Why should you care about my review?
I am a father of two boys, ages 3 and 6 and hold a BA in Game Design (although I work as a database admin - tough to leave a job of 15 years to pursue the "dream" of game design with a family to support.) That aside, we use a HTPC with Steam in Big picture Mode launched from XBMC. With a wife and two young ones, everything has to be remote and controller friendly. The games also have to be kid-friendly. If you find yourself in a similar situation and trust the opinion of a trained game designer (but not professionally working at it) - then read on.
edit: since I bought the Trackmania three game pack, I am posting the same review in the other two titles as the pros and cons are the same for all (except for Valley, which has a Con unique to itself.)Pros
-- The game was cheap. $20 for three games (Stadium, Canyon, and Valley) during the Steam winter sale made this something worth trying out.
-- Despite not having an ESRB rating (that I could find anyway), the games are kid friendly. Physics are loose, no bodies are flying out of cars, you can restart at a spawn point on the track, facing the right way (important for the three year old!) at any time you get stuck. I can start a split-screen game and choose a "playlist" for the kids to race at the same time. They're happy, I'm happy.
-- The game is fun. Stunts, fast cars, loose physics, respawns, tricky tracks, loop tracks, various difficulties, time trials, medals, rankings. And I haven't even tried actual online multi-player yet. I'm not too interested in that part so I won't review that part of the game at this time.
-- Game runs smooth. I've experienced no crashes (the game software, not cars!), no jerkiness, graphics are decent, controls on a 360 controller are easy enough for the three year old to win races against his big brother occasionally.Cons
-- The interface is severely lacking. Poor design choices abound. To launch the games, Steam launches another launcher (ManiaPlanet). In this new launcher, you see all three games you purchased (after you installed them all). However, if I click on "Stadium" from Steam, then decide to play "Canyon" in the ManiaPlanet (MP) launcher, it says I have to restart the game I want from Steam. What's the point of this extra layer of launcher then? Stupid design.
-- The MP launcher is not controller friendly. This means I have to get the keyboard out just to be able to arrow down to the "Start Game" button. You can't hit it with ANY button on a controller. Once that's done, you can use the controller in game, but not in this MP launcher.
-- Selecting items using the controller is poor design. Blue text turns a bit "more blue" or slightly brighter. Arrows that are white turn slightly brighter when selected. The wife and kids can't tell what the heck they're navigating. I know about this and I can barely see this on a 42" screen. It's clear the interface is designed only for mouse. The controller does work, but it's not easy to see the navigation. This means I have to setup the game for the kids. I have to get them into the tracks, I have to change playlists (or games if they want to play Stadium for instance.)
-- Kids can't get their own profile. I tried setting the game to use "multiple profiles" but the feature is nigh-useless. I attempted to create a profile for my eldest so he can have his own rankings or even just his own car model when playing split-screen. I didn't want him to access online so I created a local profile. Now none of the games launch. They say "You must connect online to launch the game." I did say LOCAL account didn't I? Again, stupid. So I tried to create a new profile using my already created online account (cause I couldn't get the games to run even by myself before doing this.) The game wouldn't let me do that. Only one key per account it says. I tried creating a new account to the same effect. They want you to buy the game again just so you can use multiple profiles. So to recap, you can't create a local profile without connecting it to an onlne account and you can't create multiple users under one account and you can't create multiple online accounts without buying additional licenses. Stupid.
-- Due to the above, the simple feature in almost any racing game, choosing a car skin, can't be done except by the online profile. So my kids playing in split screen have to settle for the plain gray cars and my eldest can't keep his own records and scores.
-- Car engine sounds disappear when you select High quality Audio (you have to keep it at normal).
-- Some of the tracks are way too difficult for really little ones (not a knock on the game, just something to be aware of.)
-- Controls are not consistent between solo play and multiplayer. For example, the respawn button by default is the yellow Y button in solo play. In split screen, you push down (click the button) on the left analog stick. I'd like to remap it as the respawn button on the steering control leads to accidental respawns However, it doesn't seem to "take" as it looks like it's tied to profiles, which as mentioned above, I can't create.
-- the in-game HUD is awful. Everything is so small it's pointless on a big screen from across the room. Thankfully the kids don't care about this info, they just want to race. Worth noting.Conclusion
There is just too much stupidity in design to overcome for me. So if you find yourself with a media center that also serves as a game machine for the kids and are looking for a fun racing game the little ones can enjoy. I'd consider this title at rock-bottom prices otherwise I'm recommending you go elsewhere. You simply can't do simple things other racing games can, nothing is intuitive, the interface is awful (both menu and during racing). Despite that, once you get a race going, it is fun for the kids. So the core gameplay is ok, it's all the design elements, the spit and polish that surround the game that is severely lacking good design. If you want fun big-screen family room entertainment, local split screen multi-player, racing game - go get Sonic Transformed.
If you read this far and are just looking for a single-player or online, match-making, stunt racing, beat the clock game - why did you read my review? Didn't I write at the start this wasn't the perspective? Go check out other reviews that are more your demographic. Since you're still here, all the flaws mentioned above still irk me as a designer, so I'd look for a more realistic racing game than this one if it weren't for my kids and split screen wasn't a factor.
Get it on sale, avoid it otherwise.