Some games not only stand the test of time, they actively defy it. That’s undoubtedly the case for Trackmania’s over-the-top time trials and deep track editor – a simple but addictive combination that’s earned the series a dedicated community for nearly two decades. The latest entry, a remake of 2006’s TrackMania Nations simply called Trackmania, feels like a return to form in many ways. But an off-putting subscription system and poor tools to actually teach you its intricacies make it a bittersweet reunion.
While there’s plenty of racing in Trackmania, the main event has always been variations on time trials. Whether you’re playing alone or against others online, you’re always really competing against your own skills. This can make a lot of Trackmania’s modes feel repetitive, whether its Time Attack, the team multiplayer of Chase or the traditional circuit-based Lap. But that drive to master a track is more than enough reason to keep coming back.
Unfortunately, Trackmania has never explained itself particularly well, and 2020’s rendition is no different. An all too brief tutorial covers the basics, but you’re on your own when it comes to learning the mechanical subtlety behind getting truly fast times – tricks like nudging the jetpack-like reactor boost in midair to hover through midair checkpoints you didn’t see coming. That gives Trackmania a steeper learning curve than it ought to have.
But once you zoom past those initial speed bumps, Trackmania can be hard to put down. Finishing any of its decent launch selection of 45+ official tracks can take less than 90 seconds a piece, but you’ll want to play them over and over to shave off seconds and find all the clever shortcuts hidden in plain sight. The potent sounds of your engine roaring backed by high energy music can even eventually become quite soothing, drawing you in as you boost, jump, and drift around each corner in perfect rhythm.
That doesn’t mean that you’ll be calmly cruising to the finish line though. Trackmania’s cars always feel floaty around turns, and you often pick up speed faster than you think you should. That may sound like a bad thing, but it actually contributes to the feeling that you’re perpetually just on the edge of losing control, which makes it all the more exhilarating when you dial things in just right and hit the goal for a gold medal.
Drifting Off The Main Circuit
The other side of the Trackmania coin is its custom tracks, which remain as impressive as ever – partially thanks to an intuitive block-based editor. Even before release, there are already user-made tracks ranging from recreations of Mario Kart classics to car golf to a rudimentary version of bumper cars. One dark course full of lamp posts felt like a throwback to Night Driver on the Atari 2600. Another downward slope felt like a slide from a water park that could send your vehicle flipping and flying at any moment. You never really know what you’ll get as you rummage through Trackmania’s course selections, and that’s half the fun. Time will tell if custom servers can achieve the level of plugin-based madness seen in the days of Trackmania 2, but creators already seem to have the means to go nuts in all sorts of ways.
Unfortunately, not everyone who plays Trackmania can utilize these tools thanks to its unappealing new subscription service. You can play on official tracks and use a simplified map editor entirely for free, but most other things require either the “Standard” or “Club” access subscriptions, which are $10 and $30 per year respectively. Without open access to custom tracks and other community features like chat, it’s less of a free-to-play experience and more of a glorified demo.
Gating off access like this runs the risk of putting a damper on the community support that makes Trackmania shine long term. 2016’s Trackmania Turbo proved the community won’t automatically rally around the latest entry in the series just because it’s new, especially when you can load up new tracks in TrackMania 2 for the rest of your life at no extra cost. This new Trackmania is definitely a fun return with an impressive new coat of paint, but there’s not really enough that’s brand new to justify a recurring entry fee. Nadeo has committed to adding a new set of official tracks every season for all players, but that can only differentiate things so much compared to what the community cooks up.
Whether you’re playing free or paid, Trackmania’s fancy new graphics at least makes everything look and feel fresh – it’s not going to stand up to the latest Forza or Gran Turismo, but this more lighthearted take on racing isn’t exactly trying to. Cars have a great sheen to them that persists even as you pick up speed and focus on the road ahead.
Outside of the races, Trackmania doesn’t look as impressive. Its menus are poorly cobbled together – but as a longtime fan, that off-kilter feeling oddly seems like a core part of the Trackmania experience at this point, and Nadeo probably knows it. Maniaplanet may be gone, but the charm of strange font choices and obtuse settings reminded me exactly what game I was playing, even if those rough edges will probably keep newcomers at arms length.