The Gentleman's game has yet to be fully represented in proper videogame form. Many cricket titles have come and gone, and all were pretty much piles of rubbish. Whether this is simply a case of the cricket-going world being too small to really put any money behind, or just companies attempting to get the product out there quickly, it's clear something needs to change in the virtual representation of our National pastime.
Thankfully Codemasters, after years of attempting to get it right, have come as close as anyone with Ashes Cricket 09.
From the outset, the game's presentation reeks of cricket deliverance, and while - overall - Ashes Cricket 09 isn't the visual benchmark of so many other Triple A sports titles, what is on offer here is functional and more importantly, passable. It's also a point of some pride in that the game was developed right here on our own shores, by Transmission Games.
When thinking of cricket, The Ashes really is the only stand-out test. It's where rivalries between the 'Mother Country' and her obnoxious teenage offspring are points of pure pride and prejudice, and it's the only place where Shane Warne arguably has a place in this world. So it's fitting he would then grace the cover of the game, and equally offer up his tainted personality in the promotions department - a big help given the only official license in the game is The Ashes.
Still, despite not having any other series officially in the game, Ashes Cricket 09 features all the play modes you would expect with a rounded figure of 12 selectable nations. You can tackle test, one-dayers and 20 overs as well as just jump into a training portion of the game as directed by the likes of Warney and Ian Botham. It's probably a good idea too, as the game, while good when you have a grasp, will need some explanation and practise prior to your conquest for Ashes glory.
There's a reasonable balance system that works between batting, bowling and fielding, which is why you'd do well to run yourself through the tutorial option as you not only learn the system, but are given actual reality-based reasons for how certain things work from the proper perspective. Cricket aficionados won't need the refresher on the fundamentals of the sport, but if, like me, you haven't really dabbled since high-school, it's an incredibly welcome addition.
Out on the pitch, things kick off as they always do in the sport, with the toss of a coin to see which side can choose between batting and fielding. Batting offers up a variety of play options; you can switch your positioning at the crease and choose to play off the back or front foot with three different approaches to the job in the form of defending, attacking or lobbing, all mapped to X, A and B on the face of the Xbox 360 controller (the system we reviewed this on).
Once you've performed your duty, you can stay or run, depending on how you read the shot, though I will say some of the camera positions make it difficult to know when to take risks, and although there is a picture in picture image of the pitch to see where you are while the main screen focuses on the fielder, I found it a bit small and less obvious.
Beyond that though, reading the ball and choosing your course of action was actually pretty intuitive, and something I thought Transmission Games handled nicely.
Bowling, on the other hand fares a little less better with your delivery relying upon a timing bar for accuracy. You have a few choices in what type of ball you want to bowl based on the bowler's style (fast pace, medium and spin) which in reality, often comes up a little convoluted and then out of place with the timing bar, but as mentioned previously, it's all still functional, though I'd argue based on the pace of the sport (and this game), it might have been a better idea to introduce an analogue bowling system not to dissimilar to the introduction of analogue controls in most of EA's sports titles (FIFA, Tiger Woods etc) to really add a more immersive control element to the player.
Fielding comes in the form of preset positions and on-the-fly repositioning based on where your opposition is enjoying hitting the ball. This equally rebalances itself in the batting department as taking your shot and directing the analogue stick in obvious holes and gaps in defence was a simple task and allowed for tactical play based on how the fielding team were, err, fielding themselves. For catches, the game quickly switches to a Quicktime Event that sounds cumbersome, but kind of works to bring the player into the game here.
One of the cooler things in Ashes Cricket 09 sees teams - and individuals - battling their own on-field fears. This is managed through key confidence points based on how the game is progressing. If a batsman is knocking the bowler around, for example, his confidence will climb allowing for more bold shots. The bowler, on the other hand, will lose confidence and therefore become more likely to crush under the pressure with forced errors. It's a bit digital in its execution, but a cool idea nonetheless.
For the rest of the game, the visual side of things is a bit of a mismarriage. On-screen representations of cricketers are still a generation behind, at best, while the textures for the grass and pitch still seem overly bland. I realise it's just dirt and grass, but there are arguably better games in the field of say, tennis, representing surfaces much more realistically leaving no excuse here.
Animations and animation trees are also somewhat limited, though as I've reiterated throughout this review, it's all still functional, and really we haven't seen a clear benchmark in the videogame representation of this sport to ultimately feel like we're missing out, though this does make me wonder if we'll ever see a truly Triple A cricket game.
Audio is pretty solid, though in saying that, given the pace of the sport, it's surely a difficult thing to screw up, but from what I was privvy to I felt the commentary had a strong flow with the venerable Tony Grieg as the stand-out (and definitive) cricket God. But again, you're not going to muster much in the field of excitement here - cricket is cricket. Nuff said.
Ultimately this is going to be picked up by the sort of people happy to bake beyond brown and into lobster-like colours through hours of exposure to harsh rays of the sun just to watch a bunch of dudes in whit standing on a field. And it's those sort of people who are going to spend the lengthy amount of time the game requires
to get the most out of its depth, and there is depth here - if Ashes Cricket 09 does anything absolutely right, it's balance its various gameplay portions against each other to create synergetic experiences both behind the bat and behind the ball.
There are quite a few pitfalls, but it's safe to say, thus far, this is easily the best cricketing experience and hopefully a step in the right direction towards crafting a more flashy and progressive cricket title.