I press down on the accelerator, and the car rolls down the hill, gathering speed. I lose traction for a moment, the tires sliding on the dirt road, and a slight bump sends me into a drift. That’s okay. I’m still gathering speed as I crest the next hill. The car takes to the air and I hold my breath.
I hit the ground and slam on the brakes, but the angle is all wrong and a collision with a tree brings my journey to an end.
Damn. I take a deep breath, considering where everything went wrong — all the choices that led me to that moment, and I press the ‘B’ button.
I’m at the top of the hill again. This time I make it past the tree, but I spiral out of control around a sharp turn and skid off into a ditch.
This is Trackmania.
Hours bleed away as I repeat the same cycle. I make progress, shaving off a few hundredths of a second at a time, but now even a small mistake will reset the run.
Learning Trackmania is as much about learning how the car handles as it’s about learning each of the tracks. I watch videos and play through the “training” stages to get a feel for cornering and powersliding. I try to memorize each of the turns in the tracks and the best spot to enter them.
As an arcade racer where driving along walls is common, the physics in Trackmania aren’t true-to-life, but they’re exacting. It doesn’t feel like real driving.
Except for ice. No other game captures the real-world terror of driving on ice half so well. On ice, attempts to turn are only a suggestion, and you’re as likely to spin out as you are to turn.
Gaming in the Moment
In the midst of a pandemic, finding ways to stay in the moment are a luxury. There’s a zen core to Trackmania that makes my anxiety vanish, and that’s no small feat. Looking at the scoreboard to see times five seconds faster than my own proves that I still have a lot room to grow. But that’s a good feeling.
For an exaggerated arcade racer, progress in Trackmania feels incredibly satisfying. Getting faster times is not about uncovering overlooked shortcuts or unlocking better cars (there’s only one in the game). Instead, each thousandth-of-a-second comes from mastering a set of core driving skills and learning the best line through a track. Growth is incremental, much like real life. Learning to go fast is often a process of slowing down to focus on one thing at a time.
As a result, the sense of accomplishment that accompanies a personal record is that much stronger.
Competition sits at the heart of game, and I worried about playing online matches at first, knowing the skill ceiling was above my reach. But online matches aren’t quite the same as in other multiplayer racing titles.
In Trackmania, you race ghosts.
Everyone starts in the same spot with the same car. In “Live” matches populated with other real-time players, you’ll see your opponents, but you can’t affect them. Since you’re racing the clock, you can reset your run and try again as many times as you’d like. And despite the high degree of skill and competition involved, the community shines in these live spaces.
The game spotlights a “Track of the Day” that funnels large numbers of players onto a single course. Because Trackmania is a detailed (if unrealistic) physics sandbox, finding the fastest route is an act of trial and error. In these live sessions, I’d often see players sharing tips and advice as they worked out the best strategies. There was competition, but there was also collaboration and a celebration of new top times.
Of Menus and Manuevering
If there’s one major flaw with the experience, it’s the sometimes impenetrable interface. User-made tracks are one of the biggest draws, but there’s no easy way to save or sort through them. Instead, collections and dedicated servers appear as icons with abbreviated names in a long grid. Trackmania (2020) is a new game, but it’s built on a long-spanning series that has its own categories and lingo.
I stumbled into one category, RPG, that uses the cars and physics engine to create long, complex platforming tracks. Think of it as an obstacle course for cars. So much like other elements of the game, finding the modes you’ll most enjoy is also a process of trial and error.
And while a series of 25 seasonal tracks and the Tracks of the Day are free-to-play, unlocking other features in the game requires a subscription. Your mileage might vary, but if the subscription signals continued development over time, this could be a good sign. There’s also more than enough content if you’re the kind of perfectionist who likes to focus on mastering a single track.
Dedicated servers with tournaments lie beyond the subscription wall, and these events mean there’s a rich interactive space awaiting players. If they can find those events in the mess of menus, that is.
The joy of the gameplay makes up for some of the menu frustration, but a way to bookmark favorite tracks would be welcome. As it is, there are already some great tracks I’ve played that I can’t seem to find again. If there’s a secret way to do this, let me know!
In the end…
Will you enjoy Trackmania? Well, it depends.
I grew up playing games like the original Need for Speed series on PS1. Eventually that expanded to the pure chaotic joy of Burnout. While those games had campaigns of a sort, they were largely about the racing. More recent racing series have begun including storylines and open worlds. Neither of those are bad things, but I carry a lot of nostalgia for late-night races around Atlantica from Need for Speed 3: Hot Pursuit, where the only story was trying to get to the finish line. And the wild experience of each new course in Trackmania recaptures much of that same joy.
If those are games you also enjoyed, then there’s a good chance Trackmania will resonate with you. The good news? With a free-tier, you can give it a try without losing anything.
Trackmania (2020) provides a great racing sandbox that also helps combat (my) anxiety. So sit back, zen out, and enjoy the journey of racing as much as your final time.