NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup REVIEW

NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup Review (Xbox)

Earlier in the year, news leaked out of EA Sports procuring the exclusive NASCAR license for the 2004 season and beyond. It was met with a mixture of surprise and rage, primarily due to the fact that EA Sports has never been one to innovate much when left without competition in any sport. Being an old racing vet on PC, weaned on Papyrus titles ranging from “Indy 500”, “IndyCar Racing”, “NASCAR Racing (all versions)”, and “Grand Prix Legends”, my personal reaction was one of horror. I’ve never been overly impressed with EA’s efforts in the console market. The major reason for this lack of enthusiasm could be attributed to the fact that there was a complete and total lack of feel in the driving model. It was drivable, but would never be confused with a more sim-like title. Cars would throw themselves into a full four-wheel slide at the drop of a hat, usually prior to giving you any sort of tactile clue that it was going to happen. What it all amounted to was a feature-rich title that lacked in the most important part: the actual racing. Thankfully, this year I feel quite differently about “NASCAR Chase for the Cup 2005”.

The hardest portion of “Chase for the Cup 2005” to really grade is the graphics. On one hand, you have some pretty serious aliasing and flickering going on at some tracks. Something I’ve hit on countless times in our forums is also a huge hit for a lot of people: slowdown. There are some flat-out atrocious instances of slowdown in this year’s release, which I can’t quite understand. It certainly isn’t a gorgeous game. It fits the required 43 cars on screen adequately, and the tracks themselves look fairly good…but so good that you can’t come out of turn four at some tracks without having serious framerate dips? I liken it to trying to play a high-end PC game on a three year old PC. It just doesn’t happen at full resolution and detail settings. On a console game, I can’t quite figure out where the Quality Assurance team is looking when they’re testing playability. The only thing I do know is that it wasn’t at the screen. I can guarantee you that there will be an alarming number of players who will put the title into their XBox, play about 10 laps of the “Fight to the Top” mode (which puts you at one of the worst tracks, slowdown-wise, in the game right out of the gates), and pull the disc out of their XBox in disgust…or worse yet, return it thinking it was a faulty copy. It’s that bad in some instances. So if you’re a stickler for slowdown and can’t stand any framerate issues whatsoever, steer as far clear of this one as you can. Consider yourself warned, and I can’t put enough flashing neon around that warning if you’re a graphics lover.

However, for the rest of you…

The rest of the game is serviceable. It won’t win a beauty pageant, but it does exactly what it needs to do. I feel like I’m doing 150 miles per hour in circles with 42 other drivers who all want to win. Starting with the basics, you’ll have to choose a camera to drive from, and that has a pronounced effect on how the game will appear to you. There’s no cockpit view this year, so toss that one out the window. What we do have is two chase cameras (near and far), a bumper cam, and a roof cam. Since the bumper cam puts you so low that your entire screen can fill with a rear bumper if you’re drafting, and I’ve never been a big fan of chase cameras in a “realistic” racing title, I chose the roof cam. Using this view, I must say that the racing is closer to the PC side than ever before. You have no look left or look right function, but when combined with the audio presentation, it wasn’t a necessity. The sensation of speed is great, and you have to rely on your spotter a great deal when making passes (the luxury of being able to see exactly when you’ve cleared a car like in the chase cameras is sacrificed for what realism I could salvage). When you put your car up in the wall, those “doughnuts” will remain there for some time. Skid marks will stay on the track when you lock up the brakes, so you’ll have visible evidence of where you need work while tweaking your lap lines and times. The car models and texturing looks quite good in all four series (well, 3 if you count Busch and Nextel Cup as the same basic model), but when you wrap all of this around some pretty good aliasing…well, it never fully suspends your disbelief. You never forget that you’re playing a game, but very few games can succeed in that aspect. Overall, the package is just what I said; serviceable, but not outstanding.

The sound, however, made some pretty big improvements from what I remember. Granted, I hadn’t played the series in quite some time before dropping “Chase for the Cup 2005” into my XBox, skipping “NASCAR Thunder 2004” altogether. I was pleasantly surprised by the sound of the engine coming from my Featherlite Modified in the early stages of the game, and that feeling just continued to grow as I played through the game. Having a car roll up to your quarter panel gives you a definite cue aurally, and you can adjust to the sound alone. That’s a marked improvement over previous titles, where the engines sounded different enough but there was never a positional effect that you could adjust to. The one thing I have a slight beef with is the spotter. In NASCAR racing you must be on the ball as a spotter at all times, and the spotter in “Chase for the Cup 2005” fails from time to time. I thought he was having some issues periodically, so I switched to an external camera for a race. Sure enough, there were times when I was clear and he wouldn’t tell me for several seconds afterward, or times when a car would pull alongside and he wouldn’t mention that either. I suppose you could attribute it to some other sound file playing at the same time, but when you don’t have look left or right, you need the spotter to be as up-to-date as possible. I had more than a few tangles out on the track due to lack of spotter support. It’s certainly no game killer, but it’s another annoyance that can cause some frustration from race to race.

