There is a wealth of racing titles on the DS, most of which are of extremely poor quality, with only a few exceptions standing out. By far the best titles have indeed all come from the talented folk at Firebrand, with the brilliant Race Driver: Create and Race, impressive Ferrari Challenge and even EA saw the light and handed the recent portable edition of Need for Speed: Undercover to the Scottish team with really good results. So is TrackMania merely more of the same from the development crew? Well, not exactly...
What instantly makes TrackMania stand out from the bustling crowd of racers vying for gamers' attention is that there is no collision with the three other racers on the track. The focus is on achieving the fastest time possible in the purest fashion, without interference from other drivers bumping into your vehicle every five seconds. As courses are very short in nature, even one or two knocks could ruin the sense of speed, and concurrently the enjoyment factor of TrackMania on the whole, so instead vehicles drive through each other, with the aim being to shave vital seconds off by cutting corners as finely and accurately as can be done. The other interesting addition is how if you feel a race is not going too well, or your vehicle has either toppled over or fallen off the edge of the race-track, a simple tap of a button can either re-start you from the last Check Point (with the timer still going) or return to the Start (with the clock reset). This feature adds a great sense of pace overall, rather than always having to pause, click restart and wait for the stage to reset.
In terms of modes on offer, there is the standard race set-up, where players must face-off against up to three other computer opponents, each one of different standard - Bronze, Silver or Gold. Beating them to the finish line on any of the three styles of course available, Desert, Rally or Stadium, leads to Coppers being added to your profile. Once enough have been collected it means the Shop can be visited and various items can be unlocked - ranging from new tracks and vehicle skins to a plentiful supply of extra pieces for the in-depth track creation element (more on that aspect later).
For the actual main racing part of the game, instead of simply having a few vehicles to choose from that can be driven on any track, TrackMania has three very different handling vehicles that are used on each specific style of course (an F1-a-like racer for the Stadium tracks, for instance, that has much heavier handling than, say, the little race cars found on the Rally stages that almost float around corners). This leads to gamers having to master all three types of handling, rather than choosing their favourite style and sticking with it for the entire game, bringing a whole extra level of depth to proceedings. It can prove to be initially frustrating having to switch between the three, but Firebrand has managed to achieve such a fine balance that it does not take too long at all to get your head around the major changes between each vehicle.
As well as standard racing, there is a Platform mode where the aim is to get from one side of an even more treacherous than normal course to the other without falling off the edge and having to restart. There is no need to bother about beating other racers, just trying to achieve certain target completion times. There is also a Puzzle mode, which is only unlocked once you have started making your own tracks in the Editing side of the game (a nice way of encouraging those unsure about track creation to actually make the effort). In the Puzzle mode, gamers are tasked with building a course out of a set number of track pieces of all shapes and sizes, then racing from one end to the other in the quickest time. But once players have a taste of the editing software, they will likely have the most fun with the full editing facilities on offer, creating the most extravagant courses that can be imagined and realised with the track pieces available. Previously Firebrand included similar facilities in its two Race Driver games for Codemasters, but the one in TrackMania is much more detailed and highly intuitive to boot. Easy manipulation of your in-progress creation in real-time is something that many would believe not possible on DS due to hardware limitations, but the Octane engine has no problem squeezing more juice out of the DS than ever thought possible. Using a mixture of the stylus and face buttons, players can rotate the creations, zoom in and out, whilst all the while dragging and dropping the variety of track pieces, trackside paraphernalia, bridges, slopes, and so on, wherever their heart desires.
Unfortunately, though, there is no online mode on offer, an element that made the PC versions so extremely appealing, and thus is the only major downfall of the game as it restricts the amount of time gamers will spend with it (no online track sharing, or VS. modes...), since not everyone has a friend or three on-hand at all times. However, Firebrand has previously stated it is an element that may well be included in a potential future sequel, so if sales of this are strong enough it gives us all something to look forward to next time! Sticking with the negative theme for a short while longer, there are sadly also a couple of frustrating elements that stem from the ultra-creative track design. The first is that there are times when the camera fails to keep up with sharp turns or steep jumps into the air, meaning that the player is virtually blind and thus cannot see where to drive or land (and changing the viewing perspective from behind the vehicle to the first-person driving view certainly does not help matters). The other point is that a track map would have been very handy indeed. There are a few too many cases where you must drive slowly round a particular track in order to figure out where turns and jumps are. A course map and/or some sort of directional warning arrows like in Race Driver would have been a very wise addition and helped to remove this ultimately annoying section of TrackMania DS.
To end on a slightly more positive note, once more Firebrand has got the cogs churning on its home-brewed Octane engine to whip up a visual treat that puts other DS racers to shame. With vast track layouts, solidly designed vehicles and plenty of professional touches that add a slick presentational element to the whole package, whilst maintaining a silky-smooth frame-rate throughout, TrackMania even challenges many a PSP racer in terms of visual prowess and sheer speed. The Scottish outfit really is going from strength-to-strength with its DS output, tweaking the Octane engine time and time again to achieve some amazing results on such a limited platform. Suffice to say its first Wii game cannot come soon enough! As for the soundtrack, this aspect is rather limited, but is adequate for proceedings, with the cold-cut, futuristic funk of the main theme and Stadium tune, to the Country-and-Western styled Desert music and light rock of the Rally courses. Of course, players will not really be paying too much attention to the music as they concentrate on the intense racing action, with the sound of the roaring vehicle engines filling their minds. On the whole, TrackMania easily makes it into the Top 5 best racing games on DS so far, with only Mario Kart and Firebrand's two Race Driver titles keeping it down. Racing fans, make sure you buy this in your droves to ensure the team get another crack at the series on DS...