They sometimes say that the best things in life are free, but I always used to get the feeling that whoever came up with that particular pearl of wisdom was being hopelessly optimistic. However, now I know where they’re coming from – I’ve been playing Nadeo’s freeware racer, TrackMania Nations Forever, and it’s one of the most addictive and enjoyable online games I’ve ever taken tried.
For a few years now, Nadeo have taken to releasing free versions of their full game – the latest is also new, and called TrackMania United Forever – specifically tailored for the online community. The first was a celebration of the E-sports World Cup, but they’ve proved so popular on their own that a new version has been released.
Of course, there are some restrictions when compared to the full retail version. There’s only one environment – the suitably competitive Stadium – and one type of car, and there’s a limit to the surfaces you can race on, too: tarmac, grass and mud are your only real options.
Take the game online, though, and you’ll soon see that these restrictions barely matter at all. As the name suggests, Nations Forever is something of a patriotic title, and the competition can often be fierce. Racing takes place in short rounds of time trial and, with a huge upper limit of 100 players per server, it can often get hectic.
Competing online, though, is ferociously addictive. The F1-style cars are emblazoned with your national flag, and your position on the server is displayed on screen. Dozens of people race at once – your cars don’t collide, thankfully – with each person trying to shave tiny portions of a second off of their time to reach the top spot. Rankings are copiously displayed, with figures available for your region, country and worldwide, so the element of competition never leaves you – which makes logging on every evening to improve your standing a compulsive act.
Graphically, it’s decent – the cars and tracks are suitably shiny and solid, and the famous Nadeo sunsets return. It’s also worth noting that the game is incredibly scalable – I often play in the office using a knackered laptop with lowly integrated graphics, and it runs flawlessly – so there’s no excuse to not get in on the action.
The gameplay is another part of the TrackMania formula for instant, addictive fun. Cars handle simply at first – it doesn’t take long to get to grips with them – although mastering their nuances takes longer. It’s incredibly satisfying to hit the top spot on a server and watch your skills increase after initially logging on and being amazed at the times people are achieving.
The only real problem with the title is a minor one – the single player mode is pretty weak. A few dozen tracks are divided by difficulty into colour-codes: white is easy, for instance, while red and black circuits are more difficult. They’re also grouped into race, obstacle, speed and endurance circuits depending on the style of track it is. Scoring decent times on these tracks will win medals, and winning more medals unlocks more tracks. It’s quite weak and won’t divert your attention much from the stunning online mode.
There’s really no excuse to not try this game. It’s around 500MB – which can be downloaded relatively quickly with a broadband connection – and entirely free. On this basis, it becomes a huge bargain: some of the best online racing – or gaming – you’ll ever play for precisely no cash at all. And you’re representing your country too. I’ll see you on the servers soon.