I have what could be described as a phobia of driving. I failed my test a ridiculous number of times and by the time I passed, my confidence was shot. The idea of getting behind the wheel and driving somewhere is enough to give me a panic attack.
I’ve only ever enjoyed it once; it was 4am and I was driving my wife, who was in the early stages of labor, home from the hospital. The complete lack of other vehicles on the road was exhilarating; it was just me, the car, the road and a lady groaning in various stages of distress. Perfect driving conditions.
TrackMania Turbo has all the makings of my ideal racing game. For one, there’s absolutely no one else on the road, nearly recreating my dream scenario above. It also boasts a glorious blue sky aesthetic, a beautifully nuanced arcade handling model and a banging soundtrack. It ticks all the right boxes; so why is it I find it so difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to have another go?
Part of the issue is that TrackMania is a contradiction. On one hand, it’s a ultra-focused exploration of the time trial; a single game mode that would normally be buried within a million different menu options. There’s no dicking about with different setups or other racers, the question is always the same; how fast can you get to the finishing line? Its simplicity is capable of forging fierce rivalries as you desperately try to shave hundredths of a second off your time to move up the leaderboards; which brilliantly, are not only global but regional making the prospect of topping the time on a particular track tantalisingly within reach.
But on the other hand, it’s a bit of a bloated mess. TrackMania Turbo is huge, offering hundreds of tracks many of which come in at under thirty seconds long. This constant stream of new challenges means that it’s difficult to remember which ones you enjoy so that you can concentrate on finding the perfect racing line. It’s like having a big bag of pick ‘n mix and just haphazardly shoving them into your face; never having the opportunity to figure out which one you like the best.
Which is a crying shame, because when you do limit yourself to a single track the game really shines. The cars have an unusual approach to the laws of the universe. Experimenting with the bonkers physics which allow you to break in mid-air and perform loop-the-loops with gay abandon is a compulsion. This is a game where every gentle nudge on the steering wheel can be the difference between glorious victory or bitter defeat. At first it can be baffling as one of the developer ghost cars gradually overtake you, despite the fact you’ve never taken your foot off the accelerator. Given time, you’ll learn that literally every movement and every undulation in the road matters. This a game that’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do and gaining the discipline to show restraint will prove to be a vital skill. And you’re going to need all the help you can get because this game is tough.
In a way that will be familar to fans of similar frustrate ’em ups like Trials or Super Meat Boy, TrackMania starts deceptively gentle before ramping up the difficulty at a ludicrous rate. Although the bronze times are normally achievable, higher grades of medal are necessary to unlock later challenges. I suspect that over half of the games content will remain locked for the majority of players.
To pile on the pressure, some races takes place over three laps. What would be pretty standard elsewhere becomes a herculean task where every single lapse in concentration is severely punished and forces a restart. The Souls games are normally pointed to as an example of treating the player with a harsh hand, but they at least have the decency to give you the opportunity to rectify your errors. Here it’s all or nothing and a step too far; pushing the game into the realm of teeth-gnashing irritation rather than steely-eyed determination.
Fortunately, other parts of the game tread this fine line a little better. There’s a whole suite of offline multiplayer options. Double Driver mode sticks two players in the same car and finds a medium between the control inputs, which is an absolute blast. It was with no small degree of trepidation that I suggested my wife and I give it a go one evening; anticipating that the only natural result would be separate beds and a call to the solicitor in the morning. By forcing you to be a little gentler with the controls and sharing the weight of pressure, it results in a fantastically fun bit of couch co-op. It’s weirdly a bit easier than playing on your own.
As with so many games, TrackMania Turbo has mistaken large headline grabbing numbers on the back of the box as a good thing. Stripping away a lot of the flab, leaving you with less tracks, would have played far better to the games strengths. There’s hundreds of tracks here (not including the challenges made by yourself and your friends in the editor) and I wouldn’t confidently be able to tell you the complete layout of a single one of them. The only solution is to just let them wash over you; not an ideal frame of mind when the actual racing itself is so ridiculously demanding.
Part of the reason I hate driving is that a mistake potentially carries so much weight. It’s odd that in a game where you start every race being dropped from a helicopter, that a little bit of extra escapism wouldn’t have gone amiss.