IndyCar Series 2005 Review
Reviewed on Xbox
In some respect, every title is a niche title. No matter how polished the series may be, a hardcore first-person-shooter fan who hates football just isn't going to pick up a copy of Madden NFL 2004. Racing games have always been a popular niche of console games, ranging from arcade-style action, in which you can crash half a dozen times and still finish first, to simulation titles, in which perfect handling and nerves are required for a win. IndyCar Series 2005 is an exacting simulation of a sport that requires hundreds of laps to differentiate between minute differences in skill and equipment. Playing such an exacting game as this requires patience, skill and enthusiasm. IndyCar Series 2005 is a successful recreation of Indy Racing on the Xbox – it's simply that the game is designed for Indy Racing fans, not all Xbox owners.
If you've bought a wheel in anticipation of this game, need fewer than four beers to watch a full Indy Racing League event, or came across the game on the official site of the Indy Racing League, you will have a grand time playing IndyCar Series 2005. If that doesn't describe you, and you are an Xbox owner looking for a racing title, you will find IndyCar Series 2005 tedious and punishing in difficulty – precisely because it is so faithful to the sport.
Before continuing, it should be said that IndyCar Series 2005 needs to be played with a wheel. It can be played with a standard controller (in many configurations), but finishing a full race with a normal controller will leave you with debilitating hand cramps. Besides, the wheel is a lot more fun. IndyCar Series 2005 is more of a lifestyle than something you play for a few hours, so if you are making a commitment to the game, it's worth getting a wheel controller. With that out of the way, amateurs and pros alike will want to begin with the game's "Masterclass" courses.
In any other game, these would be called tutorials, but while the Masterclasses are fairly good explanations of how to approach Indy Racing, they decidedly feel like classes for a master rather than an introduction. In each class, you'll be given a few minutes of non-interactive video using the in-game engine and narrated by Dan Wheldon. Then you'll be given a task that can be completed at the bronze, silver and gold levels. Because the Masterclasses are just as exacting as the sport they strive to teach, you'll need to be an expert driver or Indy Racing fanatic (or more likely, both) to achieve the passing bronze grade on anything approaching the first try. Get a passing grade in the Masterclasses and you will be in a position to compete in real races, but you should expect to spend many hours trying the various classes over and over again. From those classes you'll learn useful skills such as drafting (using a car in front of you to reduce drag).
As you will learn from the Masterclasses, Indy Racing is just as much about the vehicle as the skill of the driver. You'll spend a lot of time tweaking the configuration of the car to best reflect the vagaries of the track and your own skill. For example, you'll need to worry about the downdraft – the force of the air (provided by the wings) that keeps the car hugging the track. It's good in that it helps you corner more tightly, but it also provides drag that slows you down. The angle of the wings can even be tweaked in the Pit in the middle of a race. You'll also need to worry about the wheel camber, tire pressure, suspension and gears. After spending some time with the game, you'll really be able to feel the difference these settings make, and even learn to adjust the fuel mixture for more power, or the weight jacker to counter the changes in handling that result from fuel consumption lightening the vehicle. The garage interface can seem overwhelming, but the game is substantially about fiddling with individual dampers or your gear ratios.
Also like in the real-life sport, you don't just jump into a professional race (at least on the Pro setting). If you want to do well, you'll need to take your car out for a few practice laps on a given track, learn the vagaries of the track, and tweak your car's configuration. Then repeat that a few more times (practice ... tweak ... practice ... tweak). Now you can qualify for starting position, and then you can race. Given all that, actually racing the entire IndyCar Series could take the typical, casual, working gamer weeks of dedicated play. And unless you want to dramatically change the experience by reducing the number of laps, a full race takes a long time. Even if each lap takes around a minute, you are racing hundreds of laps. And tiny errors can cost you the win. The game is about both precision and endurance. You have to do everything right – for a long time. Mess up a gear shift and you might spend the next twenty laps trying to claw back those precious few seconds. Fortunately, if life tries to interrupt your concentration, you can save the game by entering the Pit.
As was the case with the previous IndyCar Series game, the graphics aren't stellar. They aren't awful, but beyond the cars (which can't afford to suffer damage) the one feature that received a lot of attention is the track. That's a good thing, because it's the only thing you'll be staring at. You can't take the time for more than the briefest of glances at the sun or the stands, and you'll spend most of your time searching for the "groove" – the path that other drivers have taken that has slightly better traction due to the rubber forced into the pavement. As with many things in IndyCar Series 2005, if you like the style of play, the mediocre graphics won't disturb you. You'll be much more excited to know that the real tracks from the IndyCar Series have been exactingly modeled, and that you can play as a familiar driver.
Just in case playing through an entire season of races isn't enough to keep you interested, Codemasters has added a few things to extend the life of IndyCar Series 2005. The game offers an extensive set of collectible cards that can be secured by completing tasks as simple as finishing the Masterclasses, or as difficult as winning the IndyCar Series. Codemasters has also set the game up so that you can race on Xbox Live. Of course, unless an extensive community grows up around the game on Xbox Live, you may find the multiplayer portion of IndyCar Series 2005 less than completely fulfilling. Up to twelve people can compete in one race, but there aren't a lot of races going on. Finding a match for more than ten laps can be difficult, and keeping players in the race is nearly impossible. Finding a dedicated group to run a long race is unlikely (unless you know those folks offline).
This game is for someone who wants to turn Indy Racing into a lifestyle, not for a casual player looking for a five minute break from Halo. It's a good game for its audience, but isn't going to break out of its niche. What really gives this game a leg up (and boosts its rating) is its low price tag (under $20), combined with its faithful pursuit of Indy Racing style. So, if you're keen on Indy Racing, grab a copy of IndyCar Series 2005.