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Trackmania: Sunrise

A review of sorts.
...with snippets of Trackmania Original and Nations

A long time ago I tried a game demo that I actually enjoyed... The game was Trackmania. It was already released in Europe - so with extreme anticipation I waited for it to get released in the US. A painful (calling up various stores and finding out that not only does the clerk not know what game I am talking about, but also that they have no release date slated for it... and also that they kept doing a search with two words "Track Mania" instead of one "Trackmania") six months later it finally did. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I got to a point in the SP portion that I just wasn't good enough to get past (the requirement: get gold medals on all tracks).

Not long after I got the original Trackmania was rumors of a new Trackmania game called... Trackmania: Sunrise. I saw a few screenshots of the game and it looked jawdropping. Now... imagine my elation when I found out that they would be releasing a beta demo of Sunrise, and those with the original Trackmania CD would be able to play it. 0_o   Needless to say, I as was giddy as a schoolgirl.

When I did get hold of the beta demo I couldn't believe how smooth it ran and how good it looked at the same time. The game looked exactly like the preview screenshots I had seen months earlier. I was on an AthlonXP 2000+/Radeon 9700 Pro and I was able to run it with 4xAA and at 1024 x 768. Of course I had motion blur disabled (not only did it drop the framerate into the teens but it always made the path ahead hard to see and predict), but every other setting was maxed out. I was a pretty avid posting member over at Rage3D during the time the demo was released, and I was able to post some screenshots there for the community to see (seeing as how almost nobody had heard of Trackmania and especially not Trackmania: Sunrise).

Naturally, the community was amazed. I was amazed. I couldn't wait for Sunrise to come out. During the time I waited, I had the ability to play all kinds of user-made tracks for the beta demo. In addition to this there was a "Community Campaign" option in the Single Player menu, where you can click on "Check for new campaigns" and it would download entire series of user-made tracks to play on... About fifty in total by the time they stopped supporting this feature for the beta demo (I don't think the feature was enabled at all for the final demo, but definitely exists for the final game - though there hasn't been any new campaigns since three months after the game came out).

I saw Sunrise appear at my local PX (on-base military store) and I promptly picked it up. I brought it home and I couldn't play it because inside the box there was no CD key. Surprisingly, my original Trackmania CD key let me into the game, but wouldn't let me play multiplayer. Eventually I bought a second copy of Sunrise so that I could play online. I thought it sucked that even though I sent a picture of the game, instruction manual, game box, and piece of paper with my email address written on it to the US publisher Enlight they would not send me a CD key (bastards).

Starforce Digression and General Internet Community Rant
(please scroll down to the next set of screenshots to skip)

So Sunrise came out not long after the community was amazed at the graphics of the beta demo and said that they couldn't wait to get the game when it came out, etc... So imagine my surprise when I was still the only one playing Sunrise (that rhymes!). This was my first real lesson on how most people attain their PC games. Trackmania: Sunrise is protected by a much hated copy protection system that goes by the name of Starforce. This makes the game impossible to play if you've downloaded it off of the internet until someone comes up with a 'crack' to bypass the protection. Starforce is by far the hardest protection to bypass, and can sometimes take 3 - 5 months before someone figures out how to do it. Some games have never been cracked. So naturally, the community was not talking about the game because they were not able to play it.

The reason Starforce is so effective is because it is very intrusive. It installs drivers on your computer that make your CD/DVD drive do certain things to read the encrypted part of a protected CD. According to the community this keeps them from burning discs, it keeps them from watching DVDs, it even breaks their CD/DVD drives. And because of this, a lot of people want to boycott Starforce and any game that uses it. Another outcome is that people don't want to install anything that has to do with Starforce because they heard the horror stories and don't want it happening to them.

People proclaim that they will not buy Trackmania: Sunrise (or any other game that has Starforce) because they don't want Starforce on their computer. If this is true, then why is it that when a free downloadable game - Trackmania: Nations came out and everyone knew that it included Starforce that there are over 5,000 people playing it online at any given time - yet Trackmania: Sunrise rarely has more than 50, even though it is a much better looking game, has more tracks, more environments, more cars, and essentially is more fun to play?

My theory: Nobody can get a downloaded copy of Sunrise to work, and too few people who spend $400+ on video cards actually buy games.

People who are used to downloading all the games they want for free are getting frustrated at the increase of Starforce protection being used by publishers and they want to stop it. So they come up with "problems" that they have that would coincide with the intrusiveness of Starforce - so it's believable to the general internet community and eventually (now more than ever) the internet community that actually buys games will reject games with Starforce protection thereby discouraging publishers from using it; and then games will be downloadable again and all will be well. I remember one thread I read on a forum was titled "Starforce ****ed my computer!" and included in his list of problems after installing Collin McRae Championship was that his MSN homepage kept defaulting to the Latin version and the inability to launch programs without getting pop-up ads.

