For those not familar with how TM works, I'd like to explain the concept of "Environments", because it's going to come up quite a bit in this review, and I want to make sure you don't misinterpret it as levels or tracks like other games. In the TrackMania universe, an "Environment" is like an area of the TM universe that the track is built in. Each one comes with a full set of track blocks, which forms what other games call the "level style". These often come with unique parts only that environment will let you place. The Environment also contains a specific car to match with the parts in that set. It's better to think of the Environments in TM as "Car Handling Styles and Track Themes".
For example, the free TM:Nations has 1 "Environment", Stadium. This comes with a stadium level, stadium themed track pieces, and a modified handling F1 Race Car(modified in that it grips loops and stunts much better then a real one would).
First, a bit of backstory. When Nadeo planned out TM2, they planned 3 environments, to be released over the next few years as part of the bigger picture "Maniaplanet", along with Shootmania and Questmania. Both the others are under development still.
The result is that TM2:Canyon is a lot smaller then TM:United Forever, at least as far as content is concerned. However, it's important to keep in mind that TM:United's 7 environments are actually:
-3 new ones from TM:United(before the Forever series), each released over a years delay
-3 old classic ones from back in TM:Sunrise, which were released at once but with a 2 year development time
-Stadium, which was designed to be a free environment for TM:Nations Forever.
So while it looks like we are getting a lot less stuff with Canyon's single level style, when you compare the two you are actually comparing a "collectors edition with all expansions" with the "first released game" of a new series. Furthermore, TM:Canyon is the first part of a much bigger idea that Nadeo has called ManiaPlanet, where all three games(TrackMainia, ShootMania, and QuestMania) are interconnected into one massive community program/project. Of course, none of that has been fully launched yet since it's going to be a pretty big multi-year project.
Now that you've got it in perspective, let's review what Canyon has to offer:
The basic gameplay is relatively the same. TrackMania: Canyon is at it's heart a pure racing game, with stunts on the tracks as well as more classic "circuit" races. It has Online play on servers where you compete with other players for best times, who are represented by ghosts. It also contains a full featured track editor, based on a "lego blocks" track building concept.
Nothing new mechanically, it offers the same stuff the previous TM games did. That's not a bad thing as the previous games were very addictive and Canyon offers that same "One of these times I'll get the perfect run" excitement. But I can't help but think Nadeo could have been a bit more bold and introduced a few new separate modes with the first release.
Unlike United, Canyon only has the 1 environment. The two other planned track styles will be released as separate purchases later, as they are developed. This is all part of the ManiaPlanet concept, where each player will only buy the part sets of each game they want to play with. Right now it feels a bit weird since there is only one part to it.
The good news is that the environment is a really good one to race on. Nearly every piece just works and feels smooth, there are some nice transitions between block styles, and a good mix of both tricky pieces and wide open "easy" tracks are all possible. The set has been very well thought out, and fits the theme it was going for of racing fast in a twisted canyon track quite well.
There are a few minor complaints about the set however. First, there are a few pieces that don't work well, one particularly bad example is the narrow road loop, which feels much more up to chance then skill due to the car handling and narrow, short, diagonal entry point. Thankfully everyone in track design knows this piece sucks and doesn't use it in most of the online tracks. To be fair, nearly every set that exists for TM games has had one or two bad pieces in it that were either too specialized or just plain weird to drive on.
Secondly, and this is a bit more major, there is the fact that a lot of these pieces are very wide, large, and open feeling. While this is great for the theme, it does mean that it's difficult to build the "advanced technical tracks" that made TM:United's Stadium tracks so good. (Difficult, but not impossible with some creativity, as the community proves time and again with some ingenious piece layouts.) Because of this, the first few tracks everyone will build are probably going to be rather easy speed tracks. This is a good thing for new players, less frustrating tracks from newbs since it's pretty much impossible to build a bad track. But it's also a bad thing for those who want more complex track layouts, because it means everyone using the "basic road" pieces is going to be stuck using the same 4 wide skid turn corner pieces.
The car itself handles fantastic. Nations(free) players are warned that this car behaves much more like the paid for cars in United, in that you can't get much control once you are in the middle of doing wall runs and loops. But it more then makes up for this by having some really fast speed, and just enough acceleration where the beginning isn't boring but mistakes will still cost you that upcoming jump. I can only really describe it as one of Nadeo's finest arcade car physics yet, it's a simple blast to play. It also skid turns well with just a tap of the brakes, and while getting back out of a skid will take some practice, it's super easy even on a keyboard. Once you handle the car, you'll see why the track pieces are designed to give wide open space for skidding around on.
One nice touch is that the car now has "damage", fenders will break off, dirt will stick, and basically your car will be all beat up and bruised by the end of the track if you hit stuff. Most will probably complain that the car physics don't reflect the damage done to the car, a broken, beat up one will still match up fine with one that doesn't have a dent all race. I actually find this allows for some crazy track design, because while it adds to the visual flair it still no longer matters how much the cars are beat up as they race around the stunts.
