|System: DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Firebrand Games||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Atlus||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 17, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-4||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
Racing fans certainly have a handful of titles to choose from on the DS, but current offerings tend to fall along polar opposites of the spectrum. For players seeking the quintessential, family-friendly Nintendo racing experience, there's always the tried-and-true Mario Kart DS. In stark contrast, games like Need for Speed Undercover and the over-sexed Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights cater to the hardcore street racing set. There's little variety and no solid middle ground between the two extremes; enter Trackmania DS.
Trackmania DS features challenge-based racing set across scores of tracks and three unique environments. In the main racing mode, the emphasis is on blowing through the tracks at high-speed to make it to the finish line as fast as possible. The racing is often quite linear, and you'll mostly wind up barreling forward to the end of the track. Other times, you'll make laps in an attempt to best your opponents over a longer period of time. In either case, things move along quickly. Most levels only last about a minute or so. The other cars you'll race against act as ghosts - you're not impacted by coming into contact with them, and you can toggle the number of visible opponents on and off - allowing you to focus on the twitchy task of maneuvering through each track to shave precious seconds off the clock. Earning bronze, silver, and gold medals provides you with points to purchase new tracks, play modes, skins, and other elements. You'll start with only a few tracks available and must earn the rest as you go.
Tracks are divided between three main locations: a classic stadium arena, an arid desert, and the rocky hills surrounding a castle in the European countryside. Instead of the traditional flat tracks, the courses feature jumps, multi-level platforms, loop-de-loops, speed boosts, pit traps, and other uncommon design elements to make your task all the more challenging and exciting. The game looks surprisingly good on the DS' small screens and everything runs smoothly. The camera makes it necessary to focus on your racer and the expanse of track immediately ahead; but every once and a while, looking up reveals some excellent details in the distance. It's not quite as pretty as its PC counterpart, but it's a solid representation scaled down to a much smaller size.
Each locale comes with its own ride, and they all handle quite differently. The F1 racer gains good speed but navigates corners poorly; the off-road 4x4 has better steering; and the compact car's controls are reactive almost to a fault. The D-pad controls are very responsive, though steering often feels twitchy. As a result, it's easy to accidentally over-steer and wind up slamming into a solid object or veering off course. Colliding with objects simply puts you at a dead stop with a resounding THUD. It can be jarring when you're in the midst of intense concentration, and the lack of damage to your vehicle is mildly disappointing. In Trackmania DS, a single wrong move will almost always cost you the race. Fortunately, salvation lies nestled next to the gas and break buttons. Tapping X brings you back to the last checkpoint you crossed, and tapping Y restarts the race instantaneously. The lack of a load time on restart is great, and being able to instantly start over lends itself well to the pass-fail nature of the gameplay.
Trackmania DS' other play modes provide other diverse ways to enjoy the game once you've exhausted the main racing mode, which is no easy feat given the multiple difficulty settings and unlockables to uncover. While the main game is all about finding ways to cut every possible millisecond off the clock in any given race, platform mode doesn't track your time at all. Instead, you're charged with successfully navigating tracks without restarting from checkpoints too many times. The layouts of the courses in platform mode are a bit trickier in design than in other play modes.