Now for the strangest part of this experience for me: having fun playing an EA NASCAR title. It happened from time to time before, but never as consistently as it does in “Chase for the Cup 2005”. The driving engine is certainly not weighted in real-world physics to the point of completely realistic handling…the grip is too high (not so much that it’s out of control, however), and it’s too tough to lose the car completely unless you intentionally set your car up to fail. What it does is provide a predictable driving model that takes some technique to master. With all the driving aids set to “full”, you can literally hold the gas down all the way around the track. When you drop some of them and start handling the braking and handling yourself is when you start to appreciate the changes this year.

In previous versions of EA’s NASCAR titles, when you turned the assists off, you were greeted with a completely unpredictable and unreasonable driving model. Enter into turn one at Texas Motor Speedway and watch as you enter into a full four-wheel slide before you even know the car is breaking loose. The real track has some serious banking entering turn one, so you’d really have to pitch the car in order to lose it. Last year, you’d have to get pretty lucky to go through a full lap without experiencing slides (that drastically decreased overall speed, by the way) at different points. You could set the car up to be very tight and use it as a workaround, but that was only good in a sprint race. If you tried it in a longer run, halfway through a fuel run you’d be driving a Yacht through Central Harbor. The car just wouldn’t turn. Thankfully, that’s a thing of the past, as the driving model this year has a bit more predictability and leniency. That’s not to say it’s easy, as it still has a definite learning curve to it. It is just something that can be learned without hours of frustration as you search for the “sweet spot” that makes the game easier. You can actually drive. What a concept!

Once you get your bearings and realize that you can hit the brakes without completely locking them up (another upgrade from previous years), you can really start tweaking lines and corner entrances/exits. That’s when it struck me that I was having a somewhat surprising level of fun with “Cup 2005”. By this point with most previous versions, I was already regretting accepting the review. This year, I was just getting started. I moved on to my meager little career and took the Dodge #192 Featherlite Modified out for the first real competition. What I noticed was another shock: no more working your way up with a horrible car out of the gates. No way, my friend…this year you start with a more competitive car from the get-go. You’re just a hired gun, a driver looking for a ride. The Dodge team picks you up and gives you a shot after what is quite possibly the worst part of the entire game: a street race against Ryan Newman in Dodge Vipers. What think-tank came up with this idea? I realize it’s fully intended to bring in the “Need for Speed” crowd, but you’d think that they could try to mask it a bit. What’s next, virtual girlfriends and pink slips? I can see it now…”Hey Jimmie…I’ll race you for that Lowe’s Monte Carlo! I’ll wager my Mr. Clean Taurus and my pit girl”. Please, for the love of all that’s Holy, no. Stop this experiment now.

Back on the actual subject, you start off in a very competitive Featherlite Modified and no reputation. As you win poles and races, you’ll see your reputation change dramatically…which brings me to another big feature in “Cup 2005”: the allies/rivals system. While a somewhat overpowered feature, the allies and rivals system really does change the experience pretty dramatically. It hasn’t changed a lot since the previous year as far as implementation, but one new addition is the “Intimidate” button. When you tuck up behind another car long enough, you can press the “B” button to try to intimidate them into making a mistake…basically the opposite of the “draft” button, which makes friends and makes you go much faster. While great in theory, both methods are overpowered. I was able to make anybody on the track lose it completely when I intimidated them, and if I let one car by me and then used the ally drafting function, I was able to completely and totally check out from the field. What it amounts to is this: two cars building up a five second lead on 41 others, then I’d pass the other car and win the race by a mile. Not exactly challenging, so it’s something I only bothered doing once or twice. Why two cars can draft faster than a five car train behind them, I still haven’t quite figured out, but at least the feature definitely works. It just works a bit too well.

