Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
August 2007

Hit the Road

Driving Towards Progress
So, I have to admit, I'm not the world's biggest racing game fan. I don't have a steering-wheel mounted to my desk nor do I have the pedals necessary to really achieve immersion in a driving sim. No, racing games are not my bread and butter of gaming, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy flying down the streets at impossible speeds and customizing virtual cars in ridiculous ways.

My first real racing game addiction came with Gran Turismo for the original Playstation. The races were alright, but what really drove me was unlocking new cars and tuning the cars that I had. Later on I got sucked into Need For Speed: Underground for the Xbox, which had even more customization and incentives for performing well on the street.

For me, both of these games brought together the two elements that make a good game for me: action and progression. It's these two things together that really do it for me; with just one or the other I lose interest after a few hours. Pure simulation games are interesting but usually lack the action to keep me hooked. Arcade-style games are fun for a little bit but without progress (upgrades, advancements, levels, etc) I burn out.

I guess this is why I love strategy games and RPGs so much: they do a great job of blending these two needs. Pure arcade-style racing games that just test your maneuvering skills never met that need for progress. (Changes in scenery don't count!) For me, it takes racing, yes, but also some interesting way to make meaning of progress, to really make a fine racing game.

A Different Approach
TrackMania United, the latest title in the TrackMania series, has none of the car-upgrading that I've loved in racers of the past, yet it still has had me glued to the wheel… er, keyboard for days. TrackMania doesn't even try to compete with the likes of Gran Turismo or Need For Speed on driving physics, car models, upgrades or music. Instead, true to its name, TrackMania United focuses on interesting types of tracks and a ton of community-oriented features.

The racing aspect of TMU is pretty straightforward - there are seven different environments, each with just one vehicle and one soundtrack. Thankfully, these environments are fairly varied - ranging from the rickety sedan of the Desert tracks to the formula racer of the Stadium.

When you pick an environment and pull up to the starting line you'll quickly see that the only real opponent is the clock. Whether you are racing against computer-controlled opponents or other humans, the other cars are only ghosts - you cannot hit them and they won't interact with your driving. While this makes for a more "pure" racing experience it may be a little different from what you are used to in other car games.

No boring Nascar-donut tracks in Trackmania!

What really makes the Trackmania experience special is the tracks. There are three different ways to play on the tracks--Race, Puzzle, and Platform--and each is a totally distinct experience. As you would expect, Race is the typical kind of driving simulation I mentioned earlier. The tracks you race on are pretty cool, but there isn't anything fundamentally different in this gaming mode.

Things really start to get different when you try out the Platform mode. With this setup, the goal is not to make the fastest time and finish first, the goal is to simply survive the course in as few tries as possible. I thought this would be laughably easy at first, but after just a few seconds on a Platform map I realized how wrong I was. After not hitting the first ramp quite right I was propelled into a cliff face and gave up any chance of getting a perfect score on my first try.

Driving through a combination of wicked jumps, sick loops and dangerously tight turns and tubes makes each track into an obstacle course. To be honest, I didn't much like this mode - I was impressed by the many ways the designers came up with to punish me but I got tired of having to restart and hope to hit the ramps just right.

Avoiding the water is a must to survive

Getting smashed up driving puzzles wasn't my thing, but figuring out how to put together tracks within a specification turned out to be a lot of fun. The Puzzle mode presents you with a start and end gate, a couple of checkpoints, and a handful of track pieces, which it's up to you to figure out the fastest way to combine.

On Puzzle maps, clever building and planning matter far more than having nimble driving skills. Making a winner out of the pieces you are given, the car you have to work with, and the checkpoints you must pass through is tough but very rewarding. Maps that I originally thought were impossible later turned out to be a breeze once I stopped thinking inside the box.

One course, for example, had track pieces that would kill your engine set after a necessary checkpoint. There seemed no way for me to gain enough speed to pass through the checkpoint, go over the engine-killer, and make it up the hill to the finish line. After many frustrating attempts I gave up and moved on to other courses.

The next day, after stewing about this course, I realized that it wasn't necessary to pass over the kill-zone at all. I simply altered my course so I drove just into the checkpoint, reversed out again, and continued on an alternate route to the finish without ever getting my engine cut. It's those kinds of eureka moments that have kept me at the Puzzle maps.

Racing Around the World
The tracks of Trackmania are really the meat of the game, but the United aspect brings a lot of fun to this game as well. Everything about the game is well integrated into the Trackmania online community. When you initially start the game you choose a home region (a state in the case of the U.S.), which is the pool of your immediate competitors.

Before you do each race you can see the times of the top ten racers in your state, and if you rank well enough on a course it will then scale up and show your rank on a national, or even world scale. On the racing tracks you can also download replays of those record-setting runs by other people so that you can learn from the best. And no, you can't see those racers' puzzle or platform tracks. That would take away all of the fun!

For a racing game you sure spend a lot of time flying through the air

I certainly never got to see my time compared to the world as a whole, and only on a few tracks did I see my score compared nationally, but it was tons of fun to see how highly I could get ranked in the state. Beyond just a ranking you also get skill points, which are awarded based on how well you did in relation to other players. All of your skill points are aggregated to give you a total score for each environment and each type of race so you can see how you stack up against other people from your area. (I'm proud to say that I'm the 7th best Puzzle racer in my state!)

In addition to skill points, you gain "coppers" as you perform well in tracks. Coppers are a sort of virtual currency that you get for beating computer-set times. Coppers can be exchanged for new player-made maps and are also required to attempt to set official times on tracks. At first I found this kind of a drag but, like everything else in this game, it does keep you feeling like you are making progress.

I like TrackMania United - more than I thought I would. With many races lasting under a minute it is easy to pick up. With far more races and environments than I'll ever have time to play, it is hard to put down. TMU has found that nice balance of having enough fun and action to get you excited and enough progression and milestones to keep you from getting bored.

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