Words By Alex Daintith
The seconds count down. Sweat permeates my palms as my grip on the controller becomes ever tighter. It’s my 23rd attempt at Gold on Canyon #01, the very first stage on Trackmania Turbo. A game that leaves behind the hand-holding tropes of its competition in favour of something far more rewarding: rock-solid difficulty. I misjudge my approach to the final ramp. Restart.
Trackmania’s premise is refreshingly simple – select your track and you’ll be dropped by helicopter bonnet-first into one of the game’s myriad of twisting, vomit-inducing, nitro-fuelled race tracks. Your objective? Whizz through as fast as humanly possible in pursuit of the illustrious gold medal. Boost pads will slingshot you over ramps, magnetic panels will keep you glued to rollercoaster-esque loops and off-road sections will give you an idea of what ice-skating at 100mph feels like. Just in case it isn’t already clear – this isn’t a game for the feint of heart.
Sure, the first few tracks are easy enough, but you’ll need to grapple with Trackmania’s fine-tuned car control system. For starters, there’s no use for your analog sticks here, padawan. You’ll need the pinpoint precision of the D-Pad…. Anything more than a slight tap could result in a lap-destroying crash. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Drifting is another fine art, one that requires a near-mathematical grasp on approach angles and a healthy dose of bravery – getting your nose within millimetres of the track’s edge never fails to get the adrenalin pumping, though.
Medals mean progression, and boy, does the difficulty ramp up. During my 40+ hours seeped into this game it hasn’t been unusual to spend 2 hours on a single track. Trackmania keeps things fresh by offering 4 different environments, each with their own particular flavour of frustration. Canyon Grand Drift is your introduction and fuses drift-fuelled circuits with loops, boosts and the occasional dirt path to mix things up. International stadium favours intricate racing-lines as you’re tasked with threading through F1 style circuits – your eyes will water, sweat will pour. You will probably definitely shout. You may possibly cry. Still, there’s always the chance to have a nice, relaxing cruise through Rollercoaster Lagoon, right? Wrong.
Be prepared for so many loops you’ll be hard-pressed to know which way is up… By the time you’ve re-oriented you’ll be drifting through sun-baked sands as you slide perilously between palm trees and past boulders at breakneck speeds. And then there’s my arch-nemesis: Valley, Down & Dirty. There’s such little margin for error here that only the most asphalt-hardened petrol-heads need apply. Mud will send you spinning and dirt-ramps will launch you skyward as you hastily try to work out where on earth you’re supposed to land.
Some tracks are more difficult than others, but make no mistake – the pace at which you’re expected to learn and adapt is punishing. The slightest fault will cause disaster. Misjudge a corner and brake too hard? Reset. Launch from a ramp only to land into a slight fish-tail? Try again, buddy. If you’re aiming for gold there’s quite literally no margin for error. You’ll become well acquainted with the familial tones of ‘3, 2, 1’ signalling yet another nail-biting race to the finish. You’ll want to put the controller down. You won’t be able to.
So, is repetition really all that fun? Surely replaying that same track over-and-over wasn’t really worth the effort, right? Wrong. Trackmania is one of the few games to give a real sense of reward. There’s no XP, no progress meter, no shortcuts. You are rewarded for pure skill. In this sense Trackmania is a throwback to the anger-inducing games of old. Nowadays we’re often given a helping hand: X-Ray Vision in first-person shooters, glowing loot in RPGs, and even the ability to pay your way to the top, often forcing swathes of players to do the same or fall behind.
What sets Trackmania apart is its unbridled honesty. Every hairpin nailed, leaderboard topped and gold medal earned is a direct result of hours of blood, sweat and tears. Better yet there’s never a sense of being cheated out of victory – you failed again? You’ve only yourself to blame. Nobody forced you to attempt that nifty little shortcut on the final lap which resulted in a dream – crushing collision. Sure, Trackmania has probably been responsible for dangerous spikes in my blood pressure, but isn’t that what gaming is all about? The rush of finally shaving that half-a-second off a lap time. The satisfaction of nudging into the perfect drift. It’s experiences like these that represent everything gaming is about.
Games of this breed aren’t about who can grind to get the fanciest gear, or flashiest camouflage. They aren’t even about flashy graphics or blockbuster storylines. They’re distilled, purified, and extremely frustrating… But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Wish me luck on attempt 24, I think I’m going to need it.