Racing games have become far too serious this generation for my liking. Hardcore racing simulations have their place for petrolheads, but sometimes you want to throw your brain out the window and pull off some prolonged powerslides in OutRun, terrify some passengers with dangerous driving in Crazy Taxi, or smash your rivals into submission whilst driving the wrong way down a busy highway at 200mph in Burnout.
Arcade racers offer simple, unadulterated adrenaline rushes of fast-paced fun that you can pick up and play with the knowledge that you’ll have a good time no matter how long you play. And yet, with the exception of last year’s disappointing Need for Speed reboot, this console generation has been seriously lacking in them. Developers are constantly pushing the limits of current-gen hardware to achieve photo-realistic graphics, complex physics engines and painstakingly detailed car models, but I’ve been longing to see the return of simple driving games that aren’t so concerned with realism and instead focus on fun gameplay.
I’ve missed racing games that encourage suicidal speed, obscene jumps and a total disregard for real world physics. Luckily, we now have TrackMania Turbo to fill that void.
Indeed, if you needed an indication that this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously, TrackMania Turbo starts some races by suspending your car from a helicopter and literally drops you onto the track from an absurd height. It evokes a feeling of anticipation akin to climbing up a rollercoaster - you know you’re in for a wild ride.
Fast and Furious
TrackMania’s belated return to consoles has been a long time coming. Developed by French studio Nadeo, the series is a firm favourite among PC players, with a myriad of sequels and expansions released since the series debuted over a decade ago. On console however, you’d be forgiven for forgetting TrackMania’s brief appearance on Nintendo’s consoles, with spin-offs released for the Wii and DS. It’s a shame TrackMania was never granted a wider release, frankly, as its arcade sensibilities seemed tailor-made for home consoles. TrackMania Turbo more than makes up for the series’ absence however, serving as a best of compilation that retains the series’ trademark sense of speed, crazy track designs and compulsive course makers.
For the uninitiated, TrackMania isn’t a traditional arcade racer. In essence, it’s a part time-attack, part physics puzzler game where you race against ghost cars to set the fastest time on tracks seemingly designed by a child let loose with a Hot Wheels playset. These aren’t your conventional racetracks: you’ll be facing extreme elevation changes, launching off ramps and driving through loop the loops at ludicrous speed.
TrackMania Turbo hasn’t changed too much in its transition to consoles, so series veterans may struggle to find anything new, but neither has its perpetual pick-up-and-play appeal. TrackMania Turbo should carry an addiction warning – the majority of tracks last less than a minute, but you can easily clock up the hours painstakingly repeating the same track to shave vital milliseconds off your time to win that all-important medal. Bronze and silver medals should be achievable for most with practice, but going for gold requires plenty of persistence. It’s a familiar formula if you’ve played Ubisoft’s equally aggravating Trials series which also revolves around trial and error stages, albeit with cars instead of bikes.
Trakcmania Turbo’s campaign is split across four environments: Canyon Grand Drift is set on desert roads with sweeping bends designed for drifting, while the Down & Dirty Valley features treacherous off-road sections adorned with trees to avoid and swamps to slow you down. The gravity-defying Rollercoaster Lagoon is my personal favourite, which has you racing on raised tracks above a tropical island filled with stomach-churning banks and loop the loops. International Stadium is about as close to the real world as TrackMania Turbo gets, set in a traditional indoor racetrack environment with tight turns and motocross-style sand sections. Each environment assigns you a designated car to drive, ranging from nimble off-road buggies to a Formula One-style single seater.
Each car has its own distinctive driving style to tackle the varied terrain. The NASCAR-modified muscle car was by far the most enjoyable car to drive in the Canyon Grand Drift events - it’s fast, agile and demands to be drifted with tactful taps of the brake. With practice, it’s possible to slide around entire sections of track, which not only saves time but is fun to execute.
The Baja-style buggy you drive on the dirt tracks of Down & Dirty Valley is twitchy and a handful to handle by comparison, making it less enjoyable to drive. Likewise, the buggy supplied to you in the Rollercoaster Lagoon events suffers from similar problems, and doesn’t react very well to sand beaches which is peculiar for a car built to handle tricky terrain. The International Stadium’s single seater car has ample grip on the other hand, requiring precise driving to counter its tendency to understeer.
TrackMania Turbo’s arcade-style car handling is incredibly tight, with smooth steering that responds to the slightest twitch of the analogue stick, giving you precise control of the car’s movement. Some options to adjust the sensitivity would have been welcome, but once you adjust you’ll be thankful the cars are so controllable when your reaction times are put under serious scrutiny in the demanding tracks.
