I blogged a few days ago that I’d started to get into TrackMania Nations, the online-only, community-track populated version of the regular TrackMania series. I’d often been drawn to the TrackMania games since they very much represent a small independent studio success story on the PC, and the games do look very good - the time just never seemed to come up. TrackMania Nations is a great idea because it lets you experience the quality of the title without laying out any cash. I also blogged before that many of the community tracks can be really annoying, and have more to do with spending weeks learning obscure winning strategies and then using that esoteric knowledge against your fellow man online, which for said fellow man is about as much fun as an iron wool eating competition. However, once you find servers that have a better selection of tracks (my personal favorite was ‘Sheffs Shorts’) that can be enjoyed by newcomers but that still reward skilful driving (rather than just knowing tricks or being an utter perfectionist), the underlying game really starts to shine through. Car physics are absolutely spot-on, as are the controls, and the whole thing runs really smoothly on my 2-year old machine. And it’s a lot of fun, especially the tracks that blend traditional racing with some bonkers stunts (without overdoing it).
I even got my wife playing it recently and we’ve both enjoyed online play. It has a subtle but clever twist on regular online racing, because the ranking is all about individual single lap times, and not winning a single race. This is great, because you’re as much racing against yourself as other people, trying to best your lap time to increase your ranking. And because each lap only takes 30 seconds or so in each case, you get lots of tries at it. You never feel totally out of the running (except right at the end) like you do in other racing games if you have a bad lap or two, because everything resets every time. Even if the track is new to you and you suck in the first few goes, you can use that experience to improve your later times without predjudice - your best time is the only one that matters. Therefore it doesn’t need artificial ways to rebalance that feeling of helplessness when you’re way behind like Mario Kart does with its powerups (which can end up just unbalancing the game at the other end). The result is an online game that’s a lot of fun to play no matter what level you’re at, which is a pretty rare thing in my experience. It’s also the fact that just playing the tracks is a lot of fun, irrespective of your ranking, because the physicality of the experience is very convincing and enjoyable - it just feels perfect.
So, I ordered TrackMania United to support the developers of a really excellent game. But, last night my venerable SideWinder Precision Pro (and I mean venerable - it’s not even USB and I remember playing the original Descent on it when it was new!) decided to pack the job in, fancying that really I only ever needed to turn right. No end of recalibration would teach it otherwise, I could almost hear it grumbling to itself in a cracked voice “When you get to my age sonny, you’ll understand that all of a sudden, you just don’t feel like turning left anymore. I fought in the Descent war you know, don’t I deserve some peace? Eee, when I were a lad, mrmmnmm…”. And so on.
So, since I was in town getting my eyeballs tested today anyway (another story) I thought I’d pick up another controller. I fancied a gamepad with analogue sticks this time, since it would allow me to play classics like Mutant Storm properly too. So, I picked up the ‘XBox 360 Controller for Windows’ that Microsoft makes now since it seemed the most solid out of what’s available. So far, works well, and TrackMania United arrived on my doorstep today too. Huzzah!