Review by Zach “Ravious” Best
Released September 14, 2011
Available for PC
Time Played 20+ hours (including full beta)
“As a standalone game, Trackmania² Canyon is a well polished racing game that is distinctly fun to play. It is well worth the value cost-of-entry and will provide hours of fast-driving excitement. Within the Maniaplanet system of creations and community, Trackmania² Canyon truly shines.”
I’ve been playing Trackmania for years. I was a late adopter, having only found the game when the United Forever version hit a Christmas Steam Sale. I was instantly hooked, and I have been ever since. I have been extremely excited about the Trackmania² “reboot” into the Maniaplanet phase. This review is based largely on a beta of Trackmania² Canyon (“Canyon”) I was accidentally invited to join, which did include the solo mode right before launch. This review is, however, based on the official launch version, which is different more in the way of features and bug fixes than changes in gameplay. Regardless, caveat emptor.
“How does it drive?” is usually the first question for racing games. This seems to be the deciding factor for so many gamers, just like the type of guns in a first-person shooter or the level cap for online role-playing games. It’s as if by using some stereotypical words to describe the entirety of the gameplay, a sale could be won or lost. These dip tests always confuse me because I’ve never heard anybody respond for a racing game “it drives like a blind, batty octogenarian.” I will try and answer anyway.
Ever driven a car that is too powerful for the road? Ever had to fight to keep the car on the road because you might have been driving a bit too fast? That is the essence of the Canyon car. It feels safe, powerful, and slick on the wide roads, but when faced with the wild canyon roads it gets a little scary. The Canyon car is great at drifting, and it will snap back onto the road the moment the tires hit pavement. However, the dry desert ground is likely to send the Canyon car skidding and flying off in to the canyon walls if reckless drivers are going too fast. Given the Canyon car’s need to go upwards of 400 kph, it is always going too fast.
For those needing it, comparisons could also be made to various Trackmania environments, most notably island, coast, and desert, in my opinion. Yet after playing Canyon for so long, I’ve come to the opinion that Nadeo has spent much time and energy making the Canyon car feel distinct from Trackmania past. Before beta, Nadeo continually defended its position that the Canyon car could not be described just as an amalgamation of the past. I had to play it to believe it.
There are three primary tracks in Canyon colloquially named Race, Main, and Arena. Race is the wide-laned Grand Prix style track (also known as “GP”), and arena tracks are huge slabs of concrete made for freestyle and wall rides. It’s Main, with its two-lane road, that gets the most attention by having roads etched in to canyon cliffs and tunnels bored straight through the bedrock. This is where I feel gamers will initially separate. The difference between the main road and the wider track is a degree of control heaviness.
For gamers uncaring of refined skill and just seeking the next powerslide the main road may seem frustrating. It’s also where keyboard gamers will smile as they tap-steer through the two-lane turn. Light touch steering and the ability to control brake and gas will be needed for the best main road players. I have to admit that coming from heavy Trackmania stadium play, it took some time getting use to this change. Now that I understand the car a bit more, I am enjoying the intricacy.
When Nadeo decided to release Maniaplanet having it’s ‘chapters’, so to speak, instead of Trackmania 2 with 3 environments, the decision caused Nadeo to make Canyon a more complete standalone game. The usual Trackmania environment does not have such a dichotomy of playstyles. It can be jarring to go from slam-on-the-stick drifting to gently nudging the car and having to slow down. Thankfully new gamers should be eased in to this transition far easier than I was since they will have solo mode with maps that teach exactly that (especially Blue and Green tracks). As the community develops, players will be able to join servers and find maps that speak to their playstyle. I have a feeling that the wide roads are going to be favored by the masses, at least initially.
There are a few different modes to play at launch. Most players unfamiliar with the Trackmania franchise will head to the single-player mode with a campaign of maps. The initial goal of each map is to get a gold medal time in practice, which basically means that the player has mastered the map. If a mistake is made the player simply resets right back at the start line. Since most maps are around 30-60 seconds, restarting and getting back into the race is generally quick; mastering the map, not always so much. Every five minutes the player can try an official time. Instead of fighting for a medal time, the players single official time is ranked against every other player in the world. Not getting at least a gold medal time in official time will ensure a spot at the bottom of the ranks. Single-player mode is also where players try out the many player-made tracks as they will have medal time trials too.
The other major mode is multiplayer where a player joins a server hosting a multitude of both official and player-made maps. The two main modes of multiplayer mirror the two main modes of singe-player. Time-attack is like practice. The player tries as many times as he wants within a set period with only the best time counting. At the end of the countdown the players are ranked against each other for each player’s best time, and then the server switches maps to start anew. Rounds is more like official time. Each round a player gets one shot to complete the race. The player then gets points based on where he placed for each round. Messing up generally ensures no points for that round. Usually the winner hits a set amount of points after a number of rounds have been run on the same map.
Together these modes act as kind of a tutorial leading in to the crux of Canyon, which is online play, both fun and competitive. On top of that there is split-screen play, and Nadeo wants to update the Maniaplanet engine later this year to allow players to code their own modes of play. Sadly, the puzzle, platform, and stunt modes from the original Trackmania did not make it in to Canyon either as a campaign or available game mode. Nadeo made this decision based on the overwhelming amount of time played to simply race vs. puzzle, platform, and stung combined. Even though I did find the latter modes amusing in Trackmania, I am not finding their absence in Canyon to be much of a deal.
