty essential to a good online game, the feeling of working hard to slowly level up and become a mighty skilled warrior – it’s what keeps people playing them.

Simple and Stunning

The two drawcards of Trackmania are it’s simple gameplay and stunning visuals. The controls are ridiculously simple, with no toolbars or shortcuts to memorise, and the gameplay itself is so much fun. The handling physics remind me of Driver – arcade but with enough weight to make powersliding and jumping fun. When you fly through the air there’s real weight to it, meaning when you do nail the perfect landing, it feels like you’ve genuinely made it happen, and when you mess up, the resulting huge crash is spectacular. The graphics are stunning, the lighting incredible, and yet the framerate remains smooth even on low-end machines.

TrackMania Nations

The tracks themselves feel like full-size versions of those Hot Wheels toy tracks you had as a kid; huge loop-the-loops and ramps combining into twisty corners and speedboost pads, and the sense of speed makes the whole thing a massive barrel of garish fun. It reminds me a lot of PS1-era Ridge Racer; an arcade racing game that focused on lush surroundings and open, flowing tracks. I cannot stress enough just how beautiful this game is; it’s the videogame equivalent of Christina Hendricks. There’s a joke about curves and rising hills in there that you’ll be pleased to know I won’t acknowledge – needless to say the combination of simplicity, fun racing and jaw-dropping visuals is a winner.

If you’re deliberating about getting it – go find TM Nations and download it now for free. What’s the most you’ll loose? Five minutes of your life? But I guarantee even if you aren’t a racing game fan there’s much to enjoy here. In the meantime I’m off back online to continue grinding my way up the rankings, and will be back very soon with a review of the latest instalment, TM 2: Canyon. If existing TM games are as beautiful as Christina Hendricks, God only knows how gorgeous the new instalments will be.