TrackMania United is kinky. Really kinky. It entices you in with sweet curves and bouncy, bouncy physics before slapping you away with gleeful cruelty and a stinging yet seductive reproach. "How dare you take that bump at such a speed, you naughty boy." Thwack! "Sorry, it won't happen again."
Oh, but it will. Because no matter what treatment this arcade driving game hands out, you'll always return for more. Developers Nadeo have hit on a brilliant formula with the recent TrackMania games, one that wraps up some of the most surreal, twisted track designs you'll ever race on with the fastest cars and some devilishly hard obstacles.
This is the fourth full game in the TrackMania series (if you include TrackMania Nations, the free game released last year), and it's something of a collector's edition of all the previous editions rolled into one.
Every TrackMania game has brought with it new environments and cars to race on them, and they're all gathered together in United, from the now-clunky-feeling original to the speed-focused Nations. You get a great overflowing toybox of different tracks to race on and a number of different modes to tackle them with: there's the straightforward racing game where you have to beat a set time, there are platform games where the challenge is to get to the end with minimal crash-and-resets, and there's the puzzle mode, where you're given building blocks to fill in the gaps in the tracks.
This isn't a racing game for anyone with a sense of purity about either cars or physics: TrackMania's main aim is to slap a great big smile on your face by having your car climb a wall or hit a half-pipe. It's not uncommon to hit a ramp, fly over half the level, land safely, then fall through a hilariously placed hole. The reason the developers can get away with such a fast and loose interpretation of risk and reward is they allow you to restart instantly, giving you the satisfaction of the previous awesome jump and another high of beating your cruel track-design masters. They're the nicest bastards you'll ever face.
The speed of TrackMania is truly ridiculous: you might think the idea of subtlety is lost when you're hitting about a gagillion miles an hour, but the faster the car, the better the handling. There's nothing to be scared of when you accelerate and your car seems to be made of polished and shaped chunks of space-time: you're in for a hell of a ride.
It's these cars that have made me realise that the reason I generally don't play racing games, sims or otherwise, is my insistence on taking corners at full speed: every other game I've ever tried it in will see me scraping the highly coveted cigarette advertisements right off the side of the car, but in TrackMania the faster cars stick to the road like they alone can control the force of gravity. In fact, there's a subtle bit of gravitational control at the heart of surviving a jump: you can slow your car down in midair in order to wangle your way out of a tight spot. Races are won and lost on how excessive you are; you leave things like engines, gears and go-faster stripes to imaginary-car-fixy people.
TrackMania has always courted its fans: the whole second game was built to reflect the sort of tracks and cars its modders were making, and since then there's been an incredible community of mappers and modellers. United brings their hard work into the game. There's a currency called 'Coppers' that you accrue simply by logging into the game, and you can also collect them by winning races and topping scores. With these you can buy fan-made tracks, cars, music, skins from the in-game menu 'Manialinks'.