If it's speed we're concerned with then TrackMania is by far the fastest racer on DS, and by a country mile. If it were road tested by Jeremy Clarkson (in some alternative universe where Top Gear reviewed video games instead of performance cars) then you'd be greeted by the sight of him gurning and harrumphing excitedly like an adolescent boy that's just be given a free pass to Hugh Heffner's mansion.
"TrackMania DS's speed is more surprising than finding Cameron Diaz and Anna Kournikova in the bath together. Your bath." He might say by way of introduction.
And this game's speed is surprising, and startling. To get a bit technical on you it goes at a smooth 60 frames-per-second without a whiff of slowdown. This is unheard of on a machine that's more suited to sudoku, pet simulators and top-down RPGs.
In fact, it's so fast it will take you time to adjust to the blistering speed. But it's not just the framerate that's initially impressive about this game: it also has the visuals and the handling model to cope with the fast corners and twisty chicanes. There have been a few other speedy racing games on DS (Need for Speed Carbon and Juiced 2, to name two) but it was a constant frustration trying to keep your vehicle glued to the tarmac – battering walls and barriers stopped being fun very quickly.
What's also refreshing about TrackMania DS is that it doesn't attempt to be realistic. If you have small children you will be very aware of the Hot Wheels brand. It's a cheaper version Scalextric with tracks that loop the loop and twist their way through ever more elaborate environments, such volcanoes and giant mountains shaped like skulls. TrackMania DS is on the same wavelength, with its courses throwing vehicles over ever more ridiculous precipices. And it's a lot of fun.
Indeed, there are three kinds of environment in the game: stadium, desert and rally. The former lets you hurtle F1-style cars over grey expanses of tarmac; the desert tracks are the most treacherous, trying to catch you out by putting huge holes and pillars in the way of your buggy, while the rally offerings give you nippy little superminis and stretches of concrete castles and drawbridges to negotiate.
For our money the best tracks are in the stadium and rally sections, with the desert courses providing a weak and somewhat annoying alternative. The problem with the desert sections, see, is that they are mainly obstacle-based, so memory becomes more of a requirement than driving skill. End up in one of the big holes (many of which can't even be seen until you jump over a rise in the road) and your lap is over. At least the stadium and rally tracks generally let you recover from your mistakes.
The only other criticism we would have is that the three main modes in the game lack structure. In Race you beat AI opponents in short races to unlock the next set of tracks. In Platform you do exactly the same though you are on your own against more fiendish course designs. Then in the Puzzle option you have to lay down track in the editing suite to complete a design and beat a required time.
Puzzle mode aside, there's never much sense that you're working towards a particular goal; except to unlock more tracks. Perhaps a Grand Prix mode or career alternative where you have to fight for dominance might be introduced next time around, because we certainly hope the TrackMania formula is brought to DS again in the future.
But it's the editing suite which really impresses, allowing you to design a range of courses which can be played against friends. You can buy 100s of different track pieces using the games currency and the versatility of the tool is only matched by its accessibility. Some might find the constant need to unlock extra tracks and buy new features a bit of a chore and initially the game does feel a little closed off but you soon start to rack up the credits.
TrackMania DS is a different and totally refreshing racer on Nintendo's handheld and while some of the later tracks can get a bit frustrating this is easily offset by the exhilaration you feel when everything clicks into place. And when you consider you can create your own ridiculous courses anyway you have the perfect antidote to all the racing games that are trying a little too hard to be the next racing sim.
So while its unlikely to ever appear on an episode of Top Gear we reckon this is the game The Stig secretly plays while waiting for celebrities to finish their fastest laps.
If it's speedy thrills you're after, look no further.
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