Format: PC CD ROM (1)
Release Date: December 2003 (UK), TBA (USA)
Developer: Nadeo
Publisher: Digital Jesters

Back in the days of yore, when there was no Internet, gaming consoles were something unusual to own and not the multibillion dollar industries they are today, there was a game called Racing Destruction Set; it came out for MS-DOS PCs, and previously for the Commodore 64. It was presented in isometric 3D, RC Pro Am (NES) style, or Diablo for those unfamiliar with that classic (go read about it now). Its cool premise was that you could not only race vehicles, you could also build race tracks from an assortment of tiles, and then race on them to destruction. There was also a host of options, but that's another node.

For a long, long time we've been without a game that would not only give you a decent racing model, but also allow your inner destructo-architect to grow. Then, a little-known French company Nadeo (formerly known for such um, hits as Virtual Skipper 3 and indeed Virtual Skipper 2) came up with a simple, but delightfully presented game that satisfied both criteria.


TrackMania is a deceptively simplistic 3D racer. You can't modify your car, there's really only three types of cars (although you can apply one of many premade skins, or make your own), there's no wheelbase height to adjust or spoilers to attach for looks. Don't be expecting intense powersliding, or having to elude cops. Instead, TrackMania gives you 3 track types (ice, desert, countryside) and an appropriate car type for each, and sets you loose on the 3 simple, but fun modes of play.

In this mode of play, you are given an objective, a time limit - and some track pieces. Usually the objectives consist of making it from point A to B, but sometimes there are additional checkpoints. It is up to you to construct (or destruct, although you can't remove pre-placed pieces) the track in such a way as to beat the progressively tougher time limits. Based on your time, you will receive either a bronze, silver or gold medal, along with some "Coppers" - in-game currency used to buy track pieces for the construction part of the game. You can retry as many times as you like, and you'll probably need to! The puzzles become tougher as the game tries to trick you with extraneous track pieces or misdirecting construction; sometimes you even have to fling yourself off the premade track to achieve the best time! There are 8 puzzles in each track type to start with, so you get to experience the handling of the jeep, the muscle car and the rally buggy.

This part is about pure racing. There are 8 premade tracks in each track type, and you're still trying to earn the gold medal for Coppers. Since this part is about the racing, let's talk briefly about what that's like.

You only have throttle, left and right to work with on each car. The jeep is slower, but very responsive and hard to topple; the muscle car is extremely fast, but very squirly and easy to flip; finally the rally buggy sticks to the surface and is ultra-responsive - it is perhaps the toughest car to race due to its twitch response. Properties of all surfaces are very distinct, from the near-perfect grip of the blacktop to the complete lack thereof on ice. Finally, there is a robust physics engine and collision detection system in the game, which adds to the feel of precision racing as you bounce off obstacles or fly through the air. The cars are indestructible, but you can fall into pits (this is also a track piece) or lakes, which disqualifies you from the race.

The puzzle mode gives you a taste of what to expect from the construction mode, and gets you acquainted with the editor. You easily learn to rotate the 3D landscape in 90° increments; to move around with the arrow keys on the grid, and to place and erase grid-sized track pieces - it's not quite freeform building, but the trade-off is that it's simple, intuitive and approachable. You can also tilt the landscape for a better view, all the way from top-down to completely horizontal. You place pieces by clicking the "Draw" button, right next to the "Rotate piece" button - also in 90° increments. The editor is smart enough to not let you place pieces where they overlap, and to continue drawing the basic "track" piece until you un-click the "Draw" command. All other pieces must be placed singly.

In order to construct your track, you have to have track pieces - you can purchase these using the Coppers you've earned from the puzzle mode. If you're lacking funds, you can sell some pieces back at no loss. The pieces aren't expensive, so it's not that difficult to make a very large track after only a few completed puzzles. The mechanism is only there to gradually ease the player into more and more complex race track types.

The pieces range from simple blacktop, to inclined curves, to ramps of various inclinations, to outrageous parts like tubes, speed-ups, loops or spirals. You can also use "land" pieces to vary the elevation of the land below the track. Finally there are decor pieces of all sorts, which you can use to either decorate or add to your track - for example, some of the puzzle tracks have a sparse forest through which you must race to get the fastest time. Alternately, you can use the trees solely for decoration.

The most impressive part of the editor is the inbuilt realtime preview. At any point during your constructive efforts you can hit the "Race" button on the screen. The grid vanishes, the controls go away, and the viewpoint zooms in to your starting point and the car sitting there. Then you race. Hit "Esc" to return to the builder - it's just as fast. No compiling, no building libraries, no loadscreens - just build and test. This makes destruction testing fun, easy and relatively unstressful as mistakes can be identified instantly and fixed fast.


The other excellent part about making tracks is that, due to their being grid-based and made from a premade set of pieces, their resulting filesize is tiny. This makes them well suited to online trading, and indeed the website has many player-submitted tracks.

Secondly, the small size, combined with simple vehicle code, means that you can easily race opponents all over the world, unhindered by the lag monster. When you connect to a server (which can be anyone's machine), the game will download the track fully (I have not seen a track larger than 50kb yet) and you will race on your own copy of it - since all races are purely time-based, the game polls the other players' positions only intermittently. While this makes all the other cars seem to jerk around on the track when the lag is considerable, your racing is unhindered and unaffected (except visually; the jerkiness can admittedly be disconcerting).

Final Thoughts

TrackMania is, as I said, deceptively simple. It is rendered simplistically, with sharp, colorful highlights that make the race tracks and cars look like Matchbox playsets - the cars' responsiveness, ability to create crazy stunts, indestructibility and a physics engine that sends cars flying end over end only add to this feeling. The experience is however very addictive, because the gold times are tough to get, and the puzzles are fairly clever - you just know you can shave off that 0.05 seconds off your best time. And once you've completed series 1 (8 tracks on each of the 3 surface types) get series 2 to gnash your teeth at!

TrackMania's UK publishers are currently chatting up some publishers in the US, but these things invariably take time. In the meantime, you can purchase the game straight from Digital Jesters - not cheap, but they do throw in free shipping worldwide.

Who would I recommend this game to? I have no idea - some sort of obsessive person (must...beat...the best times...) with a penchant for construction (and nutty stunts) and at the same time a tight (yet not fully realistic) racing model. Oh yes, also someone who won't mind the crudity of some of the menus, and will focus on how well the game's editor is executed. It's difficult to sum up this game, but: it is fun. And sometimes, that's all we need.