When you get to be my age, particularly during an era where technological advances that would have been (and in many cases, were) considered science fiction when I was a lad (walking five miles to school through the 15 ft. snow banks that were so common back before Global Warming was invented yada yada yada), it’s often interesting to reflect back on the first time you saw something. I was always a bit of an early adopter (and this is not something that I outgrew, mind you, this is a trait that was, uh, somewhat stifled when I got married and relinquished a large degree of autonomy regarding the appropriate and acceptable uses of discretionary income) so in many cases I was the first on the block to haves something new.
That was the case with personal computers (TRS-80 Model I, back when you had to order them from Tandy because they didn’t think they’d sell well enough in the Radio Shack stores; no one really knew what a computer really was yet), and it was the case with Hot Wheels. I had the very first set – two cars (which, if I still had them in their original packaging would probably be worth skads more than the shriveled husk of that TRS-80) and enough track to have a side-by-side race down the stairs. No loops, no mid-track accelerators, no fancy stuff at all. But cool. Very cool. Of course, we were heavily reliant on our imaginations before we had the full immersion 3D simulators of today. If you were somewhat challenged in the imagination department, all you could do was watch the little cars roll down the track. For those with vibrant and active imaginations, though, there was the opportunity to visualize yourself driving a powerful and nimble car through the turns, jumps, and eventually loops of the Hot Wheels world.
Today, as we all know, we need put forth no mental cycles at all to immerse ourselves into fantastic worlds created through technology and the creative efforts of art designers and software developers. Case in point: TrackMania United, developed by Nadeo. TrackMania United is the latest release in a wildly popular series that I, having long ago lost the ability to pay attention to even a sliver of the vast computer gaming market, had never heard of. Twenty million downloads of the original version indicates a pretty successful product, but when you’re only aware of the Call of Duty level of successful games you tend to miss some of the lesser known gems.
In any event, TrackMania is the long-awaited opportunity to virtually play in the Hot Wheels world. You build your own tracks using pieces-parts included in the package, put your car on the track, and drive it! It’s not really the Hot Wheels world, though. It’s the same idea taken to incredible extremes. In the TrackMania world, huge jumps, tight turns, and even loops are standard fare. There are seven different environments, each having a different mix of terrains and scenery, and each having a different type of car. The Stadium environment, for example, offers a mix of dirt and concrete surfaced tracks and a open wheel buggy style car that offers a high degree of agility and grip. The Coast environment uses a heavy sedan that takes much more attention to speed management to navigate though the Mediterranean scenery. The Island tracks are more about raw speed and difficult jumps, while the Snow, Desert, and Rally settings offer pretty much what you'd expect from those descriptions. The last environment, Bay, offers a urban environment through which you will race along the docks or through the downtown area.
Game play is very linear, forcing the player to progress through levels of increasing complexity and difficulty. In nearly all of the environments, the highest levels of difficulty are very difficult to finish, much less finish in an elapsed time good enough to move to the next level. In many cases, I simply gave up when I got to a level that I just couldn't finish. Many of the jumps required such precise entry and were so difficult to complete that an entire track was impossible for me to complete. This is, of course, why I hate being locked into a progression – it makes no allowance for not being able to complete one of the tracks and essentially locks the remainder of them from me. I play games to have fun, and getting stuck on an overly difficult task that one must complete to move on is simply not my idea of fun. Frankly, it seems more like work to me.
Once a player has been through all of the tracks in each of the three modes (Race, Puzzle, and Platform), more tracks can either be created by using the included track editor or by downloading tracks that others have developed and offered for purchase online using the in-game currency called Coppers. Coppers are easy to earn by challenging other players best times on tracks, or by working through the offline collection of tracks. Other than access to more tracks, I didn’t get much out of online play because there is no head-to-head racing. In fact, the total lack of actual racing against opponents took a lot of the potential fun out of it for me. I've never gotten into Rally style racing; in my opinion, if you ain't rubbing, you ain't racing, and racing against the clock is just not my style.
That having been said, the over-the-top nature of the driving physics, the graphically rich environments, and the fun track designs make this a fun game, at least at first. As the difficulty progressed to the point where I could no longer progress through the collection of tracks without trying over and over and over to make a successful jump 2/3s of the way through a track, I began to get frustrated. You mileage, as you surely know by now, may vary. If you have the patience for it and find the online community aspect appealing, TrackMania United will be a good fit for you. Me, I'm more into reality-based racing, but I did enjoy many of the tracks and environments before I hit the impermeable wall of difficulty.
Over-the-top physics in detail rich environments make for a fun arcade racer, but at some of the higher difficulties it can be difficult, if not impossible, to progress through all of the tracks. Online play is not all that it could be, but offers access to skads of new tracks.
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