The 90's Arcade Racer
TrackMania Turbo is heavily inspired by classic ‘90s arcade racers, and it really shows - right down to the retro ‘insert coin’ prompt which greets you at the start menu. It even appears over a looping replay if you leave the game inactive like a retro arcade cabinet game.
Visually, TrackMania Turbo’s colourful presentation is reminiscent of some of Sega’s classic coin-ups like OutRun and Daytona USA, and while the environments and toy-esque car models aren’t as intricately detailed as other available racers, TrackMania Turbo has a crisp, refined look to it that wouldn’t look out of place in an arcade. Occasional screen tearing mars its otherwise pristine paintwork.
The sense of speed is dizzying too, thanks primarily to TrackMania Turbo’s silky smooth frame rate that runs at an almost unflinching 60fps (something that not many modern racing games can confidently claim) – and that’s without experiencing it in VR. It was recently confirmed that TrackMania Turbo will support PlayStation VR later this year, but time will tell if the stomach-churning tracks make for a suitable VR experience, or if it will be a vomit-inducing disaster. Might be best to have a sick bag handy just in case.
Accompanying the arcade action is a generic dance soundtrack, but the thumping beats admittedly compliment the fast-paced arcade-style driving, and again help convey TrackMania Turbo’s arcade atmosphere. It does become grating if it’s not to your taste, but at least PS4 players can resort to Spotify to create their own soundtracks.
Further adding to TrackMania Turbo’s vintage vibe is a comedic commentator, who helpfully warns you to “watch the paintwork” whenever you inevitably graze a wall. His one-liners do get repetitive after a while, particularly as you’ll be repeating tracks in quick succession, but they’re infrequent enough during the events that they don’t become too irritating. Better attempts at humour can be found in TrackMania Turbo’s ironic motivational billboards – the “Try Hard 2: Try Harder” sign springs to mind. It’s this quirky sense of humour that helps separate TrackMania Turbo from some of its po-faced competitors.
Like many old-school arcade racers, TrackMania Turbo becomes increasingly challenging as you progress. While the track design is consistently terrific, imaginative and fun, later levels seem almost impossibly difficult and require precision driving to succeed. There’s little margin for error, as the slightest misjudgement of acceleration, braking or steering will result in instant failure. Ramps are also lethal – anything other than a straight landing will usually spell disaster. It’s a testament to the wonderfully responsive controls that you are able to attack the extreme twists and turns of the demanding courses with such precision.
The extended multi-lap tracks which conclude each row of events are particularly nerve-racking: I can’t count the number of times I completed the first two laps flawlessly, only to clip a wall on the final lap which sent my car cartwheeling through the air.
Despite the difficulty, you can’t help but marvel at some of the inventive track designs which take skill and practice to perfect. As the levels become increasingly more demanding, some sections require you to jump through a gap in the track whilst upside-down. Other times you’ll be bouncing off water rapids, speeding through boost pads to drive up vertical walls and dodging conveniently placed hazards at high speed.
Some sections temporarily cut your engine off – if you haven’t carried enough speed to keep your car coasting, watching your car slowly come to a stop as it runs out of momentum just as you approach a jump is absolutely agonising. It’s an inventive idea, even if the neighbours will probably complain about your copious cursing.
In other games, the constant trial and error would be infuriating and probably result in controller casualties as you repeat the same level again and again. Indeed, there is a fine balance, and TrackMania Turbo's difficulty and repetition does threaten to drain all the fun out of it.
And yet I was surprised by how rarely I became frustrated. The short length of the tracks (minus the multi-lap events which do become a chore after a while) certainly helps as success seems so tantalisingly close, spurring you on to have another go – especially when an instant restart is only the press of a button away. You can also respawn at checkpoints, but the time doesn’t reset which makes them redundant if you’re trying to beat a new record. This is how TrackMania Turbo reels you in - 'just one more go' turns into over hundred as you work out the best way to tackle a track.
What doesn’t help alleviate the repetition, however, is the linear, archaic campaign structure. Levels are locked behind different coloured tiers of difficulty: each location has ten tracks per tier, and completing them all unlocks the next tier.
This is fine in theory, but if you fancy sticking to the same location in the next difficulty tier, you’re stuck. TrackMania Turbo forces you to complete all events in every location within the tier, so you have to complete another 30 events before you can unlock the next tier. Likewise, if you want to skip between locations, you can’t since you can only unlock ten tracks at a time in one location. The fact there are only four locations doesn’t help, either: there are 200 tracks to complete in the campaign but they are spread rather thinly across four locations.
