We had a hands-on with racer-cum-race-maker TrackMania DS back in April but with the game now finished and undergoing final submission with Nintendo prior to its autumn release, we thought a final burst of preview information before we got down to the heady business of actually reviewing it was in order.
After all, this is the first time TrackMania - which has been something of a user-generated content phenomenon amongst a certain crowd of race fans - will have been released outside of the Big Beige Box that is the PC.
In this context, there are two main areas of the experience that Glasgow developer Firebrand had to focus on.
The first and arguably main one is the track editor that is the heart of the TrackMania experience. Firebrand had previous knowledge of making such tools for racing games thanks to its Race Driver DS series for Codemasters, but the TrackMania DS editor is a completely new approach being both tile-based and 3D.
Drag and drop
So using your stylus, you just drag-and-drop, and rotate, the different track pieces, which range from standard straights and bends to more exotic items such as tunnels and banked turns, onto the ground. But, this being TrackMania, you also get to drop in checkpoints, and build track segments into the air to create jumps and the like. Starting and finishing positions are obviously required, too.
The great thing about the editor, though, is that at any time you can jump right into your level with a vehicle and test it out. As you can imagine, this seamless transition between editing and gaming was technically difficult to pull off on the memory-constrained DS. Some of the development team bet it couldn't be done. Six weeks of work by technical director Bryan cracked the problem, however.
Indeed, the track editor is so flexible most of TrackMania DS's 105 tracks were created using it. A few of the more complex examples had to be specially tweaked in terms of overcoming the 150-odd block limit that's included in the retail version of the game, but, in general, you're handed the exact same tool that Firebrand used to make the game.
Thanks to the decision to use a 512K DS game cart, you're able to save up to 57 of your own track creations, too. These are available for you to play in local multiplayer mode or swap with your friends. Sadly, the option to use the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to swap tracks didn't make it into the game, although it's apparently technically possible. One option for TrackMania DS 2 maybe?
Of course, as a time-based track racer, there's no point making a track without defining the rockhard time players have to beat, so once complete, you have to play the track to automatically create the highest gold medal standard that's used to define the difficulty.
Handling with care
The other main area of focus was the vehicle handling. Obviously this is different to the PC version although Firebrand reckons this is as much to do with the physics model as anything else. It's probably the most comprehensive vehicle physics yet seen in a DS game as it has to deal with interactions such as the movement of the centre of gravity when the vehicle's doing a jump, as well as the dynamics involved when it's completely off the ground.
Tweaking the handling was one of the hardest things to get right - and one area where the experience of Nadeo, the French studio behind TrackMania, was vital.
The fanatical TrackMania community was also involved in the development process, providing feedback on everything from track design - they are all new but inspired by existing designs - to setting the gold, silver and bronze ranking times for each track.
In terms of game structure, the levels are set in three environments: the classic Stadium, plus Desert and Rally, which is quite different to the others in terms of vehicle handling and the subtleties of its track design.
Cramming the content in
The Solo single-player mode includes 75 tracks in which to race against ghost vehicles and the defined track time, 15 complex Platform tracks, and an editor-based Puzzle section where you have to fill in the incomplete track using the provided pieces.
Meanwhile multiplayer is an eight-player hotseat mode where you pass around your DS and have to get the best time; a single cart four-player download mode; and a four-player multi-cart mode, which allows you to race all the tracks you've unlocked and the tracks you've created. There's also a shop where you can unlock new tracks, blocks for the editor and vehicle skins using the coppers in-game currency which you collect as you play through TrackMania DS.
In fact, Firebrand's managed to fit an amazing amount into the cartridge, especially considering the game's a bit of a looker graphically. As well as all the usual tricks such as level-of-detail optimisations and baked-in lights, there's also some real-time lighting, and while the vehicle takes up around a quarter of the DS's 2,000 polygons per frame hard limit, the scale of some of the levels is pretty impressive.
All-in-all then, we're thoroughly looking forward to TrackMania DS. The only possible way we could conceive of it not being widely successful is that the DS audience has become too mass-market for what is a relatively conceptually complex game, but as this is the first version of TrackMania that's not on the PC, there should be plenty of hardcore gamers interested enough to give it a go.
Vroom. Vroom. It's time to welcome the Mania.