To the untrained eye, TrackMania appears completely conventional in its approach to racing.
That is, until the first jump is encountered, at which point it's pretty obvious this is no mere racing sim. This one has a level of verticality that harks back to Stunt Car Racer, and customisable tracks inspired by Scalextric. It's also one of the most addictive racing platforms available, with each track demanding a ferocious amount of attention to the racing line in order to master.
So that's why, six years and countless iterations after the original TrackMania took Europe by storm, TrackMania 2 is on the verge of release. It's difficult to see exactly how designers Nadeo and publishers Ubisoft can work together to improve on what was already a pretty watertight package. TrackMania 2: Canyon has a lot riding on it, Electronic Sports integration notwithstanding.
Where TrackMania Nations Forever featured the stadium environment, and dabbled with off-road elements as an additional feature, Canyon is integral to the basis of TrackMania 2's scenery package. Wide vistas, narrow road bridges and sheer cliffs surrounded by shimmering lakes are commonplace in the hundreds of community-made maps featured in the online beta. The graphics engine has been completely overhauled, with a higher focus on lighting to compliment the rocky terrain, although lower-spec machines will still manage provided owners are prepared to sacrifice a little detail here and there.
The most significant change for the series comes in the form of revamped handling physics. The first fifteen minutes of acclimatisation will test the patience of seasoned Nations players, as the vehicles pitch and roll about their centre axis, and feel far more top-heavy than their open-wheeled cousins from the previous game. It's relatively easy to take on a corner with a bit of opposite camber and roll completely, so clever times rely on clever application of throttle as much as reading the texture of the corner. In fairness, this has always been a requirement in TrackMania, but now even more so.
Due to the increased range of track blocks, corner variants and the overall complexity added to the track designer, it's now no longer possible to guarantee that the track angle encountered at the beginning of a corner will be anything like the exit. Rather than the calculated, uniform layout encountered with tracks in the Nations stadium, Canyon is a wild, unpredictable place, and maintaining an accurate memory of the racing line is paramount if fast times are to be set.
The beta features an updated version of the existing track designer, an integrated editing suite capable of the most astonishing customisation. Not only tracks, but the entire landscape can be crafted from a blank slate, with even more placement options than in the past. Additionally, and mercifully, a copy/paste function is now featured, preventing tearing down entire sections of track to simply move them a tile to the left.
The dusty setting of Canyon extends to track textures as well. Turbo boosts are harder to spot, and circuits can be reduced to little more than single-lane goat tracks at the whim of the designer. Despite this, Nadeo have seen no reason to slow the game down, indeed, it's faster than ever.
Part of this increased speed is down to the lack of penalty applied to drifting. In a contentious gamble, drifting is now a crucial gameplay mechanic, rather than something generally avoided in TrackMania Nations Forever. As there is no appreciable reduction in speed whilst going sideways, accurately plotting the entry and exit points to sharp corners, tapping the break and balancing the vehicle carefully will, in most cases, yield the fastest time. Purists won't like it a bit, but there is a kind of guilty satisfaction in perfecting this technique.
There are still plenty of tracks online that require no drifting, as well as some that require only drifting. Time will tell which style will be favoured by the masses.
In some ways it's fortunate that vehicles are now more inclined to lateral movement, as it affords the ability to show off the new damage model. The destructive process will see parts of vehicles flying off during impact, and can even be customised using in-game scripts. It is however entirely cosmetic, no matter how badly damaged vehicles become, they are all entirely equal in performance at all times.
Herein lies the beauty of TrackMania; by losing either spectacularly, or by the tiniest fraction of a second, it's all down to player skill. There's no random scripted event that occurs, no chance that the outcome can be dictated by anything other than hair-trigger accuracy and a steely determination to repeat tracks ad nauseum. TrackMania 2: Canyon is absolutely no different in this regard, it's designed by the same team, and although it's graphically and physically very different to what has come before, the DNA is clearly intact.
Nadeo plan to branch out with the ManiaPlanet suite of games to include a follow-up to Canyon entitled Valley, as well as role-playing titles in QuestMania and FPS games in ShootMania. As with TrackMania, each should feature an exhaustive collection of modding tools, as well as ManiaScript – shipping with TrackMania 2, this scripting language will allow extensive in-game modification to virtually all aspects of the sequel.
As far as community involvement is concerned, Nadeo have kept the focus very much hands-on. Unfortunately the beta featured no singleplayer content, although if prospective gamers are hedging their bets on playing by themselves, they'll most likely be missing a treat. Online multiplayer has always been the strength of the series, perhaps with some LAN action on the side, and TrackMania 2: Canyon looks to extend that out for the foreseeable future.
Watch out for it on September 14.