There’s a line that should be drawn between encouraging players to make a game better, and relying on them to make it playable. Or is there? Even that, it seems, is for the Trackmaniacs to decide. Visit the official forums for TrackMania 2 and what you’ll see is a game being documented more than discussed. “What are Planets?” “Where can I find out how many I’ve got?” “Why can’t I do an official race?” “Is there a tutorial?” “That’s a tutorial?” “Where’s the manual, then?” “What do you mean, ‘there isn’t one’?”
There really isn’t. There’s a hastily compiled wiki the game itself seems unaware of, which prompts more questions than it answers, all of which send you right back into the aforementioned forum. In-game tooltips are few and far between. What kind of way is this to launch a sequel? The TrackMania way, apparently.
To answer the other questions: Planets are the new virtual currency of ManiaPlanet, the platform that in time will incorporate a race construction kit (TrackMania), a firstperson shooter maker (ShootMania), and a staggeringly ambitious RPG maker (QuestMania). Like Coppers before them, you spend Planets on any piece of UGC – tracks, cars, skins, replays. By restricting supply, they're designed to encourage you to earn and then invest in each piece, instead of indiscriminatingly splurging. You find out how many you’ve got by hovering the mouse near the top of the screen, invoking the same drop-down menu that controls audio and graphics settings. Not the one with input and spectator options, mind – that’s a different one that pops up when you press Escape. “And that’s where the input mappings are, right?” Erm, no, that’s a different menu in your profile settings, but you’ll have to quit the race first.
Official races, unlike the simple medal chases of regular singleplayer, award Ladder Points that boost you up the rankings. The TrackMania of old charged you Coppers for every attempt, but things have changed. In TrackMania 2, you have to beat the gold medal time on a circuit before you can register an official one. Each attempt is free, but you have to wait five minutes between them.
This is a hugely divisive change, but we like it. The old system ended up benefiting the Copper-rich, but this one ensures that any official race, whatever your wealth, is a test of skill and dedication. Because – and there is no overstating this – there is no such thing as luck in the Canyon. In this majestic, ruthless venue, tiny mistakes have epic consequences.
Fans of TrackMania Nations and its Stadium course, in particular, will have a hard time adjusting to the heavy, drifty handling that is, for the moment, the only way to race in TrackMania 2. You can import any car model from older TMs into the game’s new ‘pak’ system, but they all follow the same screeching orbit when flicked by the cursor keys. Or by the pad, of course, or key-map of your choice. No one seems to know quite which is best at the moment – this is a good thing – but we’ve drifted comfortably into our Ridge Racer V scheme: left analogue stick for steering, right analogue for accelerate and brake. Deadzone and sensitivity adjustment are pad essentials.
If the rugged terrain and new, entirely cosmetic, damage system are the first signs that TrackMania is a little more violent than before, the next is probably the removal of air-braking, and the third sign is the point when a hooligan pebble sends you a couple of degrees off course, into a rock that sends you a hundred feet higher than the pieces of your windscreen. This, in the majority of cases, sends your finger straight to the reset key for a fresh lap. And that, for those new to the series, is exactly how things should be; for all that’s changed, TM2 is still that ballet of crisscrossing time trial attempts which inspired this video, which became this Mini advert.
Ignoring the fact that it’s all been dialled back to basics, deploying with just the one terrain, car type, and pure racing mode, everything else is, at heart, pretty much the same. The all-important editors, forges of the endless UGC, can be picked up using old tutorials scattered about the web. It’s a fallacy that there are too few building blocks: there’s just the right amount to both promote and enable creativity. The bigger problem is a butchered new ‘Simple Editor’ which is actually harder to decipher than the previous version, not least because the old tutorials don’t apply. And there’s the problem of the editor not intuiting what you’re trying to achieve, nor admitting in any way that it’s confused, often simply refusing to do what you vaguely know how to ask for.
Natural born Trackmaniacs will, of course, battle through this and play, create, and share many wonderful things. What’s disappointing about TM2, though, is that it still can’t create the most important things of all: new fans. One of the most poorly-documented games of its kind ever, built on-the-run by a studio too small to handle it, it has gained nothing you’d expect from its big-name publisher. Ubisoft’s bafflement over its acquisition is more obvious now than ever, and has sanctioned a sequel that’s different, definitely, but could have been so much better.