Welcome to Trackmania!
"Isn't that some racing game?"
It -- well, kinda! I mean, yes it is, but not like you might be expecting.
With the recent release of the most polished and console friendly entry in the long running series, Trackmania Turbo has probably turned a lot of heads for the first time and then probably gave the faces on those heads a confused look. So, 90% of what you'll be doing in the core of Trackmania is point-to-point time trials against either the AI or other live players. There's no car collision or anything like that, instead you simply race to the finish and your time is recorded on a live leaderboard. Of course it's a lot more complicated than that in practice, because these aren't normal cars and these aren't normal tracks. It's Trackmania, damn it!
So, Trackmania has a long pedigree and most of that is found on the PC, and most of that is found in Europe. It's consequently a strange game, but this newest version is a bit more uh... normalized, for better and for worse. It loses some of the user created charm of custom textures on cars and tracks, obscure licensed music piped in, strange colorful text flying around and other weird mods that got bolted on to the series' old server browser known as Maniaplanet. But now it's all sanitized neatly by Ubisoft, which makes this game great for newcomers and a bit frustrating for old vets that want to get into things like track creation, custom car models, and being able to run private dedicated servers.
Thankfully, after quite of bit of time with the game, I can say that what's on offer is good enough from a user level experience and pretty easy to get into.
So let's get into it.
This game combines three racing styles that have been found before in the standalone games Trackmania Stadium, Canyon, and Valley with a new fourth style known as "Lagoon". Each style features different environments, track surface types, and wildly different car handling. They're almost like different racing games, which is why they were sold that way! Stadium is the most popular, and probably the most technically demanding and fastest of the four styles. Overall the game is very arcadey with a simple steering, gas, and break/reverse control scheme with no other mechanics to get in the way. On the tracks, you'll encounter some boost pads, various kinds of surfaces that effect grip, and occasionally you'll see the "free wheeling" pads that cut your engine off until you reach a checkpoint.
So, you drive around wacky and loopy tracks that look like something out of an old Hotwheels playset, with jumps and wallrides and all other kinds of impossible crap, alongside others to compete for the best time on a leaderboard. The times are then posted to a live leaderboard and you have usually about 7 minutes (with unlimited retries) to perfect your run on the track. There's an offline "campaign" for you to race on pre-built tracks against an AI, and a split-screen local multiplayer with some other goofy modes I haven't really looked in to, but the crux of Trackmania has always been its user created online multiplayer tracks.
If you're still curious, let's back up and talk about those four different driving styles. Stadium, as I mentioned, is the more popular one because it offers the highest skill ceiling. You race around in a kind of F1 car with a pretty limited turning radius but good acceleration and top speed. The tracks here are usually high grip surfaces (although dirt surfaces with lots of slide do exist in this mode) with lots of loops and wall rides you need to be going fast enough on to stay stuck to. In fact, the most popular kind of Stadium servers are "Full Speed" servers with tracks designed to be played with never taking your foot (finger) off the gas.
Canyon might be the second most popular, but the drop is pretty steep by the opinions of longtime players. The tracks here are more wide open and greatly emphasize drifting. If you so much as think about the break peddle, you'll go into a slide while turning which is meant to get you around the many sharp turns found in this mode. Some loops and wall rides exist, but the slidey-drifty nature of these cars means they aren't as common. There's some offroading here, but mostly you'll be executing long controlled drifted around paved hairpins and jumping off long ramps onto other long ramps.
Valley has tried to position itself as a kind of balance between grippy technical driving and a looser drifty style, but the result is a sort of boring approach. Valley does tend to feature more offroading, which is fun, but the track designs are often limited by the cars' limited ability to take corners or to stay stuck to a wall while going fast. It's probably my least favorite.
Now the new addition, Lagoon, is looking like a close contender for second favorite (still not quite reaching Stadium). This mode is all about fearlessly turning fullboar into a turn without breaking and at top speed. These cars corner like a beast with no need for breaking and the track sets have a really cool dynamic: magnetic tracks. These things keep you stuck to the track even when you're sideways or upside down, but you still have to navigate twists and turns while the track is corkscrewing around -- it can be pretty hard to keep in control. Some segments are more magnetized than others, and prevent you from flying off no matter how fast you're going, so expect some real F-Zero shit as you zip around. The offroading equivalent is a sandy surface type as well as a lacquered wood surface, both of which play havoc with your car's super tuned turning radius.
So give it a shot! I think there's a demo out there that lets your dip into some of the offline courses. For old vets, the game sadly is a simplified console version of the game, with limited keyboard and mouse support and fewer server-side options. It's a shame since the game has its roots in exactly that kind of thing, but at least the Uplay crap is unobtrusive -- it just kinda loads the game and then you can forget it's not a normal Steam game. For console players new to the game, don't worry. It's fine. Shhh.