So, even though Starforce probably doesn't hurt anyone's computer (I have many versions installed on three different computers and I have absolutely no issues with any of them - maybe I'm lucky) the protection is doomed because more and more people are actually boycotting it. That and I'm fairly certain that not all claims are false. I appreciate that Starforce works as a copy protection (though many claim it doesn't... where are the people playing Sunrise then?) but I don't think it does any real good as far as making a company money. I don't care if all games in the future have Starforce protection or not because I'm not going to let gay ass copy protection or random people on the internet scare me out of buying and playing excellent games like Trackmania: Sunrise.

End Digression

So after reading all of this (you are still here, aren't you?) you still don't know anything about Trackmania: Sunrise (TMS) except for what it looks like. My apologies. TMS is a racing game (obviously) where you will drive your car on various tracks. The faster time you get on the tracks, the better medal you get. The better medal you get, the more coppers you receive. The more coppers you receive, the more extensive and larger tracks you can build. On top of this, when you finish a series you get bonus coppers depending on what your lowest medal is. The more tracks you build, the more you can upload to Trackmania Exchange, where other users will download it and comment on/rate it. You can also set your computer up to be a server that hosts only your tracks and other people can race you on your own turf.

You must keep in mind that the game is called Trackmania, and not Racingmania and definitely not Carmania. It's mainly about the tracks. There are three different "environments" that you drive in, each with it's own specially formulated car. It doesn't matter what car you choose (out of the 10 or so for each environment... You also have the option of painting your own) in your profile for each of the three environments... They all perform and handle the same (according to the environment they are in of course).

There's Bay, Island, and Coast environments. I'm not sure which one corresponds with which but I'll describe the differences anyway. One is an SUV-style vehicle that looks mysteriously like the newest Land Rover. It has a quick start-up and handles extraordinarily well. It doesn't matter how you crash or land or crashland, you'll have a 90% chance of ending up on your wheels (if only all SUVs can be like that). The top speed is fairly low but the tracks that correspond to it generally have really tight turns and lots of small jumps. Another environment requires a muscle car of some sort. This one is kind of silly because the car is very slow and handles very poorly AND has a very low top speed. However, this environment is by far the best looking in my opinion (yet it's the one that I have the least screenshots of.. Go figure). Learning how to maneuver the car can take a bit of practice. Once you have it down the tracks are either very easy (simple turns, simple jumps) or very frustrating (holes in the middle of the road, objects in the middle of the road, medium jumps right after a curve that you have to take perfectly to make the jump). Finally you have the race car environment... By far the most fun out of the three (in my opinion). Here you have a car that handles pretty good and goes really really really fast. The tracks associated with it are usually wide and are the most fun as long as they aren't confusing. There are some tracks though where you'll have a ramp that shoots you straight up into the air, and you'll have to land on another ramp ~500 feet to the left or right. Sometimes you don't know exactly where that other ramp is and 90% of the time you don't know exactly how far away it is. Therefore it can take you 5,10,20 tries to make the jump the first time (there can be some REALLY difficult jumps) and another 10 times to perfect it. I prefer the tracks without these types of jumps, or if they do have them... they have a large margin of error for your landing.

The heart of this game is it's multiplayer mode. You join a server that is hosting potentially 100+ tracks that you've never played before and you race against people from all over the world... mostly France. Most of the people playing are on a pretty bad internet connection, so be glad that there is absolutely no collision detection in TMS (or any other Trackmania game). There are some really good tracks out there and once you join a server you have the option to download the track to your computer as a challenge before/during/after your time on the server. There is an "Official Mode" that you can turn on, which enables you for ladder play. Depending on how well you race compared to the other people on the server you'll get more points... The more points you get the higher up the ladder you go. Right now I just broke 4000th place with a total of 200 points (I've only recently discovered the excitement of the multiplayer mode - that and I'm really not very good compared with the other peeps on the server. As an example the 1st place guy can run the track in 2:04:32 and I'll run it in 2:05:45 and I'll be 12th place).

Another thing that makes the Trackmania series great is the support it receives from it's developer Nadeo. Six months after TMS was released they came out with a free expansion pack for it that turned it into TMS:Extreme. It added more scenery like suspension bridges, yachts, rockets, and airplanes. There were two new game modes: Extreme (which I can't figure out how to describe - and I didn't care for either) and Stunt (A Tony Hawk-esque mode where you jump up ramps and do spins and stuff for points). Also included were more track modules such as the red acceleration arrows (that, if you are in the muscle car will shoot you forward so fast that your front end will lift up) and various kinds of ramps and loop-de-loops. With those red acceleration arrows the race car ends up going pretty darn fast and makes for some really intense racing. I haven't had that much feeling of "going fast" since Rollcage: Stage II actually ran at a normal speed on my computer (for some reason since I've upgraded from my Radeon 8500 Rollcage runs at half speed). In addition to the Extreme expansion pack that TMS received, the original Trackmania received an expansion pack of it's own (cleverly entitled Trackmania Original) where it basically applied the TMS engine to the original Trackmania, giving it more realistic pixel shading and prettier environments.

