Feb 29, 2012

Review: Trackmania 2: Canyon

A different kind of racing game

Trackmania 2: Canyon is developed by Nadeo and published by Ubisoft in september 2011.  Like the previous Trackmania titles, this game behaves quite a bit different than the kind of racing games most gamers might be used to.

Where Need For Speed might bedazzle (that a word even?) the player with beautifully rendered authentic exotics, Trackmania 2 gives you one car.  Granted, there are many different car skins you can use for it, and there's a fairly decent paint shop for designing your own look, but all the cars you will drive and race against are 100% identical in terms of performance.

Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport and the like will let you drive faithful recreations of real life race tracks.  In Trackmania 2 you drive on strange and usually 100% unrealistic tracks in the middle of the desert that are put together LEGO-style in the included track editor.

And finally, Burnout will have you giggling with spectacular car crashes that affect your ego as well as car  physics and visuals.  Trackmania 2 doesn't even have collision detection against the other cars.  In fact, when you race on your own the opponents you drive against are actually replays, just there to give you a pointer on how well you are doing time-wise.

In TrackMania 2: Canyon, cars like fresh air a lot

That sounds weird! What's so fun about it then ?

So.. Understandably, some initially will be thrown off completely by this game.  Put Trackmania 2: Canyon side by side with for example Gran Turismo 5 and it becomes debatable if they should even be considered the same genre of games.

Here's what the game offers:  Millimetre precision driving at mental speeds on short but often infuriatingly difficult tracks, and the constant challenge of getting from start to finish in the fastest time humanly possible.  There's long jumps, short jumps, jumps that require to be hit at very specific speeds, or angles, or amount of sliding to get across.  Turbo pads that boost the already crazy speeds the TM2 car is capable of. Loops and wall rides.  The game ships with 65 official tracks spread across five difficulty levels, but go into any on line race and you'll be racing hundreds more thanks to the track editor that comes with the game.

You can play TM2 alone, but even then your best times get measured up to against the online leaderboards, and if you choose to drive an official race your replay will be available to the world to view, or race against.  Just like you can at any time can download the top replays from any singleplayer track and race against their times and ghost car as well.  Its single player, but pseudo-multi player still.  Another word on the official times, though. While its fun to try and place high with the added nerves from knowing your time and replay will be up, there is for some reason a five minute time-out between each attempt.  This is done differently than in Trackmania 1, where racing for official times costs you an amount of ingame currency instead.  At least you could race again immediately if you messed a run up (and that WILL happen, more often than not) instead of being put in the penalty box for five pointless minutes.  The whole official time concept confuses me a bit and I wonder if it wouldn't be better to just be rid of it, and just make the best time achieved count by default instead.

They also like to powerslide, regular turning is for sissies says TM2 car.  Also, corner cut any closer, anyone ?

Whether you are racing alone or online though, the sole focus of the game is finishing each track at the best times possible.  There will be many moments of frustrations each time the player messes their run up by just the tiniest miscalculation in speed and cornering, but even greater still is the sense of accomplishment, every step of the way.  After each crash or jump way off the track I'm learning something and can try something else on the next run.  The developers actually captured this mentality beautifully, when at the end of each race I'm asked if I want to 'Improve' instead of 'Try again', and indeed each time I manage to improve my lap time ever so slightly there is a big sense of satisfaction.  Being placed on leaderboards both solo and online further fuel the drive to improve, and you are constantly shown your position on the rankings both in your nation and world wide.  It may not be everyone's cup of tea but personally I love it and I can't help but feel darned proud of the few really good official times I've managed.

Playing TM2 online is where the game shines the brightest.  There is a very dedicated trackmaking community for it, and there are dozens upon dozens of very good tracks to race on.  Depending on what server you have joined, there may be just a handful of players on, or over a hundred players racing all at once, at all levels of skill.  Again the focus is squeezing out those record times, and its just plain fun to see how competitive this can get especially on those servers where there are many evenly matched players, and it is quite common to see the top 10-15 placements after a race separated by less than 0.1 seconds.  Most servers will also run extra modules that display and update world ranked times on the go.  When racing online you will see the other drivers (unless you wish to hide their cars in the options) which can look crazy on the especially high population servers, but like in the single player races there is no collision detection, thank goodness.  The downside to this is that it is, well, unrealistic.  Which is fair and good, but I dare say those complaining about that are playing the completely wrong game for them.  The good sides of the lack of collision detection is of course that the time trial'ish nature of the game is even possible, imagine trying to beat any kind of near perfect lap time when you risk collisions with 100 other cars trying to do the same thing.  Also, and this is a big one. Online latency issues are non-existent!  There's no downside at all playing TM2 on even the most speed restricted internet connections, other than perhaps waiting 10 seconds longer than the rest on track changes to tracks that feature custom soundtracks and textures.  If you are playing on a really slow connection, the most noticeable impact it has on the game is that other players racing with custom car paints will most likely look like they are just driving white coat painted cars most of the time.  A bit dull perhaps but at least it doesn't affect the gameplay in any way.  As mentioned before your ranking is also continually updated as you play online, whether you are on for 20 minutes to kill some time or have the whole evening set aside for serious racing-stuffs.  I suffer a bit from what the strategy gamers call the "one more turn..." syndrome, I always want to do just one more race.  All in all I am very impressed with the online play on TM2, comes heartily recommended!

Rare footage of inert TM2 car.  They usually fly or slide around, but sometimes they just want to chill out and strike a pose.

