While I will usually focus on smaller independent productions, there are certainly some fully-funded retail productions that deserve mention. The Trackmania series of games definitely stands out from your typical racing game. Driving games are inherently physics-games. They obviously mimic a very physical activity. Some racing titles focus on perfect simulation, others mix in idealized controls (FlatOut comes to mind), and still others do away with realism altogether (why haven’t they made a new Carmaggedon game?).
Trackmania Nations stands somewhere between idealized and absurd. It’s almost best to think of the game as a platform game, but instead of Mario you have a speedy little car. The courses range from the expected, very typical race tracks to outright insane loops, half-pipes, and boost-powered jumps. This Flash 8 video shows off one of the advanced courses:
Best of all, Trackmania Nations is free. It’s a downloadable release specifically created for the Electronic Sports World Cup. Players will be able to train for finals to be held in Paris this summer. Apparently there’s $400,000 up for grabs. Personally, I don’t have the aptitude to hone my driving skills to a competitive level, although I certainly appreciate the free gameplay.
The game contains 90 solo training tracks ranging from the very simple to the nearly gimmicky. Some of the expert tracks require you to use jumps and other props in very nonstandard ways. The earlier levels train you in on how to use props in a certain way and then they pull the rug out from under you. If you get tired of the existing tracks the game includes an editor; all of the included tracks were made with it. Want to string three crazy loops together with a bunch of boosts? Go for it.
Trackmania Nations is more about optimizing for time than it is exploring crazy physics courses. Some aspects of the game are frustrating and require a lot of trial and error. For instance, it’s difficult to judge how fast you should be going on certain jumps without having failed at least once or twice by over- and under-shooting. Analog controls like a PS2-style joystick or driving wheel will certainly give you an edge over the keyboard controls. It’s much easier to modulate your speed on a smooth basis when it comes to the later, more difficult levels.
The game is available free as a rather large download (265 MB). Be warned, though, it does require you accept Starforce protection in order to play it. I suppose that’s there to protect the game from hacking on account of the whole competing-for-real-money thing, but if you’ve had trouble with Starforce in the past you may want to take a pass on this one.
Trackmania Nations is a very neat slant on the driving genre. Why race in a flat circle when you can zip through imagination courses at several hundred miles per hour? It’s a fun way to kill a few hours, and you can’t beat its value at the low, low price of absolutely free!
Download Trackmania Nations here (265 MB).