Last year at E3, Ubisoft revealed that it would be turning the series into a platform called ManiaPlanet, with not much more than a name and an ambitious release plan (including not just the long-awaited racing sequel, but also highly customizable RPG and shooter titles as well). Since then, we haven't gotten much more than a screenshot, and a promise that the game's still coming.
Finally, last month at a pre-E3 event, we got to see the title, now called TrackMania 2 Canyon, in action. This is indeed a brand new TrackMania game, featuring all of the kooky customizable tracks and over-the-top physics-based racing that's made the series so popular. But rather than TrackMania 2, Canyon is actually the beginning of the TrackMania platform, one that will depend as much on user creations as what the developers actually assemble. For the uninitated, TrackMania doesn't boast a long single-player campaign story or the long list of official cars so familiar to most racing games today. Instead, this one's all about the tracks -- they're all built using a series of interchangeable track sections, almost infinitely customizable and designed for some really wacky yet beautiful arcade racing.
The version of Canyon we saw in action featured developer-built tracks, but they still contained more than a few crazy elements, like a giant half-pipe wall to fling your car off of, or a huge jump across a deep ravine that landed on a tiny faraway section of the track. Gameplay is all about beating these tracks into submission -- instead of racing laps or just going against opponents (though there will be multiple modes to play with, just as in the previous game), the mode we saw challenged players to run through the course as many times as possible, aiming to get the lowest run time overall. That makes the game much less about jockeying for position or hitting turns perfectly the first time, and much more about just squeezing the least time out of any given track.
And once you've conquered a track, there are plenty more to go around. TrackMania 2 Canyon will be part of Ubisoft's ManiaPlanet platform (we didn't get to see the RPG or shooter games yet, though Ubisoft's rep mentioned the shooter would be called ShootMania: Storm), which features an intricate and sturdy backend for sharing user content. In this case, that means tracks, videos, and even car models (though for competitive reasons, all of the cars race at the same speed and turn in the same ratios). Essentially, everything in the game will be customizable, so players will build most of the content. Some racing games brag hundreds of tracks, but it's easy to see TrackMania 2 reaching a million or more.
The "Canyon" part of the title also speaks to this user content. Canyon is the first "pack" of the title, and features graphics and track units which fit neatly in the Monument Valley-style "Canyon" context. But that's not all -- there are two other packs planned for release later on. The first is called "Valley" and should feature some greener pastures for cars to race through. And the third pack wasn't named yet, but will presumably offer up yet another environment, along with more pieces to build and play with.
For the right player (specifically TrackMania fans, though of course Ubisoft is hoping to bring some new players to the fold with ManiaPlanet), TrackMania 2 seems like a lot of fun. As with other games driven by user content, the possibilities are awe-inspiring, as long as you're willing to forgo disbelief on the crazy physics and settings. Not all the modes are revealed yet, but Ubisoft is promising rankings to compete with on all the tracks, and even races with over 200 players going at the same time on the same track. It's that kind of feature that will attract attention, even if TrackMania doesn't check the standard racing game boxes.
Ubisoft told us the game would go into a beta later on this summer, and is targeted for a September release later on this year.