The Trackmania series is almost a household name amongst PC gamers now, thanks mainly to the free release of the superb Trackmania: Nations as a promotion for the Electronic Sports World Cup. Nations alone has over 6 million registered downloads and is still one of the most played online games available, so it hardly comes as a surprise that another Trackmania game would be released soon after its successes. That game is Trackmania: United and it continues the tradition of developing a new focus for each title whilst still incorporating the features of the last in the series. The lush environments and mind-bending tracks from Sunrise and the fierce multiplayer aspect of Nations are still up front in the arsenal of United, only now they are joined by a strong sense of community and a helpful set of features to help develop the community spirit that has always made Trackmania shine. These features range from new high-score tables to sets of menus for downloading new community generated content such as brand new cars and races.
For those not in the know, Nadeo's Trackmania series is practically a genre on its own, standing apart from other racing games thanks to inventive game modes and a lack of what racing enthusiasts might expect as standard. There are, for example, only 7 cars in the whole garage offered by Trackmania: United, compared to the countless available in other racers. While the game comes with a handy editor to allow these cars to be decorated, all the cars in any one given race will perform the same in terms of acceleration, turning and speed. This allows the focus to be placed on the drivers' abilities and reaction times - the latter being the most important factor due to the delightfully unrealistic speeds the cars can reach. It's an odd feeling to look at your speedometer and curse because you are 'only going at 400 miles per hour'.
Of course, there is no place for realism in the world of Trackmania. It is as exiled as the real laws of physics, and thankfully so since much of the game is spent driving upside down or skimming F1 racers over the surface of a lake to reach a checkpoint. It's fast, frantic and so much fun that you soon forget that your stunts are impossible in the grim realities of Gran Turismo and GTR.
Some of these deviations from the norm can be a little frustrating, however. The fact that all cars in a race are 'ghost cars', meaning that they cannot collide with each other, is a good example of a change that divides players into two groups; some complain that it defeats the point of playing multiplayer while others are thankful because it prevents sabotage.
Some of the other differences between Trackmania and other racing games are more welcome, such as the three unique game modes available. These consist of the rather mediocre and self-explanatory Racing Mode; the deceptively tricky Puzzle Mode, where the goal is to design and complete a track in a certain time limit using only certain pieces of road; and the core Platform Mode, where most of the fun is to be had. Platform tracks usually consist of massive jumps and flips to isolated platforms with checkpoints dotted around. The aim is to get the car through all the checkpoints and to the finish line by any means possible and, while you can take as long as you want to finish the race, you can only respawn the car to the correct position so many times if it all goes belly-up. It's often the platform races that require the most speed and ingenuity of players and it's certainly intriguing enough to attract newcomers to the series, while regular fans can enjoy the addition of new track pieces.
These new pieces range from new flips and jumps to tiles that shut off the car's engine and force the player to roll to the next checkpoint without losing too much speed. All these additions play a major part in the game's attractive track editor, and United's new focus on community driven play allows user-designed tracks to be easily swapped and shared online. Already there are hundreds of brilliant courses available, varying from white-knuckle hairpin-filled races to more bizarre tracks full of corkscrews and water hazards which demonstrate a rather elegant understanding of the game's skewed physics setup.
One of the major downers of United is that nothing starkly new has been added since Sunrise. Even the Crazy and Stunts game modes that were added as part of the Extreme expansion pack have not won a permanent place in United and are curiously absent. The omission of these two game modes is admittedly strange and I just couldn't figure out why the selection had been reduced from five modes to just three. The presence of forums and leader-boards on the main menu is nice for those wanting that integrated community feeling, but those wanting some more fun-fuelled car flinging seem to have been cheated of two of the best competitions. What's worse is the continued use of Starforce copy protection, despite massive backlashes by online communities.
Ultimately, United falls just short of brilliance and will always be overshadowed in my mind by its slightly uglier older brother and its free expansion pack. Despite the obvious benefits offered by the new cars and track pieces, two of the best game modes have been removed and that's hard to understand.