If we consider the title in terms of modern standards, 2008’s TrackMania Nations Forever is not a great racing game. The user interface is seriously cluttered and busy, most people will need to install a separate patch for it not to break on launch, and if you didn’t pay for the game, you get made to sit out every five or so races – the game’s ‘free zone restriction.
I respectfully disagree with these modern standards. TrackMania Nations Forever (which from here on out I’m just going to call TNF) is a solid multiplayer racer with a lot of replayability and a mass of abstract charm that deserves another look 13 years after its release.
The first and most important point – as in any decent driving game – is that the cars handle well. It takes a brief time to get used to the controls (I’m a keyboard player, much to my friends’ apparent indignation), but once you do it becomes a strategic game of figuring out how to maneuver the vehicle just so to get around critical hairpin turns and along the map’s many sideways halfpipes. The adage has been done to within an inch of death, but it’s very much a case of it being easy to learn while hard to master – and mastering it, committing to muscle memory classic techniques of these games like when to brake or to enter a powerslide, for instance, is made into a much more compelling challenge, especially when bragging rights among friends are at stake.
While we’re on the subject of bragging rights, most of the fun of TNF, at least in my view, is in its multiplayer: it still has a surprisingly large number of servers, apparently due to the title’s yet surviving fanbase, and so far connectivity and latency problems have proven not to be an issue. There’s also very little friction – you log in to a server, and within a few seconds, you’re on the road.
The bigger point, though, is that it’s an easy game to drop into and out of with friends or without; the multiplayer functions on a straightforward, time-attack basis, whereby you go around and around the map posting faster and faster lap times (ideally) until the map expires, and at that point whoever has the best time sits at the top of the leaderboard. There are few feelings in this life better than winning by a fraction of a second and knowing that somewhere out there an American is deeply frustrated.
Speaking of the multiplayer servers, there are truly so many race tracks. Again, this is largely down to the fact a large base of fans appears to still make maps for it, but the servers rotate between a diverse collection of levels that are all unique enough despite using largely the same set of functioning parts – halfpipes, ramps, loop-de-loops – that any given multiplayer run never feels too stale or samey.
Additionally, though the multiplayer is at this point mostly an aggregate of fan work, a discipline famously variable in terms of the quality of its cultural output, by and large, the tracks I’ve played have been uniformly solid with few exceptions (fewer, still, if you excuse those I dislike out of spite because I keep losing at them). The kooky design of these very classic-looking maps, plastered with satisfying if physics-defying jumps, complex turns, non-OSHA-compliant loops and halfpipes, and timesaving shortcuts if you’re insightful enough to pick them out at speed, provide both a strong challenge to drivers looking to post the quickest laps and a fun diversion if you like the feeling of satisfaction that comes with beating a tough level.
If you can see past its pre-2010s flaws, TNF is a strong candidate for any list of games deserving a second look-in. While its setup can be a little on the hairy side – though patching it is in fairness a relatively straightforward procedure – once you’re in, it’s a simple, fun racer that, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic and related limitations on social contact, is a good investment if you’re looking to while away some time with your friends between now and when we can all see them again.