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Looks play a part here too, as not all environments look equally impressive. Generally speaking, TrackMania United Forever is a good looking racer without being a great looking one. It has well-built models, clean lines, great water and reflection effects and a decent lighting system. It works on a wide range of systems, running at a blistering frame rate with everything turned on on my Intel Core 2 Extreme and Asus 8800 Ultra graphics card, but coping without many compromises on older machines as well. However, while the background scenery in the Stadium and Coast environments is gorgeous, it's a bit plain and even dated in the Island and Rally courses. I suspect this is because they stem from older versions of TrackMania and have had a new lick of paint applied on top, but in any case they let the game down slightly.
All the same, you're getting a lot of content and most of it is very good. What's more, there's plenty more online to download. TrackMania United Forever has its own currency system - you'll earn it by collecting medals - and you can use that currency to buy new tracks from the range of user-created sites you'll find online. Cleverly, you get to these using the game's own integrated browser. There's an awful lot out there, and some of it is great.
Why is this? Because one of TrackMania's biggest features has always been its built-in track editor and file sharing facilities. The editor is based on a good old-fashioned tile placement system and is incredibly simple to use. In fact, the only thing you might complain about is that it's not smart enough to auto-suggest the next tile in the way that Rollercoaster Tycoon's track editor used to. If you really get into it, the game even features track editing in a special puzzle mode: join the various preset track pieces together, drive the course, and see how well you've done.
Even having said all this, I still feel I haven't got to the heart of what makes TrackMania United Forever so special. There's something so welcoming and fun-loving about the game - and about the community that's grown around it - that it's practically irresistible. Sure, you'll have moments where that medal falls out of reach or you can't complete the damn track and the veins in your temples will start throbbing, but a lot of the time the game fills you with a rosy glow that somebody cared enough to make this game so enjoyable and still cares enough to keep improving it. It's also worth noting that this is the first TrackMania to come without that aggressive Starforce protection system that annoyed many users in the past.
To my mind, TrackMania Nations Forever is an essential download, and if you like it, TrackMania United Forever is an essential buy. I have a wish list of things I'd like to see in future instalments - a revised graphics engine, a more coherent look, a spot of damage modelling and a ragdoll driver for a start - but without these things it's still an excellent game. I'll see you on the start-line. Make it soon.
Try Nations Forever then buy United Forever, because if you haven't got some already, you need a little TrackMania in your life.