Trackmania is a minimalist reboot that begs for one more go

Trackmania as a series has been around for the better part of two decades, with a steady drip feed of new releases bringing different environments to race through, console editions, new tricks and ideas. It’s a length of time that would have any film industry big-wig itching to hit the reset button. Video game industry big-wigs as well, to be fair.

So that’s what Nadeo have done, with Trackmania kicking us back to the mid-2000s and the series’ first heyday with a remake of the 2006 Trackmania Nations. We’re also heading back to the days of this being a PC-only game, though when Trackmania Turbo was the only real cross-platform effort, this is more of a return to the norm.

It’s a game that will feel instantly familiar to fans of the series, with a real focus on pure time trial racing through rather abstracted tracks. Make it to the finish line and it will tempt you into hitting the “improve” button by showing your time against the next medal or others on the leaderboard, every successive attempt pitting you against the ghost of your best previous run.

There’s just one futuristic car here, with ultra simple controls – accelerate, brake and direction – with no need to worry about traction control or tyre choices to handle driving across tarmac, drift happy dirt, slippery ice, and a grippier race circuit-style surface. It’s pure arcade racing and easy to pick up and play, letting you immediately start to focus on fine-tuning your runs and routes through the track.

This minimalism extends to the scenery as well, with Trackmania having just a single Stadium environment that provides only the smallest hint of a real backdrop. The track scenery feels manmade as well, often in a blocky wooden pre-fab form, with huge screens attached to them to highlight upcoming corners with arrows on the backdrop of the real world environment your fake racing through. Alongside big bollards and fake trees that can sometimes line the tracks, it does a good job of making it feel like a sporting event.

Trackmania will now adopt a seasonal approach to dishing out content to the community, with the Summer 2020 tracks that we got to preview showing a deft touch with gradually ramping up the difficulty. The tracks get longer, they become more convoluted, they throw more challenging types of road at you – the sections where you’re battling with an extreme camber across the track or an adverse camber through banked corners are particularly tricky – there’s also more ostentatious leaps and jumps, more bumps, more obstacles. It all makes this a game that you can’t just go flat out through. You have to have an understanding of the car’s handling on different surfaces, use your brakes sensibly, and judge your speed through certain sections. Trimming off tenths of a second through a circuit is as technical here as it is in a sim racer.

There’s even a few modifiers and tricks that Nadeo throw at you. These can include your standard boost pad that shove your vehicle into overdrive, hurtling ahead at over 500…. kilometers per hour? Or there’s also engine cut out pads that force you to coast through a gentle downhill section, trying not to scrub off too much speed through corners until you’re reset back to normality.

Get to the end of a particular season’s offering and there’s a comprehensive track designer to keep you occupied until the next. This has long been a staple of the series, leading to those auto-drive videos where the scenery has been placed just so to let you hurtle through jaw-dropping leaps, tiny gaps and drift through wide curved inclines. Less spectacular are the regular tracks that you can cook up, with a block-based system that the developers themselves use to create the tracks.

It’s relatively easy to see the potential here, but not as intuitive to me as the tools in Trackmania Turbo. Perhaps that’s down to the absence of gamepad controls in our preview demo. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s powerful.

The one problem I feel Nadeo have is that resetting the franchise here doesn’t make as much sense as it does elsewhere. The Tomb Raider reboot, for example, could take a more serious tone to the original by overhauling its gameplay and graphics. For Trackmania, the minimalism stands in contrast to the glorious excess of Trackmania Turbo, its loop the loops missing the same wow factor when you’re not hurtling through a gigantic canyon.

That’s not to say that it loses any of the ‘just one more go’ appeal, and with tight gameplay that will have you chasing every fraction of a second in hunting for a medal or a higher spot on the leaderboard, Trackmania is shaping up to be a compelling, albeit minimalist racer.

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