When Trackmania was released by developer Nadeo on the PC in 2003, it more or less became an instant hit, particularly in many European countries. It is almost amazing to think that up until then, there wasn't really a single arcade, "hot wheels" like racer that separated itself from the pack, because as Trackmania proved, it is such an enjoyable and easy genre to play. With a few expansions and a sequel in "Trackmania Sunrise" under their belt, Nadeo are back again with Trackmania United, and while much of the game feels the same as before, this is by far the most complete Trackmania package to date.
Like the Trackmania's before it, United features three main modes of play - Race, Puzzle and Platform. These three modes are basically the same as the previous titles - Race is for timed races either against preset Bronze, Silver and Gold times or other players online, Puzzle is also timed but you have to build the track before racing with a pre-determined amount of blocks, and Platform is about staying on a usually airborne track from start to finish with as few resets as possible. All three offer unique gameplay and really show off the fun and addictive nature of the Trackmania formula.
To showcase these three modes, United again has a system much like all the other Trackmania titles - you choose which of the three modes you want to play, and then you have a choice of five difficulty settings - "Start", "Easy", "Normal", "Hard" and "Extreme". Each of these modes have a selection of tracks to choose from (except Extreme which has one track) and naturally, the harder the difficulty, the harder and usually larger/longer the tracks. In Race mode specifically, you also have the option of choosing which environment you want to race in, such as "Stadium", "Desert", "Coast" and "Rally" to name a few, which determines the tracks and car used. These environments are unlocked one by one when completing the single player Race mode, and they really offer distinct differences from one to another, mainly because cars actually feel very different from one to another now in United. However, with that said, the actual racing/driving gameplay in United is basically the same as it has always been - which means it is very fast, very arcadey, and very fun.
While all of these basic fundamental aspects to the game are practically the same as the original Trackmania titles, the way in which United connects them to the online world is brand new. First of all, obviously Trackmania United has online multiplayer gameplay components which basically just take what's there in the single player modes and translates them into online play. However, as long as you have an Internet connection active, even the single player elements in United are connection to the online hub - in the form of track records. You see, when you run a Race or any other mode of play in United single player, you have the choice to recording a "Training" time, which is an offline unofficial time, or an "Official" time, which is submitted back to base and compared to times from other players from around the world - or just in your chosen region. These times are updated regularly and are visible from the main menu for each track and after you've just finished the track in the form of a leader board.
However, recording an official time is not free, at least not after your first attempt it isn't. To submit a time on any given track a second or more time, you must pay 10 "coppers". For anyone not familiar with Trackmania, coppers are basically the in-game currency, and are generated by recording good times on tracks, or in United's case, good "official" times on tracks. Typically, coppers used to represent how many blocks you could use in the track editor, but now, they are the life blood of the Trackmania United community - they buy chances to submit official times as mentioned, replays, tracks, cars, and more, all of which by the way are accessible via the game's own community browser - the "Manialink". Honestly, I'm not too sure how the currency system works (e.g. if track creators get the coppers when they sell a track online or if it is just added to a virtual Nadeo account or something), but I think it is a very cool idea, even if the idea of a currency driven community and simply not a free one does come off as a little unnecessary. At the very least though, it does heavily promote contributing to the community in the form of records and downloads.
On the topic of user created content, United once again lives up to the Trackmania name with the expected in-game track editor and the car paint editor, however once again little has changed fundamentally here as it is more or less the same editors we've been using since the original. For instance, while you can still create some awesome tracks in the track editor as seen by the thousands of quality user created tracks available online, it would have been nice to see a slightly more powerful offering by now. For example, you are still restricted to four basic directions for any given track or background piece, and the amount of actual pieces on offer is still not what I would consider magnificently high. What Trackmania needs is a system like the roller coaster editor in Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, but don't get discouraged - for the moment, the current editor is still more than powerful enough to create countless unique tracks for you to create and download.
Visually, United is slightly more appealing than the previous Trackmania titles, but this isn't exactly the first game I'd grab if I wanted to see what a brand new high end PC could do. With that said though, one area of the visuals is exceptionally well done - the environments and their detail. While more background activity and detail could have been implemented, the overall theme for each location featured in United - coast, desert, snow etc - are all nicely rendered and give a unique feel to each segment of the game. Control wise, we had absolutely no drama's whatsoever in using an Xbox 360 USB controller without any config at all right from the word go in Trackmania United, which is great to see.
Trackmania United really is a united gaming experience - even when you're not competing online, the online community elements are still there. Couple this with addictive and challenging "hot wheels" like gameplay, and you have a very complete, very "alive" arcade racing package. Perhaps the only real knock on United is the basic modes of play and fundamentals of the game haven't changed much since the original, but as anyone who has played a Trackmania game will already know, this is a hard formula to get sick of, and for those who haven't played a Trackmania game yet, there isn't a better time than right now with Trackmania United.