EA Sports' decision to coin the subtitle of its latest NASCAR game, NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup, after the new Nextel Cup championship eligibility rules, makes sense from a branding standpoint. NASCAR is calling the last 10 races of the season the "Chase for the Cup," so a video game with that same slogan is sure to catch the attention of NASCAR fans. But, the problem with that subtitle is that it's too much of an understatement; it doesn't even come close to tipping off potential buyers to all of the wonderful improvements and additions that EA Sports has made to this year's game.
NASCAR 2005 includes the Nextel Series, the Busch Series, the Craftsman Truck Series, and the Featherlite Modified Series.
NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup has almost everything a NASCAR fan could want. It includes most of the tracks, drivers, cars, and events from the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, the Busch Series (called NASCAR National Series in the game), and the Craftsman Truck Series, as well as a basic mock-up of NASCAR's regional Featherlite Modified Series (populated with fictional drivers and sponsors). In all, there are 25 official tracks, 12 fantasy tracks, more than 130 different drivers, and hundreds of different events and paint schemes to pick from.
There are loads of different play options. The race now and season modes let players participate in one race, or they can grind through a full season in any of the different racing series: the chase for the cup mode lets players skip ahead to the final 10 races of the Nextel Cup season; the lightning challenge and Dodge SpeedZone modes let players test their driving skills in a number of actual and fictitious race situations; and there's a career mode, called "fight to the top," which lets players participate in multiple seasons in any or all of the different racing series as both a driver and a team owner. Additional drivers, tracks, paint schemes, and street rides can be unlocked in the career mode. The PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game also include an online mode, which allows up to four players to race against one another in exhibition races.
Perhaps as a nod to the success that the parent company has had with Need for Speed: Underground, EA Sports has added head-to-head road races, street rides, and hip-hop paint schemes to NASCAR 2005. Every so often, in the "fight to the top" mode, a NASCAR pro will challenge you to a head-to-head race on a road course. If you win the race, you'll unlock a new car that can be used in the race now and online race modes. The range of cars that can be won from head-to-head races is decent, and includes the Chevy Corvette, Dodge Viper, Ford Mustang GT, and Ford SVT F-150 Lightning--to name a few.
Oddly enough, some features from NASCAR Thunder 2004 weren't carried over to this year's game. A small number of presentational aspects were curtailed, such as driver introductions and the playing of the national anthem before the race, and for whatever reason, the in-cockpit driving viewpoint was removed as one of the camera options. Offline multiplayer was scaled back--NASCAR 2005 only allows two players to compete simultaneously via a split-screen setup, whereas NASCAR Thunder 2004 allowed up to four players to do so. Support for the EA Sports Bio was removed as well, so you won't be able to use the progress you've made in other EA Sports games during the last two years to unlock some of the game's bonus items. Compared to everything that was added and improved in this year's game, these omissions are merely minor annoyances, but they may be important to some people--especially those of you that have a cluster of buddies that you routinely race against offline.
You can become a team owner in the 'fight to the top' mode.
Out of all of the play modes, the "fight to the top" mode is the one that players are most likely to spend the greatest amount of time with. It lets you take a driver through multiple seasons, and it offers many of the same features that the franchise modes in traditional sports games do. You start out as a driver in the Featherlite Modified Series, and your goal is to win races and work your way up through the various NASCAR racing series. Do well in the Featherlite Modified Series and a team will offer you a contract in the Craftsman Truck Series; do well in the Craftsman Truck Series and teams will offer you contracts in the Busch Series, and so on. If you earn enough money, you have the option of buying your own team. As an owner, you'll have control over numerous aspects of the team, including hiring a driver and pit crew, signing sponsorship deals, setting merchandise prices, designing paint schemes and uniform colors, and spending money to train the pit crew or purchase upgrades for the car's engine, suspension, and aerodynamics. The various menus make it easy to manage every aspect of your career: the race shop menu lets you manage all of your various contracts; the events menu provides a calendar of events to enter; the season menu lets you keep track of standings and awards; and the my NASCAR menu lets you spend the skill points you earn on so-called "thunder plates" (which unlock new paint jobs, courses, cars, and drivers for use in all game modes).
The best thing about the "fight to the top" mode is that it lets players choose their own career path. You can stick to one series, move between them, or race in more than one series at a time. You can accept an entry-level contract into another series, or you can choose to accept a more lucrative contract in a lesser series. Once you attract enough fans, the game will periodically ask you if you want to participate in autograph signings--which take the form of a timed button-pushing minigame. You even have control over whether your driver is thought of as a hero or a villain. If you avoid collisions, let other drivers draft, and race cleanly, you'll improve your relationships with specific drivers--attaining hero status. On the other hand, if you bump other cars, cut into other drivers' drafts, and generally race dirty, you'll develop rivalries with the other drivers--attaining villain status. The status you earn will influence how other drivers respond to you out on the track, strengthen your shared drafting or intimidation skills, and contribute to the number of fans that follow your career.
EA Sports introduced draft sharing and rivalries last year. The developers have improved both concepts in this year's game. When you follow along behind another car, the draft meter in the lower right-hand corner of the screen begins to fill up. The fuller it gets, the deeper you are in the opponent's slipstream. In NASCAR Thunder 2004, you could press a button to enable a shared draft when the draft meter was full. This told the opponent you were going to remain in his slipstream in exchange for not rear-ending him or passing too soon, and it usually improved your friendship ratings with the drivers you used it on. The shared draft works the same way in NASCAR 2005, but EA Sports has added a second variation of it, called the intimidator (in honor of #3, the late Dale Earnhardt). When you push the intimidator button, you'll lock onto the opponent's slipstream like normal, only this time you'll send a signal to the other driver that tells him that you intend to do whatever is necessary to move up another spot. In some cases, the driver up ahead will become so rattled that he'll move out of your way or lose control of his car. The shared draft and intimidation concepts certainly aren't grounded in reality, but they do help the game reproduce the alliances and rivalries that form during the actual sport's racing season.
Intimidation and draft sharing are at your fingertips, and they can help you develop alliances or rivalries with other drivers.
Rivalries work pretty much the same way in NASCAR 2005 like they did in NASCAR Thunder 2004, in that good driving and use of the shared drafting button will build alliances with other drivers, while reckless driving and use of the intimidation button will create rivalries. Allies will leave you alone on the track or they will get out of the way when you try to pass. Rivals will try to block your pass attempts and will often slam into you as retaliation for pass transgressions. EA Sports has refined the rivalry concept this year by making it so rivalries and alliances fade more quickly between races, and so that the shared draft and intimidation features have a much faster impact on your relationship with other drivers.
Rivalries and drafting certainly are integral facets of NASCAR, but they wouldn't matter a hill of beans in a video game unless the artificial intelligence, controls, car physics, and car setup options also lived up to the standards set by the real sport. NASCAR 2005 sets the bar high with regard to AI, controls, and car handling, and it earns a passing nod with regard to car physics and car setup options.
The AI-controlled drivers in NASCAR 2005 will form into packs to set a pecking order, and they will sometimes make mistakes that can cause them to fall back a few spots or result in spectacular wrecks--just like actual NASCAR drivers do. The frequency of wrecks in NASCAR 2005 has been scaled back compared to NASCAR Thunder 2004. You'll see two or three wrecks per race now instead of the half-dozen or more that happened in every race in last year's game, which feels about right. AI drivers will draft when they're off the pace, cut in front when other drivers try to pass, and help out teammates by blocking or nudging other cars out of the way. You can adjust the AI drivers' skill level to one of three different settings in the settings menu that appears before each race.