I hate driving games.
A typical Gran Turismo experience – I cast an appreciative eye over my car, perfectly modeled according to the manufacturer’s specifications. I stare in appreciation at the track, an inch for inch recreation of a real rally course. I’m at the start line, ready to slam my machine round this course in a glorious whirlwind of mud and iron. I rev my engine and burst off the line, tyres squealing. I enthusiastically approach the first corner at max speed and turn – the car ignores me completely and flies nose first into the wall with an anticlimactic ‘whump’.
Turns out I was supposed to drop two gears, slow down to a slug-like 20 mph* two minutes ago and sail along an invisible and indiscernable ideal racing line to victory.
Rally drivers spend years perfecting their reflexes and memorizing course layouts, they are masters of their machines, knowing every intricacy of their vehicle. They are true experts, and I have no urge to recreate their expertise in a virtual environment where the core pleasure of the whole experience – the feeling of going really really fast – is lost.
The driving sim game is a cold and calculated game of numbers. Brake now. Change gear now. Accelerate. You have shaved one hundredth of a second off your previous time. Congratulations.
Enter Trackmania, a game that is to simulation as Ghandi is to Manhunt.
Trackmania is honest, open-faced simplicity incarnated in videogame form. There are five buttons that matter. One makes you go faster, one brakes, two turn and one lets you respawn at the start of the race if your lap isn’t going too well. The simplicity of the system means that the strategy becomes all about picking the best line and going fast along it, and the action has a kind of admirable purity to it that anyone can enjoy. Add to that the fact that the tracks are insane cocktails of loop-the-loops and vertical banks and you have … well I believe the scientific phrase is ‘a whole lot of steaming awesome’.
When you create your profile you tell the game where you live and enters you into the leaderboard for that area. Every time you complete a race you gain medals and points which advance your progress on the board, in my case putting me in competition with the whole of Great Britain. There is something unbelievable satisfying about setting a good lap time and being informed that you have just left 16,000 fools choking in your virtual dust. The game even breaks down your country into areas, so there’s finally proof of what I always knew, the West Midlands IS better than London. True Fact. Trackmania says so.
You have immediate access to a full tool suite that will allow you to create tracks from scratch and modify existing ones. A stupid-proof interface lets you customise your racer by painting directly onto your car. I was able to create the Flame Bastard in about 25 minutes, and from there I could immediately take it online for anybody to see.
The online game is where Trackmania really comes into its own. Everybody on the server has three or four minutes to set the best lap time, you can respawn as much as you like. From the moment the game starts all concept of a linear race is lost as a hundred cars take to the track simultaneously, crashing, flipping, respawning as though some great god-sized baby has flung a handful of micro-machines at a ramp to gorge itself on the sweet, sweet chaos. The spectacle alone is worth it, and because you are never in direct competition with anyone else (you cannot crash into other cars), it becomes a group of strangers banding together to collectively flip one enormous fat finger at all familiar concepts of gravity and common sense.
The real success of Trackmania is that even in single player it feels like a social experience. It surrounds you with its community and encourages you to contribute. Every time you finish a race it will remind you of your ranking, in the West Midlands, in the UK, in the world. As if that wasn’t enough, the game is completely free to download from Steam.
That’s right, it’s free. Why are you still reading? Why am I still writing?
The Flame Bastard and I will see you online.
*20 mph slugs – that would be seriously messed up.