All over the internet (most notably, Trackmania Carpark) there are all kinds of car models to download. It couldn't be easier to install them. You download the zip file and simply place it in your downloaded cars folder inside your game installation. Start up the game and you'll see your newly downloaded car in the selection screen. You can also put in your own music this way. The game reads .ogg files - which happens to be the same format of the music in Unreal Tournament 2004. Naturally, I grabbed my favorite music out of my UT2004 folder and copied them over to my TMS music folder (which by default had pretty awful music). Not only this, but some tracks online have their own songs associated with them... Most notably is Navras I, II, and III (all of which are very artistic in nature) by Spale, that includes (and is named after) one of the few good songs by Juno Reactor. There's also another track out there called Firestarter that predictably comes with the Prodigy song of the same name.

It's unbelievable how creative some of the tracks are that you can find out there. I remember one track that you started off, got launched forward by the red arrows and jumped a ramp. While you're in the air you can kind of control your car by holding the acceleration button or hitting the brakes. If you do anything other than hold that acceleration button down (I use a gamepad) then you will crash and have to start over. So anyway after you jump the ramp there's a series of parked airplanes that you jump over, and as you barely miss the last one it looks like you are about to hit the side of a hill, but instead you go right into a narrow tunnel with all kinds of twists and turns and stuff. This scene is in the gameplay videos below. Also worth noting is some of the crazy things people do with the terrain (sometimes you are supposed to nail the side of a hill), using it to flip your car thirty times in the air and sideways after being launched from a ramp, and then falling through a hole in an upper road and landing perfectly at the next section of track.

In speaking of videos TMS has an awesome feature that will allow you to convert any replay (yes, the game has replays! Something EA keeps forgetting to put in their games.) into any video format your computer is capable of doing. You can choose the framerate, resolution, add effects, max out the game settings without worrying about it coming out choppy, and you can even combine more than one replay into one race so it appears there are several cars racing at a time.

Gameplay Videos
DIVX codec required!
How to learn a track.

145MB; 5:13
How to learn a track 2.

62MB; 2:14
Here is a recording from an online race I was playing, and kept crashing. It took me several tries to complete the track. This video shows essentially how frustrating (yet fun!) user-made tracks can be. Here is another recording from an online race. This one I did a little bit better on. I still crashed a lot. It was a pretty fun track all in all.

Some of the scenes in this game are unbelievable looking. The only other game I've seen with more detailed or realistic pixel shading was Half Life 2... Nadeo did it perfectly as well, except for the water. The roads look like I can reach out to my screen and touch them. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about the trees. TMS has probably the ugliest nastiest looking trees to ever be seen in a game and I'm ashamed to have them in some of my screenshots. The dynamic shadows are pretty good... especially in the night tracks where the lights will cast from 2 to 8 shadows over your car at any given time. One of the neater features of the engine is the constantly changing brightness, contrast, and saturation (as if clouds are passing underneath the sun). On top of that these will change dynamically depending on which way you are facing, which makes for a very realistic look.

The audio isn't very exciting. At times the pitch of the engine sound does not match the speed you are going. Sometimes it feels like you're spinning your tires (mainly in the muscle car), but the tires don't sound like they are spinning (meaning, the engine will sound like it's going full speed but you will still be accelerating). The music (save for the main menu track) was not very good, and some of it outright annoying. Thankfully this is rectified by simply deleting the tracks that came with the game and putting in your own. Audacity is capable of converting mp3s into ogg format.

This is where a lot of people get turned off. The controls are not exactly the same you would find on a racing sim. Personally, I think it's best played with a gamepad or keyboard because there are some tracks that will break any joystick or steering wheel you throw at it. A sharp left after a sharp right, and then you get launched into a loop where you have a sharp right immediately after... I can't imagine doing that with a steering wheel. One problem I noticed with TMS (and the original) is that with a Saitek Gaming Keyboard, TMS will not recognize any input device... including your keyboard. You have to disable one of the three USB devices (it's the one that allows the keyboard to control the volume) that the Saitek keyboard installs. I use a Logitech Cordless Rumblepad 2 to play this game. Every now and then, the controller will randomly reset my car (as if I pressed the "3" button) on it's own. You can modify just about every control in TMS except that one, and that disappointed me. Other than these issues, I find the actual handling of the cars to be well implemented. The game is very responsive to what you press (except for that blasted muscle car).

Unbearably addictive. You unlock tracks in the SP game by playing through current tracks. Once you play all the tracks in a series you are encouraged to play them all again for a cup (but when you play for a cup, you can't restart a race or else you lose). You can go for all silver medals or all bronze medals or all gold medals... I found the gold medals to be pretty hard to attain. I'm much better at the game now than I was when I first played but I still have gold medals in only 1/4th of the tracks in the SP game. Playing online is hard to quit because every new track makes you want to try it. It only takes a few seconds to switch from one track to another, so there's no time to really say "Okay I'm done."

I think the Trackmania series adds a bit of much needed variety and quality to the PC game market. It's one of those games that if someone says they don't like it I can't understand why they don't. There is nothing not to like about Trackmania, unless you really hate games where you drive cars fast. It's difficult to drive perfectly, but you don't need to be perfect most of the time. Playing online can be a bit of a challenge if you want to move up the ladder... there are some really good players out there. But the more you play the better you get and eventually you'll find yourself in the number 1 or 2 spot (every now and then). And for me, just simply completing a difficult track is more than enough to keep me playing... and there are plenty of difficult tracks out there.