The conditions for unlocking the later difficulties are extremely demanding too, forcing you to repeat earlier events to get a better score if you settled for bronze. Unlocking the appropriately named “Black Series Hard to Master” requires 160 gold medals (that’s gold in every track up until the final tier), which is no easy feat. I settled for silver most of the time. Gating content isn’t exactly uncommon in games, but it’s likely some impatient players will never get to see the final 40 tracks unless you say goodbye to your social life.
To be fair, Nadeo has at least offered a lifeline in the form of Joker medals, which allow you to exchange medals you’ve earned on a tough track for a higher ranking (you can earn a Joker gold medal providing you can earn silver three times on the same track for example). The downside is that the game punishes you for taking the easy route. Browse your proud collection of hard-earned medals and you’ll notice a mocking gap representing your Joker medal, provoking you into completing the event properly. TrackMania Turbo is clearly a game that makes you work for your achievements and rewards you accordingly.
Do a Barrel Roll
If you grow tired of repeating the same pre-made tracks over and over again in the campaign, TrackMania Turbo includes a versatile track creator; a staple of the series that’s something of a novelty for console gamers. Sony has tried to make their mark in the past with their own track building IPs with ModNation Racers and LittleBigPlanet Karting but both series floundered, leaving the gap wide open for TrackMania Turbo.
Wisely, Nadeo has realised that not every player will have the same attention span when it comes to building tracks: while some players may only use It casually to cobble together a track shaped like a penis, others will spend hours meticulously crafting their creations. TrackMania Turbo’s track creator is divided into different levels (Beginner, Normal and Advanced) to cater for casual and hardcore creators – and it works like a treat.
The entry level track editor provides you with a stripped down toolset designed to let you cook up a track as quickly as possible, using pre-made track pieces and slotting them together with ease. At its most advanced level, the track creator uses an entirely different control scheme, allowing you to browse categories and access track types, landscape and decoration options using the two analogue sticks in tandem. This method is a bit fiddly and can’t compare to a keyboard and mouse setup, but it’s still not a bad substitute.
Alternatively, you can use the random track generator if you’re feeling lazy. With an intuitive toolset at your disposal, it’s certainly possible to design tracks as wacky as Nadeo’s imaginative campaign courses.
However, for a game that encourages user-created tracks, TrackMania Turbo makes it frustratingly difficult to access them. You can upload your own creations and make them public, but accessing other player-made tracks is an altogether more convoluted process. Its clunky implementation leaves a lot to be desired: instead of a simple in-game browser that lets you view and play community tracks, you have to browse them on an external Ubisoft website and favourite them to then use in your game. It’s a disappointing oversight.
For its surprisingly modest asking price, TrackMania Turbo offers a wealth of content at great value – and that’s without mentioning its meaty multiplayer component.
In a console generation where local multiplayer is considered a luxury, TrackMania Turbo has a surprisingly generous portion of multiplayer options. There’s traditional four player split screen multiplayer that harkens back to the days of Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing, along with obligatory 'pass the controller' Hotseat and Arcade modes where players take it in turns to set the fastest time, but the real highlight is the madcap Double Driver mode where two players collaborate to control the same car which requires careful coordination. If one player steers left and the other steers right, the car will drive in a straight line - it’s as chaotic and hilarious as it sounds. Double Driver isn’t just a throwaway mode, either – you can play the full 200 event campaign co-operatively in Double Driver if you wish.
There are also additional ‘Secret’ multiplayer modes which can only be accessed by pressing certain button combinations, including a Smash mode where players exercise their thumbs by mashing a button to accelerate, Mono mode where two players race on the same screen and Bonus mode, a Mario Kart-inspired event where players pick up power-ups that can make your car bigger, smaller or fire cars at opponents. Typical TrackMania insanity.
Naturally, there’s online multiplayer too, and it's just as gloriously OTT as the main game, with support for up to 100 players competing simultaneously to put in their best time within five minutes. Rooms are easy to set up, and the quick-fire nature of the events keeps you hooked much like the main game. The sheer onslaught of spawning ghost cars is amusing, but it can be distracting when you’re trying to focus on the track – an option to switch them off would have helped.
I particularly like how TrackMania Turbo’s online rankings are regionalised to encourage local competition - not only does it show your worldwide ranking, but in my case it displays my UK, England and South West of England ranking too which motivates you to push harder. It's a shame it doesn't display other player’s times rather than a list of numerical rankings so I could see how close I am to beating the next player, though.
TrackMania Turbo is the chronically addictive arcade racer this console generation has needed. It’s fast and will probably make you furious at times, but TrackMania Turbo’s lengthy campaign, manic multiplayer and exhilarating arcade action makes it a truly triumphant return to consoles for the series and one of the best surprises of 2016 so far.