10/13/2005 12:00AM

New game a shaky step on right path

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NEW YORK - When the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced that it was teaming with Bethesda Softworks to create a Breeders' Cup video game, there was every reason for racing fans and game-players to be optimistic.

The handful of racing games on the market suffer from the absence of licensed likenesses of actual tracks and horses, which the NTRA could provide. Bethesda is a top-notch game developer, best known for the Elder Scrolls series, including Morrowind, which won several Game of the Year awards in 2002 and occupied 100 or so hours of my personal dark-day time.

Getting racing onto the radar screen and television screens of gamers is exactly the sort of thing the NTRA should be doing. In addition to raising awareness of the sport in general and the Breeders' Cup in particular, a first-rate video game might even encourage its players to try the real racing game after mastering the virtual one.

Unfortunately, "Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Champion-ships," which was released Sept. 29 for Playstation 2 and Xbox formats, is not such a game. Something went badly awry between the concept and the execution, and the title is being harshly criticized by both gamers and racing fans.

The first two reviews of the game posted on amazon.com were titled "Big Disappointment" and "What a shame," both from racing enthusiasts who had held out high hopes. "Looks like the racing industry can't even get a video game right, let alone solve their other issues," wrote the first reviewer.

"As far as I know I have played every horse racing video game to come to an American console," wrote the second, "and this game is the worst."

On the respected video game website ign.com, gamers have given the game a lowly consensus rating of 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The site's reviewer, Charles Onyett, gave it a 4.3, saying it "falls short of delivering to horse racing fans what would constitute a satisfying experience. Nobody can really expect the graphics or sound to be much of an asset for a title like this, but at least there could be some decent gameplay modes. Essentially, this game will only appeal to those with an unprecedented degree of patience."

Amid three straight dark days this rainy week at Belmont I tried the Playstation 2 version of the game myself and can report that these appraisals are only a tad harsh. The game's heart is in the right place, as it attempts to mirror the realities of breeding, training, managing, and racing a horse to a Breeders' Cup race, all the way down to swimming-pool therapy for injured horses. Unlike some sports games, this one at least tries to stay true to its subject. You can't equip your horse with magic titanium armor or shoot death-rays at the opposing jockeys.

Unfortunately, the game's structure and menu system is so cumbersome, and it takes so long for different segments of the game to load, that few players will make it through the 43 weeks of preparation from January to October leading up the main event. Doing so allows you to unlock a strange roster of famous actual horses for future games. Funny Cide and Native Dancer are among the horses you can be rewarded with, and Seabiscuit is the ultimate prize, but there's no Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, or Spectacular Bid.

There are 13 actual tracks where you can stage races, but many of them have been rendered as bullrings in the low-quality graphics. The Breeders' Cup races are run under their actual names, but the preps leading up to it are fictional creations such as the Oak Shield, the Crystal Cup, and the Aqua Bowl.

Racing a horse is the biggest disappointment. The races have the same over-the-ears jockey perspective as in the popular Gallop Racer series of video games, but there is less strategy and control than in those titles. You can't do much more than repeatedly punch the X button to open an early lead, and then wait for a brief and sudden on-screen prompt to go to the whip during the stretch. Nor are there stewards to keep you from shutting off or knocking the competition sideways.

On the positive side, the game is only $19.99, about half the cost of the most popular console titles, and you do get complete DVD-quality video of all eight actual 2004 Breeders' Cup races. Watching Sweet Catomine knife through the field or seeing Ghostzapper in full flight only reminds you how inadequately the game's virtual world compares to the real one.

The good news is that some of the best sports video games started out shakily and were vastly upgraded in their second or third iteration. Perhaps a revised and improved Breeders' Cup 2006 game could still help recruit gamers to the best game of all.