Graphically, the game is a bit more high poly, a lot more textured then United, and now features lots of little touches like proper real time shadows, procedurally generated plants, and really nice looking water. I do kind of feel like they recycled the United rendering engine, as I don't see anything that wasn't done to some degree already in United. But it's pretty to look at, easy to understand, and gets the job done.
Alas, the Single Player is a bit lacking, especally after what we were offered in United. The single player campaign only contains the Race mode from United, so fans of Puzzle Mode or Platform Mode are going to be a bit disappointed. (In my opinion, both puzzle and platform mode were a bit more frustrating then fun, so I think it's for the best.)
15 tracks for each of the four flag "difficulties" plus 5 Black level(master) tracks seems like a bit of a downgrade after United, but it's all in this 1 environment and shows off the massive variety of track styles you can build. It gets hard pretty quickly, and for anything past the 3rd flag, you'll probably want a controller. Add in that the requirements for passing for levels 3 to 5 are to get Gold on the tracks, and these can easily take weeks or months to unlock them all.
The real kicker here is that they are all a "Race Mode" track, so after a while you start to wonder why you arn't just playing online. This is especally jarring when unlike past TM games, you can't even play the single player mode without an internet connection to log into your account. (This was probably done for piracy issues, but it still stands as a pretty badly thought out design since if your internet goes down, you can't even continue playing. A single verification when first logging in would have been much better.)
Make no mistake, Multi-player is where TM really shines, and Canyon is no exception. Despite the massive extra graphical details, the loading times in multiplayer are only about a few seconds longer then Nations/United, depending on your internet connection. Canyon tracks contain some precalculated shadows, so they arn't as amazingly lightweight as the Nations/United tracks, but if you've got a DSL or better there won't be an issue and you probably won't even notice.
The community has already stepped up and made tons of servers, often with some pretty sweet tracks, for people to play on, and there's quite an active online base of players at any time of the day. Thanks to TM's gameplay, it's a really great game for popping on for a half hour or so during breaks, and people online are generally rather friendly. Watch for other languages though, TM is an international game and not everyone speaks english, even on USA or Europe servers.
As for the Editor, there are numerous subtle improvements that make trackbuilding a lot more fun and a lot less annoying. Minor things like a proper tunnel underground view, really sweet terrain editing features that make building mountains a breeze instead of a chore, and a couple other interface changes for the better. One jarring thing that stuck out to me is that you now have to wait to calculate the lighting and foliage between each save of the track before you can drive it. It's a bit of a hassle, and destroys some of the ease of saving tracks quickly in the older TM games, but on the other hand it's really nice to let the editor worry about placing all those decorative bushes itself.
Sharing tracks is still not doable in-game. The community of TM2 has started doing something like what TMX did for Nations/United though. Their website is being designed into basically the TM2 track exchange hub: http://tm.mania-exchange.com/
In the end, I think it's still a hard choice if you should buy Canyon or not.
On the one hand, Canyon has many improvements over the previous TM version, and everything it has to offer is of a really high standard, often with much better design then what United has to offer. The editor alone, if you're a track builder, is a massive step up in friendliness over what United did. It's also part of "The New Thing", ManiaPlanet, and so is the current version of TM that will get improvements or new content.
On the other hand, United has much easier to swallow system requirements, literally a billion user made tracks due to it's age, more official Nadeo designed single player content since you get all 6 paid environments at once, and still has a rather blossoming community due to canyon only being, well, canyon. United does however have some less then spectacular single player tracks, due to it being Nadeo's older work. A couple of the car handlings are also clearly meant for a controller, not a keyboard.
I guess in the end, you've got to decide if you value quality(Canyon) or quantity(United Forever). Or free entertainment with Nations Forever.
Here are both of them, and their prices, for you to decide on your own.
Nations Forever (only has Stadium and Nations single player campaign):
Free off Steam
Nadeo non-steam version (has loading screen ads)
United Forever (contains everything in Nations plus 6 new environments and the United campaign, plus Puzzle and Platform modes):
Costs $29.99 USD from Steam(best deal)
Or from Nadeo offical site for $39.99 USD (why the extra 10? I don't know, it's the same, lol.)
Trackmania Canyon (contains Canyon environment and Canyon single player campaign, newest entry in the TM world, and the only one so far that will plug into ManiaPlanet when it's fully functional in the future):
No steam version, and probably won't be due to integration with ManiaPlanet system.
Offical Nadeo Site - Costs $24.99 USD
I'd just like to conclude by saying that all the TM games, regardless of price, are well worth your time if the thought of a pure, simple, arcade racing game fueled by your own user created content even remotely appeals to you. You can find out if you like the concept yourself by playing Nations:Forever for free download. But be warned, it's very possible you'll be addicted for life if you even remotely like racing games.