Friday, June 06, 2008

Review: Trackmania Nations

It's been a long time since there's been a racing game for PC that I heartily endorsed (I think the last one was Whiplash, called Fatal Racing in the UK, back in the mid 90s). Imagine my surprise to find that the racing game that compels me to race once more after over a decade, is also free to download and play.

Trackmania nations is a racing game that stresses online competition versus other players. The free version focuses on formula-1 style racing in a large arena, but the pay version adds in styles such as racing McLarens along the beach or rally cars through the dirt or even beat up, top heavy econoboxes through the desert.

The advantage of the design of this game is that the graphics are simple as far as things such as poly count go, and the game really takes advantage of this. The graphic options scale to such a degree that in minimal mode the game runs reasonably well on my laptop with its chintzy on-board intel graphics chip, and yet at max looks beautiful on my uber gaming desktop box with an 8800 GTX in it. Even water has the ability to ripple and reflect realistically, and although the visuals are all in the same vein in the free version, the pay version allowed artists to really show that when given room to flex, they can generate content both pretty and diverse.

The sounds are mostly what you would expect from a racing game, with the exception of the soundtrack. This has been the first game in a while that I really noticed the high quality of the soundtrack. Using ogg vorbis format music files (much higher quality and lower compression than MP3s,) the richness of the music really comes through on the higher shelf sound cards.

The racing is rather simple. You use the arrow keys (or your joystick/wheel, if you want) to steer left and right and accelerate/brake. The tracks vary from straight-forward races emphasizing speed and turn control, to crazy tracks that require inverted jumps and halfpipe turns. And through it all, the emphasis is on multiplayer, be it LAN, Online, or "by mail." Let me explain about that last one. It is actually possible for, in this game, you to have a good run on a track, save your "replay" of this track, and e-mail it (or otherwise somehow send the approximately 50kb file) to a friend which will give him both the track AND your "ghost" to race against.. and if he beats you, he can send HIS replay back to you... and so on. Quite novel.

Unfortunately the single player experience is somewhat neglected in this title.. there's no AI to speak of to race against other than the "medals," which gives you a car to race against that is really just the visual representation of the time you are trying to beat. Racing against these virtual opponents can be frustrating, especially at the "gold medal" level because they never mess up... they are guaranteed to finish the race safe and sound at their predetermined time, whereas you the player risk yourself on every turn and jump. The game in solo mode is not very fun, in my opinion... but against your friends or even just a few online strangers, it's a blast.

That brings me to the one other gripe I have with the game... It's pretty and all, but I'd have like to have seen some explosions or model destruction happen when a car crashes at 400kph. As it is now, it bounces or stops as if it were a low speed fender bender in a supermarket parking lot.. and not a dent or scratch to show for it (though skidding/rolling around in the dirt does get your car visibly and convincingly dirty).

One thing that is definitely a big plus to the game, however, is its inclusion of a full-service track editor. You can create your own tracks entirely from scratch for use for racing against your pals. The editor puts every track tile at your disposal, from the straightest straight to the craziest corkscrews. There are some very imaginative edits out there. And, of course, you can save your best run on these tracks and send the generated replay file to your friend, and he can race the track against you.

The game is an incredibly good showing, especially for a free title, but the disappointing single player experience keeps it from getting an A. However, the online/lan/by mail multiplayer, the replayability, and the track editor keep it up high.
Grade: B+
And that's the word from Bandit camp...

1 comment:

PPMcBiggs said...

Yeah GB it is a pretty good game. I like it because of its simplicity. Start it up and play. Thats it. I have been enjoying my time with it.

My one gripe with it is how much harder it is to steer with an actual wheel and pedals than the keyboard. I might be elitist but I feel if I laid out the hard earned jack for a "proper" controller it should at least make the game a little easier. Maybe it is just the way the tracks are made. That is, they were made with keyboard as the sole input considered.

For the casual gamer though I give this game an A+. Easy to get in and out of, simple and to the point and, most importantly, genuinely fun. When I can sneak some time with my CPU I like to get as much time playing as possible. This game helps me accomplish that.