Once you figure out the basic driving model and the allies system, there’s nothing left but the racing. And that is, by far, the most enjoyable part of “Cup 2005”, which is exactly how it should be. In the Featherlite Modifieds, you’ll spend a lot of time wheel to wheel with the competition on the harder difficulty levels. On the easier levels, you can pretty much take the pole and the win with very little effort. However, once you bump it up the game opens up. Unlike last year, you can actually take the pole on Legend in your first race if you take the time to set your car up. You’re in a competitive car this year, as I mentioned before…not a backmarker that you have to upgrade just to compete. Once you get on the track, you’ll have a blast. I won’t say that the racing is as good as “IndyCar Series 2005” as far as the AI goes, but it’s definitely an improvement over what I remember in the past. For example, I was racing at Richmond in the Busch series, and Kyle Busch had the inside line on me. In most console racers, the inside line wins every time, and that was especially true in previous versions of “NASCAR” by EA Sports. This year, if Busch took the low line, I’d be able to pinch him down, limiting his acceleration ability. If he can’t drop the hammer because I’m six inches from his right fender, he can’t get any forward bite. Last year, the cars would just accelerate like robots, despite the fact that it would be physically impossible to get that much bite coming off a corner with no room to move up. The inertia alone would make it impossible. Thankfully, this year it works. In that same race, I actually ran side by side with Kyle Busch for 11 laps before completing the pass on the outside…he’d beat me into the corner but couldn’t quite clear me, and then I’d outaccelerate him on exit. It was some of the best racing I’ve ever had on my XBox.

All of this makes the bells and whistles something that I pay less attention to, but they’re there for people who like that sort of thing. If you use the draft feature a lot and don’t bash into other cars on the track constantly, you’ll get “Hero points”. What real effect this has on the racing, I have no idea. I saw no discernable difference when my Hero meter was max (it looks like a speedometer next to your avatar on the main menu…mine went all the way to the top and I didn’t have people moving over for me like magic, or choosing to draft me at any track), but I can imagine if you make a lot of enemies, your life would be a bit tougher. Using draft you become a hero, using intimidate gets you villain status…another extra that took a backseat the racing itself for me. There are a couple of curious spots during a race, which have plagued EA Sports racing titles for some time…yellow flags. With the yellows turned on, the field correctly freezes immediately, but sometimes it works out strangely. I was leading at Daytona and got spun when I drifted a bit and planted my right rear quarter panel on another car’s front fender. When I turned sideways a yellow immediately flew, and the field froze. However, I was still in the lead…when I chose not to pit (I never hit a wall, causing any damage), I was starting at the front of the field. The new rule applying to green/white/checkered finishes doesn’t show here…I caused a yellow with two laps to go to test it, and the race was over. Most of the yellow flags come out appropriately, however, so you won’t be spinning somebody out and getting away with it without causing a yellow. In previous titles I’d gotten away with murder on the track sometimes, or wanted a yellow flag desperately and never received one. I’d venture to say that the yellow flags received some attention, but not quite enough.

Eventually you’ll get an invite for a Craftsman Truck test day, at which point you can attend or pass on. If you beat the target lap time in 5 laps, the team will offer you a contract to drive for them. You can accept or ignore this contract; it’s entirely up to you. You’re the driver, so you have your choice of teams who want to hire you. As you gain more reputation, you’ll have teams lining up to sign you in any series that you’re not already under contract (or own a team) in. Scattered throughout the schedule will be one-on-one challenges from other drivers to race them in production cars, which to me is the biggest waste of space in the game. Most of the races occur on infield road courses at existing tracks, but you’re still out racing production cars for no real reason whatsoever. I can see the angle they were going for, but I don’t understand its place in a NASCAR game. If you try to sell it as a “Need for Speed” type game, then the people who buy it for that reason will be disappointed (they still have to race in circles a bunch of times before getting to those races). Then you have the flip side; the guys who want NASCAR racing have these cell phone messages asking them to take a Ford Mustang GT out for a one-on-one duel with a random driver. Either side will probably have an issue with it. Thankfully, you can skip over it altogether if you’re in the latter crowd. I actually ran them all, simply because they give you 4000 skill points to win (used for buying Thunder Plates that unlock new paint schemes, drivers, cars, tracks, and sponsors). It’s a distraction, but it has a purpose if you really want to do it.

