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In a year when everyone's getting excited about community-generated content, thanks to Little Big Planet, Spore and the rest, it's worth remembering that the PC has been quietly doing this sort of thing for years. Similarly, as the ‘back to basics' gameplay bandwagon builds momentum, it should be noted that it really kicked off in the indie games scene on the PC. You'll find both elements in TrackMania United Forever, the latest in the TrackMania series, and newly downloadable from Steam.
Inexcusably and rather embarrassingly, this is the first time we or I have looked at TrackMania. If the same is true of you, you might be wondering what it's all about. Well, it's basically a simplified driving game built around some cool community features and an integrated track editor. The simplicity is key; the tracks are relatively short, the controls use the cursor keys for accelerate, brake, left and right, and all you need to worry about is getting from the start to the finish as rapidly as possible. The physics system is sophisticated enough to make things interesting, but unrealistic enough to make things accessible and fun. You can pick it up, play it and get it within five minutes. Putting it down again is another thing altogether.
For a taste of TrackMania, just log onto Steam and download the free Nations Forever game. Go on. Do it now. There's really no excuse. Opt for a spot of solo play and you'll see a series of challenges in colour groups of ranked difficulty and steadily increasing in challenge within those groups. Each one is basically a start to finish time trial, but Trackmania doesn't do time trials like other racing games. That's mostly because Trackmania doesn't do courses like other racing games. Trackmania courses have ramps, bumps, obstacles, ridiculous sky-high banks, loops, half-pipes, speed boosts and tunnels where your car can travel upside-down. At times the course may be elevated hundreds of feet above the ground. The trick to TrackMania isn't getting from A to B fast, it's also getting from A to B in the first place.
The crucial thing - and what helps make the experience so addictive - is that the tracks are short and an instant restart is only a second away. You race, you twist, you turn, you soar and - smack! - you miss the downward ramp and plummet to the ground. Undaunted, you restart. You race, you twist, you turn, you soar, you land and - doh! - you fly off the track as you try to turn on the other side. Restart. Restart. Restart. Restart. Victory! You'll keep coming back until you get it right. Think of it as a box of chocolates to your regular racing game's king-sized Mars bar. The fun might come in small chunks, but they're incredibly more-ish and before you know it the whole box has gone.