In a week or two, Atlus will be coming out with the US release of TrackMania DS. I got a chance to play with the game and found a somewhat simple racing game that was greatly improved through the judicious use of several genre-bending features. In addition to standard racing, there are platforming, puzzle, and even freeform track design modes.
The core of TrackMania DS is a fairly simple race. Choose from one of three racetrack settings (a dragster type race, a stock car type race, and an off-road style of race) and then pick a track, and you’re off and running (or driving, really). Controls are simple and include a throttle, breaks, and turning – no fancy boosts, slides, or other “kart-racing” style enhancements. During races, you don’t interact with your opponents, they are merely representations of various racers. You are simply racing against various opponents’ time trials. Beat the 3rd place racer and earn a bronze medal, the first place racer and earn a gold. Thus, you can follow the footsteps of the better racers to learn the layout of the track as well as tips to find better racing lines. If you don’t like the other cars obscuring your vision, you can even turn them off. Earning medals unlocks new tracks and game modes and rewards you with copper pieces (the game’s currency). Spend your saved copper pieces for new tracks to play on, new paint jobs for your cars, and even new items to use in the track editor.
Yes, there’s a reasonably robust track editor in the game. Build whatever tracks you want, including huge jumps, elevated tracks, and so on, and then compete against friends on your personalized track. The track editor is used in one of the game’s other modes, the puzzle mode. In this mode, you have a starting point and an end point with a challenge: construct a path and race through it so that you arrive at the finish line within the specified time limit. This is made even more challenging in that you will have only specific building blocks with which to make your track.
The final game mode is a platform mode. In this mode, time is meaningless. Race your car to the end of the track without falling off to earn a gold medal. Fall off too many times and you earn no medals at all. Simply driving very slow is not sufficient, as there are frequent jumps that require a minimum speed, or you will fall to the ground (to be set back up at the last checkpoint).
Each mode of racing has its own strengths and weaknesses. The basic racing mode is a great game for younger gamers as the controls are straightforward and not too difficult to master. Multiplayer gaming has many options including hotseat, single, and multicartridge modes so it works great for multi-DS families. I found the platforming mode to rather frustrating due to problems with the camera angle, it was often hard to determine where to jump to next and that made some of the trickier jumps even more difficult. The puzzle mode has a bit of a learning curve as players attempt to master the construction controls. There is a nice balance of figuring out how to make the best path to the finish line and then following that up by racing your car through your newly constructed path.
Hard core racing fans will appreciate the smooth feeling of speed provided by the game, but the graphics, detail, and depth of the gameplay may disappoint. Those looking for a racing game for the younger set, or a game with something just a bit different will find TrackMania DS worth checking out.
Kid Factor: Not much to worry about here. The car sometimes falls off the side but simply lands on the ground, and can even be driven around on the ground if a player wishes. Some of the modes (puzzle and later platform modes) may be a bit frustrating for younger gamers but the racing is simple enough to appeal to even a very young audience. Since the opponents are virtual, players can simply race for their best times and not even worry about computer opponents getting in their way.