Sunday, October 17, 2004

You pull up to a red light in the middle of New York City in your shiny red sports car. As you idle the engine, a car pulls up next to you. The driver smiles and gestures he wants to race.

Which, of course, you do. After all, who would pass up a chance to beat NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Ryan Newman?

Such is the conceit of EA Sports’ latest racing title, NASCAR Chase for the Cup 2005. Not only do you get to experience the Nextel Cup’s new format (hence, the title), but to get there you must start from the bottom, working your way up from that street race through three other racing series. Fight to the Top, akin to dynasty modes in other EA Sports titles, combines some storytelling elements with the Featherlite, Craftsman Truck and Busch series as you rise to the big stage.

After you beat Newman — it’s the only way to continue — he’s so impressed that he hooks you up with his agent and offers you a ride with his Featherlite team. From there, it’s your job not only to configure your car and win races but to sell merchandise, and that means how you race matters.

That’s where the story lines come in. If you work with other drivers, allowing them to draft off you, you become a hero. But if you bump or intimidate other drivers, you become Tony Stewart (in other words, a villain). In fact, drivers you anger won’t work with you, will try to force you off your line and sometimes even will confront you after a race. That’s right: Other drivers will remember your tactics and relate to you accordingly.

Either way, you will earn cash, prestige and fans, helping you move to the next level. With enough money, you even can buy a racing team in another circuit.

That, of course, assumes you are winning races, which isn’t that easy. The controls are fairly simple — the left analog stick steers, while the right analog stick controls the throttle — but they also can be touchy. It’s not hard to oversteer, thereby losing control and leaving skid marks on the track, or go into a turn too fast and crash into the wall. (Or maybe it’s just that someone can’t drive?)

For those who don’t have the patience to Fight to the Top, there are other options. You can choose to race a season in any of the circuits, including the Nextel Cup. Or you can skip ahead and just do the Chase for the Cup. Lightning Challenge mode allows you to relive some moments from the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup season. For instance, you can do the last several laps of Matt Kenseth’s victory at the Subway 400 in North Carolina as you try to hold off Kasey Kahne. And if you want to practice some of the specific skills you need to succeed in the game, you can try the Speedzone, which teaches you how to draft or pass.

What you don’t want to do is pass on this game if you are a NASCAR fan. With the addition of the new circuits and story lines, there’s no comparison between NASCAR Chase for the Cup 2005 and past versions. Plus, there’s nothing like racing Ryan Newman through the streets of New York City in a shiny red sports car.

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