Gaming and NASCAR have definitely had a love/hate relationship, one that's often ebbed and flowed with the times. On one hand, fans have seen the evolution of the sport on both PCs and consoles. The inclusion of new racing series and racetracks, for instance, has expanded the scope of the NASCAR game significantly. Unfortunately, many other gamers have dismissed the action of these titles as simplistic, boring or lacking in depth. I've personally heard plenty of these players remark, "who wants to drive in a circle with a bunch of hicks?" Well, for you uneducated drivers, NASCAR's image has received a massive facelift, and is now one of the hottest sports around. Reflecting this new attitude, EA's popular Thunder series has been retooled as well, pulling into store shelves as NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup, a title that has more than enough play to interest even the most cynical driver out there.
The primary thrust of NASCAR 2005 lies in its career mode, aptly titled, "Fight For The Cup," which initially casts the player as a fan of Ryan Newman's driving along a city street late at night. As you stop at a light, you're shocked to see your idol pull up next to you and challenge you to a street race. Thus begins your introduction to the NASCAR Circuit, as your skills behind the wheel convince Ryan to sign you to a contract with his agent. From here, the game actually takes off, as players will start out in racing in the Featherlite Modified series. Obviously, the goal of your driving career is to win every race you enter, capturing the leaderboards with your incredible skills and progressing through the Craftsman Truck and Busch series until you reach the big money with the Nextel Cup tour.
However, there's much more substance to the career mode than simply winning races. For instance, one of the most important choices available to players is whether or not they want to be seen as a hero or a villain behind the wheel. Building upon the rivalry system from last year's game, the relative scale of how "good" or "bad" you are is based upon your particular driving style. If you manage to make clean passes around the track, avoiding accidents and contact with other drivers, you'll primarily be seen as a "hero". On the other hand, if you basically try to do whatever you can to win, particularly ramming other cars out of your way to gain positions, you'll typically be viewed as a menace by other racers. The perception of your character will actually affect other game elements, particularly in the nature of rivalries and drafting options.
Dirty drivers will have to beware of the people they constantly hit as they speed down the track. Constant contract will spawn major rivalries with opposing drivers, who will go out of their way to keep you from winning a race. This includes joining together with other drivers to block any available passing lanes along straightaway and corners and even going so far as running you into a wall at the cost of both cars. That’s right, if you really annoy someone, they’ll be gunning for you. Villains will have one advantage that can be used in these situations, though. They can pull up behind a car and intimidate the driver, forcing their opponent to veer off to the side, run into another car or become so rattled that they’ll make a careless mistake. You’ll have to be careful though, because if you keep targeting one driver, he may challenge you to a showdown race to settle the score.
Heroes, by contrast, have it somewhat easier. They don’t have as many enemies, with the exception of the really evil racers that have it out for them and everyone else. Instead, they’ll find that some other drivers are more willing to look out for them, forming groups to block their rivals, staying out of your way or sharing their draft with you. In fact, sharing your draft with fellow drivers is now more of a strategic move than a simple way to get a speed boost. Similar to the intimidate ability, sharing drafts accelerates both your speed as well as the driver in front of you, but also improves your friendship rating with that racer. This makes him less likely to cut you off or intentionally hit you.
Regardless of how you play, successful driving will provide you with two bonuses: First, you’ll gain you the attention of fans, who will increase your popularity. (Yep, even villains have fans.) The second, and potentially more important factor, is that more contracts will be offered to you and your team to move up to other series. Even this is handled differently than other racing titles: Whereas most games automatically funnel you to the next level, you can choose to sign with a team or remain in the current series for as long as you wish until you feel ready to advance (or they pay you what you’re worth). In fact, it can sometimes be more advantageous to stay at the same level, because you can save up enough money to buy your own racing team. Once you’ve purchased a team, you can also determine your level of involvement, including the hiring and training of a driver and pit crew, signing of sponsorship deals, and car upgrades.
Aside from the career mode, which you can virtually tailor to your method of play, there’s a Race Now feature for players that want to jump onto the track and take the checkered flag as soon as possible. If you’ve unlocked any of the hidden cars, either via showdown races or buying their Thunder Plate (Chase for the Cup’s reward system), you can take to a track with these as well. Additionally, you can take on the Lightning Challenge for Skill Points to unlock additional Thunder Plates. Essentially a “Greatest Moments in NASCAR History, players will have to opportunity to re-enact some of the most exhilarating events to every occur on a racetrack. Players wanting to have a slightly longer experience will be able to take on a Season, which will let them race an entire year’s worth of meets within any of the four racing tours, or take a little extra time in the Speedzone practicing their skills.
It’s quite easy to say that Chase for the Cup is the best looking NASCAR title to have ever been developed. Not only does the game manage to render and track more than forty cars on a course at a time, it does so at a consistent 60 frames per second, which is simply amazing. You’ll be hard pressed to find an instance of slowdown or stuttering during play. That’s including the addition of a significant amount of detail along the racetrack, which includes signs of advertisers and stands of racing supporters, which can clearly be seen from a distance (until you zip past them, that is). The sense of speed and power is definitely apparent upon reaching your top speed, which also is transferred to the player when someone gets into an accident. Not only will the clouds of squealing tires obscure sections of the track, making driving conditions hazardous, but any concurrent collisions are quite cringeworthy.
This is backed up with reverberating sound effects that scream from the game. Not only will you be able to detect the Doppler effect of cars quickly passing each other at incredibly high speeds, but you’ll be able to pick up on much more than the typical squeal of tires or revving of engines. You’ll hear the painful crunch of cars smacking together together with the almost running commentary from your pit chief. Your chief mechanic will constantly talk to you over the radio, informing you about your place in the race, your competition, or warn you about the damage you’re taking. It’s a great way to keep your mind on the competition when you’re trying to keep your eyes on the road. Add to that an adrenaline infused soundtrack from EA Trax, and you’ve got an immersive experience no matter how many laps you have to go.
While Chase for the Cup does feature Online play, it is limited to only four players per match. That is somewhat limited and can reduce the number of friends getting together for solid competition, especially since two players can play via split screen. However, the rest of the pack can be populated with up to 40 additional computer controlled cars to even out the competition. It’s not a major issue of concern, just a mild sticking point. In fact, the largest problem that keeps this game from truly being great is the limited customization features before each race. There’s essentially four individual categories that can be tweaked: suspension, downforce (on the rear end of the car via the spoiler), tire pressure and gears. While you can manipulate these slightly to adjust for differing road conditions, racing or NASCAR Fans will definitely be disappointed by the lack of options available in this game. These machines are so highly tuned in real life, that there should be the option for gearheads and race fans to have deep customization of each car if they want.
However, for NASCAR lovers and even driving fans who’ve been curious about the sport, Chase for the Cup offers one of the best experiences to grace a console or a monitor. There’s plenty to do in the career mode, and players will truly enjoy the ability to define their game based on their personal driving style. Racers or gamers that love being behind the wheel will love having this title pull into their console garage.