The game has both car, track and replay editors readily available, providing an excellent outlet for the creatively gifted among us (myself excluded!).  These are all fairly powerful and let you do a lot of things, but can be a bit difficult to understand initially.  It doesn't help that there is no manual for these things to be found anywhere, either.  There was a wiki page thrown up for the editors at some point after release, but the information there is sparse and doesn't do a very good job at explaining how to use the tools available.  I've thrown together some basic stuff in the editors, but personally I run out of patience before a lot of time has been spent tinkering.  I have a lot of respect for the community map and car makers out there who produce the things they do!

I should touch on the game's graphics as well, I suppose.  TM2 is a drastic step up in visual splendour from the last release Trackmania United, which is to be expected.  What you would not expect is how low the system requirements are for it.  Those with good graphic cards can crank up all the shaders, shadows, lens flares and other goodness and have a very, very impressive looking game on their hands, but even at its lowest settings, TM2 looks great and will happily run on even  a laptop with very modest non-gaming GPU's.  I've tried this myself on my mom's  cheap laptop and it plays shockingly smooth.  It was said somewhere by Nadeo that Trackmania 2: Canyon actually has equal or lower system requirements than Trackmania United, and that is pretty impressive given the massive facelift TM2 has recieved.

Amateur replay editing by yours truly.  Merged 15 or so of my replays from a track into one to, well, show you at least 8 wrong ways to handle a nasty set of corners.. :)

In conclusion then:

I am mostly enthusiastic about Trackmania 2: Canyon.  The game plays really well, both in terms of the feeling of the car and the feel of the racing.  It looks great, and performs good even on computers not normally strong enough to play games on.

TM2's gameplay style is quite different than most current racing games and it really stands out from the rest because of it.  Those with at least a basic competitive nature will get good kicks out of trying to perfect their race times, improving themselves and beating others.  The rest will still have an arcade racing game with reckless stunts to enjoy in whatever doses they feel for.

The editors are good, but lack documentation so they can be a bit overwhelming to learn.  Those persistent enough to learn them on their own are richly rewarded by the tracks, cars and cinematic replays they can create.

On the downside, the game didn't feel at all complete on release, more like a racing game framework for the modders and track editors to expand on.  6 months later it still doesn't feel 100% finished.  I know the community editors have been begging for more building blocks and tools to use in the track editor but so far nothing has been added, and based on the tracks played on line now its starting to look like the options for making good tracks with the tools available are just about spent.

Then there's the in game currency, "Planets", which no one still really knows what to do with.  You earn these for increasing your rank on line, and can spend them on unlocking new car paints you've downloaded, or the planets can be donated to server admins to help them pay their server fees.  It sort of feels like Nadeo had intended for Planets to do much more, but then forgot all about it halfway through implementation.

The game is to the best of my knowledge still only available through Nadeo's web store with no representation in the other larger distribution platforms such as Steam, Desura or Origin, nor can you buy a physical copy. This has had a glaring impact on TM2, it has a TINY community when measured up against its predecessor.  Lack of distribution venues added with virtually no advertising means a lot of people don't even know about this game.

Another thing is that I still see complaints from users who have their legit credit card info refused on the only place to buy it.  When I bought the game on release day nothing really worked, nor did the installer I downloaded.  And re-downloaded. And re-downloaded.  I had to fight for days to get the game working.  In the end the solution was to download a leaked TM2 beta setup file that would download the rest of the game files for me, it was the only way to get it installed properly.  To get this installer I had to register on the maniaplanet forum and request the alternate installer from a forum admin.  This is the most ridiculous form of customer service I have encounter so far.  I still only have the beta install, as Nadeo through some insane logic has decided to charge you aforementioned planets if you want to re-download the game client.  Screw that! Seriously !? I have to PAY to download the client to play the game that I have already paid for ? FUCK YOU, Nadeo.

That's not all, though.  My final biggest complaint about TM2 however is that Nadeo has all but abandoned it in terms of maintenance and updates.  They're a small studio, and right after TM2 release they shifted all their focus towards pushing out their next two products called Shootmania and Maniaplanet 2.0.  All forms of feedback and suggestions posted regarding TrackMania 2: Canyon are met with praise of how much we're going to like these next two releases that I have no interest in.  I was very disappointed to see this especially considering the amount of polish the game needs still.

And so, my final verdict for TrackMania 2: Canyon lands at around 5 / 10.
This game sates my cravings in the somewhat small niche of genres that is the "arcade-like-stunt-online-racing" game and does most things right as far as the actual game goes.  Nadeo and Ubisoft have done almost everything else that you can think of outside the actual races WRONG, though.  I can't help but wonder what a global phenomenon TM2 could have been though with proper maintenance, advertising and release platforms availability, and of course a minimal amount of customer service.

And again, no. Telling me I have to pay up to download my game that I've forked out RL dough for is no way to treat a customer.  Heck, its not even a way to treat a potential customer, if anything its a way to make sure potential customers go nowhere near TrackMania 2: Canyon, except this hidden fee is of course not warned about in any way when you purchase the game!

If you're desperate enough for a stunt racing game to look past the difficulties you'll have to manage dealing with Nadeo and Ubisoft in order to buy and install the game however, there's a great racing game hidden behind all the initial BS!

Bonus: TrackMania 2 get hype PAX 2011 Trailer:
720p and sound on o/

As always, I'd love to hear your comments about my reviews! It doesn't matter if you thought it was a fantastic read, or it made your face pop with rage, let me hear about it! :)


Faffling94 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Faffling94 said...

Haha yeah. This post contains exactly what I feel! I just love the game! :)