The single greatest improvement in the “Fight to the Top” mode is the fact that you don’t have to complete an entire season to move up. If you win a lot of Modified races early on in your career, you’ll get a Craftsman Truck invite like I mentioned before. You can ignore that option and you’ll get more invites. The first team that offers you a ride has a ghastly orange truck, and I’m so anal I want my vehicle to look like something other than a giant pumpkin rolling around the track. I passed on that contract and took a few other test runs, eventually settling on a nice “King’s Spray Booths” black/white/pewter truck that really had “the look”. Another thing I noticed, which could have been my imagination, but doubtful: some teams have inferior equipment. I took a test run at Texas with a Busch team, and the car was absolutely horrible. It acted like it needed some serious track bar adjustments, as the car weaved and wiggled all over the place. It had no stability. Out of curiosity, I backed out to the main menu and tried a different car in the Busch series at the track. No wiggle. Either that’s a very minute detail that really is impressive, or it was a stroke of pure luck that had a very pronounced effect on me. However, since all teams are “star rated”…meaning they could be a one-star team or a six-star team, I’m thinking it’s probably a feature. Why have ratings if all teams are created equal?

This system of progression continues all the way through the game. Start in a Modified, move up to Craftsman Trucks and Busch cars (called “National Series” cars since they can’t license beer names in a video game), and eventually the Nextel Cup. “Cup 2005” has the full “Chase for the Cup” playoff-type system that was plugged into the real NASCAR series this year, so if you have strong feelings one way or the other about the real system, then you know what to expect already. It certainly tightens up the race for the championship at the end of the season, which was exactly the point. When you earn enough money, you can even buy your own race team in each series. When you do that, you will start to worry about finances, paying the driver his salary (higher skill in a driver demands a higher salary…or you can just be a driver/owner and not worry about pesky drivers), negotiating sponsors, and upgrading your car. The nice part about this is you can choose when to buy the team. If you win the Craftsman Truck championship, you probably have enough money to finance a Featherlite Modified team, and stack it with top-tier equipment out of the gates. You don’t have to work your way up from the back if you don’t want to in owner mode…just play the driver role, earn your paycheck, and become an owner when you feel adequately financed. By the time you win the Nextel Cup on Legend difficulty as a driver/owner, you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of this title.

Outside of the “Fight to the Top” mode, there are also several other ways to play “Cup 2005”. The standard season mode exists, where you can race a full season in any of the four series from start to finish. There’s also the “Dodge SpeedZone”, where you try to accomplish certain tasks that are laid out in front of you through introductory videos with NASCAR drivers. The notable part about the “Dodge SpeedZone” in particular is this: advertising. You’ll see it everywhere in “Cup 2005”. Whether it’s Old Spice sponsoring a track, the Levi Strauss Signature Speedway, or Dodge plastering its name everywhere, the video version of NASCAR is becoming awfully similar to the real version: advertisements and sponsors plastered everywhere. Not a big deal, but worth mentioning nonetheless.

Aside from the “SpeedZone”, you also have the Lightning Challenges that give you passing, drafting, blocking, and other techniques to practice, all of which earn you skill points to apply to Thunder Plates. There is also the ability to jump straight into the ten-race “Chase for the Cup”, where you can pick your starting position, driver, and other options. All of the other features pale in comparison to the extensive “Fight to the Top”, however. They’re fun as a distraction, but with the door-to-door racing as good as it is, you’ll find yourself back in the career mode more often than not. There is also online play, but in the entire time I had the game pre-release, I never found one person in the lobby to test with. It might be something I revisit at a later date, but for the most part I’m sure you can get online impressions from our Operation Sports readers who have the game and play online. It just wasn’t possible to drive online without somebody to race against. I did see there were only quick race options and single races…no leagues were evident. The leaderboard appeared to track points in each series, number of starts, average finish, and other relevant things. However, with only four human opponents, it may come up a bit short in the online department with most XBox Live racers…even if you can include a full field.

The biggest question would be “what do you want to get out of Chase for the Cup 2005”? If you want a NASCAR title, well…it’s the only game in town. If you want a solid, predictable, yet not 100% realistic driving model (that will never be mistaken for the Papyrus games on PC) with good AI competition and hours upon hours of play, look no further. If you’re not a NASCAR fan, then there’s probably not much here to change your mind. However…if you’re just a race fan in general, I think you might be surprised at how much there is to do in a game of a somewhat straightforward series. No two tracks feel alike, and with driving aids off, there are techniques to be utilized at almost every venue that will vault you to the podium on Legend difficulty. Speaking of Legend, it never felt like it was cheating me, which was also new. If you build a .5 second lead on Legend, then start to falter, it will gradually disappear. Hit your marks, turn your laps consistently, and you can win by one or two seconds on a decent setup. That’s racing, and that’s the entire reason I see myself playing “Chase for the Cup 2005” well past the end of the real NASCAR season…it’s just good racing.

NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup Score
out of 10