Publisher: Digital Jesters (UK) / Enlight (USA)
Released: May/June 2005
If you haven't read TrackMania, take a quick peek. You'll see that I waxed nostalgic about Racing Destruction Set, an ancient racetrack creation and racing game complete with ridiculous hills and jumps, gravity control, deadly pits and a more arcade than real racing model.
TrackMania Sunrise is still like that. Just about every element that you saw in the first game - the 3 car types, the crazy stunts, the puzzle modes which often hide a clever trick, the 3 medal types you can achieve, and even the somewhat clunky track editor - are still in the sequel. But the bumbling naïveté of the first game has been replaced with professional shine.
There are 4 race modes this time around. They are: the straightforward Race - which isn't quite so straightforward as it includes some ludicrous speed jumps and vertical stunts; the Platform mode which dispenses with the time-based racing, and instead challenges you to complete a race with the fewest resets; the unforgiving Crazy mode which is very well-named indeed, and Puzzle mode which, just like the first game, challenges you to find an unorthodox solution to a seemingly straightforward incomplete track. Just as the first game, not all the pieces you are given are necessarily needed.
All modes have increasingly tough requirements, be it a certain time within which you have to complete the race or a decreasingly smaller number of resets you can get away with. The Crazy mode in particular offers a downright masochistic game mode in which you have to win each race in a Series (or a Cup) on the first try. Or start over.
There are three car classes again - the supercar, the SUV, and the roadster. The first class will see very high speeds and powerglides around 90° turns at 500 mph; the second sees lots of slow-speed, high-angle mazes of grippy-tire goodness; and the last is ... well, rather odd. It's as if a real car was put into the exaggerated physics of TrackMania, with questionable results. I mean, it's cool that the game can create realistic physics - but why put them in a game that's all about faster, higher, harder? It's with a sense of wrenching dislocation that this last car makes you unlearn all that you just learned in the other two modes.
Chances are that the designers of TrackMania sat down, noticed that their already tough game was in fact finished by quite a few people - and decided to make it harder yet. Crazy mode and the final, realistic car are proof of that, and I confess I found it more infuriatingly difficult than fun. Fortunately you can have fun in the game even without obtaining gold medals on everything - but that extra-tough benchmark is out there if you really want it.
There are only a few curveballs in the steady difficulty ramp-up; one is a nearly impossible track in the middle of the very first Race series. While most of the early tracks rely on simply not bumping into things too much and landing in the right place, this one track requires several lucky midair collisions, the ability to very precisely target a certain jump speed, and ahead knowledge of gaps in the track surface. This variable difficulty is a downright controller flinger.
Except that TrackMania is such a "simple" game that it only uses the arrow keys for driving. There is no turbo, no handbrake to distract you from the purity of the addictive hellish puzzles.
And you'll enjoy it all in high res graphics, a screaming fast framerate, with high detail which puts the original game firmly in the "beta" category; everything looks and sounds very sharp, if still a little toy-like, like a huge construction set with hills of papier-mache and felt, and Monopoly buildings dropped on top. Even though the game still uses the no clipping mode of racing (other cars on the race track are just like ghost cars, no crashing) - it looks so good doing it at 500 kp/h that the design choice is forgivable, and even sensible. After all, when you're trying to shave off 0.01 of a second, you really don't want the AI in your way. Or other players, for that matter - multiplayer acts just like this, except the other cars are rendered far more jerkily. Learn to ignore them in single player, and focus on the track; it's all about the best times anyway.
The excellent visuals are augmented with an in-game car paintshop. You have a set of colors, decals, stickers and accents at your disposal; you can get fairly creative. Importing new car skins and models is still in the domain of those on friendly terms with moving files around; but since most PC gamers already are (or are they?), that shouldn't be a big problem. Still, an in-game file browser/skin downloader type thing would have been an obvious next step in convenience - alas, it is not there. If you're craving a DeLorean model for your sports car though, or a Volkswagen Touareg for the SUV, they're out there, and not too hard to install.
Audio is simple and appropriate, as in the first game. Notably, there is a revamped soundtrack which is actually quite nice and fitting to the fast action of the game. You might even find the riffs sticking in your head after you exit the game, unlike the original's utterly forgettable tunes.
The cool stuff
In a game where you reset, restart, and retry things a lot, it is imperative that the process be as painless as possible.
Fortunately, it is.
Restarting from last checkpoint, or from the start is instant. Resetting the track editor likewise. Moving from editing to trying it out the same. You can't ask for any faster response than this, and it's very gratifying that this key piece of the puzzler made it from the original.
The editor is likewise enhanced a bit with free camera - you can now view the track from any angle you desire. Moving the camera up and down - another important part in an acrobatic racer like this - has been mapped to the mousewheel, another excellent decision. I only wish the editor always started in free camera mode, but that's a single click away.
Finally, the multiplayer is still very quick to load. However the magic of saving and sending you the track data is accomplished, it's very efficient.
The concluding bit
If you liked the first game, it's a no brainer - get this one.
If you didn't, likewise. Don't get it.
If you like challenging, time-based racing, or enjoy puzzles where brains are just as important as lightning-fast reflexes - with a racing tilt - try the demo first. Then get it. The four racing modes, the track editor, the publicly made tracks and skins and the multiplayer all mean that you're getting a lot of bang for your buck. Just be aware that you might burst a bloodvessel trying to get to some of it.