The game is beautiful, and not just in the pixel sense. It has the feeling of style. Canyon is not simply realistic artifacts of the desert to make a realistic racing game. It has (as I unabashedly steal from Guild Wars 2) an artisanal feel. Everything from the red cylindrical suspension girders that puncture the bedrock to carry the road through the tunnel to the shiny, stainless steel props that defy the dry desert to megalith concrete blocks that almost add an alien feel to the tracks give Canyon a distinct environmental feeling.
Car damage is also added, although the effect is purely cosmetic. Sparks fly as the Canyon car slams against a concrete wall, and a full side of the car crumples in response. Take enough damage and doors and hoods will fly off to be left in the road. There are plenty of other small touches that do not go unnoticed. For instance, running over an offroad log prop will actually move the log. Exiting a dark tunnel into the bright desert will create a very nice bloom effect (that can be toned down or turned off). The car will get dirty with a little offroad driving, and small details are hidden in each track block. My favorite is a piece of main track road having wood utility poles with electric line running alongside the road then crossing over it. It’s hard to notice when I am barreling down the road at 400+ kph, but when I do I see a lot of love poured in to these small details.
The racing sound effects are great. The engine sound found a nice compromise between something realistic and something a tad organic. The tires squealing add a nice effect when taking a curve at g-force levels. All told the sound effects surrounding the car are fantastic. However, the follow-up is where Nadeo gets a first small ding.
Except for the logs and dirt, there is not much else coming from the ambience. No desert wind. No rocks crumbling down the sides of the canyon. This pertains more to sound than graphics. When entering a solid rock tunnel, I think the sounds should echo and reverberate like crazy. They don’t seem to. There is not even a splash when hitting the water. These small things seem to add up because once I viewed the Canyon environment as “still life” it was hard to shake. I think that more aural and visual interaction with the environment would seal the deal on a perfect environment. I feel too that such interaction is going to feel more necessary in Nadeo’s upcoming Shootmania (FPS) and Questmania (RPG) games.
This would not be a Maniaplanet game without allowing for creativity to reign. Like its Trackmania predecessor, Canyon has a full suite of editing tools to change the look and feel of the entire game. For the most part things can be created very simply. For example, a car can be repainted by changing the entire car color then placing a few stock stickers. Or, a track can be slap-dashed together in basic mode to create a “short” in 5 minutes or less. It’s really easy to use the editors for simple things.
It gets really difficult to use the editors for complex changes. For instance, adding a sticker to the car painter requires knowledge of targa file format alpha channels and the ability to create a DDS file. Creating an award-winning track requires extensive use of the complex MediaTracker as well customized music and graphics. I still don’t understand how to import models, and now they are adding ManiaScript to the lineup to enable code-like changes on the map and game itself. I feel that this is where Nadeo gets the second small ding. The expert tools are just too complex and powerful with too little documentation or tutorials to be comfortable to most purchasers.
I’ll give two examples where this can be improved. A minor example would simply be adding stickers in the car painter. I agree that taking the time to Photoshop a .tga file with an alpha channel will create a better looking sticker with cleaner edges. But, it sure would be helpful to click “import sticker,” then “choose black, white, or none as transparent,” then “frame the icon” and have a sticker. Or, in the MediaTracker to have a simple mode (akin to say the Team Fortress 2 replay editor) where keyframes and actors are dealt with in a more automatic manner. These are subjective examples not reflected in the final score of this review, but they do illustrate where the game can be improved. It is noted that the map editor does have a simple mode to ease players in to creating maps.
However, people are already doing some amazing things like texture packs to turn the canyon in to highland bluffs or a wasteland. Coders have already started messing with the ManiaScript tools to create games like a Tetris-clone or Snake layered over the game. So for most players, being on the receiving end and never creating anything, there will be tons of excellent mods, car skins, and maps to use.
The creativity suit is where Canyon really breaks ranks from other racing games. It’s nice to play the official Nadeo maps in single-player as a baseline, but they cannot compare to a map a truly dedicated player has been working on for a couple dozen hours. Nadeo is well aware of this having actually contracted Trackmania players to help design Canyon maps for the game. The game can only improve as countless hours of design are poured in to the game by players. A player could walk away from Canyon for a month or two and come back to a completely different design space. Most other racing games cannot compare in this aspect. I personally find something new every day on the multitude of servers, which keeps bringing me back daily.
As a standalone game, Trackmania² Canyon is a well polished racing game that is distinctly fun to play. It is well worth the value cost-of-entry and will provide hours of fast-driving excitement. Within the Maniaplanet system of creations and community, Trackmania² Canyon truly shines. As the creators and editors continue to evolve, the community can only benefit.
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Website: Trackmania 2 Canyon
Minimum System Requirements (PC): CPU:1.5 Ghz, RAM: 1 Gb, , VGA:256 MB, Pixel Shader 2.0 / Intel HD 2000 / Nvidia ION / AMD HD 6310, OS: Windows XP / Vista / 7