Back when I got my first PC, an Amstrad 286 with a beasty 1mb of RAM, one of my favourite games was a blocky shareware title called Sticky Wicket.
Sticky Wicket was, rather predictably, a cricket game, and a rather fun one too. You were charged with selecting and then taking control of a county championship side over the course of a season, including matches in the one day cup competitions and the now defunct Sunday league.
As with most sports games of that day and age, it was fun, but limited. The top-down graphics were akin to pong, and the game's realism extended to your batsmen having form and stamina ratings which affected their performance.
In 1998, Codemasters produced the first Brian Lara cricket game. It was enormously fun, with tidy graphics and a nice array of shots, deliveries and fielding settings. It was however not quite enough for real cricket enthusiasts. Us cricket fans are obsessive creatures, who enjoy pouring over pages of statistics and reading about who has the 4th highest 5th wicket partnership between two left-handed batsmen for England against the West Indies at The Oval. The first Brian Lara game, as with the mighty Sticky Wicket before it (although you can excuse SW), lacked any real depth beyond the quick bashing of buttons, and the overzealous hitting of the 'appeal' button that produced amusing sound effects from the bowlers.
So how have cricket games moved on since those days? Codemasters came back this year with another Brian Lara game, and just like it's predecessor, it's very entertaining.
The most immediate improvement is of course the graphics. The players look vaguely like the players they represent (provided you play in one of the 2 licenced tournaments), and many of the world's famous cricket grounds are faithfully recreated in lush 3D graphics. The player movements are smooth and accurate, and the overall presentation is up there with anything that EA have produced.
The most fun to be had in this game comes from batting. There are only 3 shots to choose from, but when you correctly judge a delivery and cream it back past the despairing bowler it is immensely satisfying. Just like real batting, it's all in the timing, and you are aided by a bar in the corner of the screen letting you know if you are glancing it like Ponting or spooning it like Tuffnell. The difficulty curve is well-balanced as well - once you are well-practiced and trying the harder settings, it really gives you a feeling of elation if you manage to smash a quickie over midwicket for six.
Bowling can also be rewarding, but it's a rather tedious affair if you are playing anything over a 20 over game, especially if you are getting tonked about. The computer AI is so poor however that it is rather easy to tie the opposition batsmen up by simple putting all of your fielders on the off side and bowling a yard outside off stump. Never do they consider a heave across the line into the empty leg side.
Fielding is semi-automated, and the only way that you can affect the action is by pressing a button at the right moment to time catches and throws.
Still, no sports game is entirely perfect and Brian Lara cricket is certainly entertaining enough if you have a passing interest in the gentleman's game.
Afficionados would do well to stay away though. My biggest gripe with the game is that it appears to have been play-tested by people that have never played a game of cricket in their life. In one match, one of my batsmen was given out LBW after digging out a yorker with the toe of his bat. That is to say, it didn't even touch his foot, leg or any other part of his body. Another time, I had a computer player caught at third slip from a yorker.
As the above examples demonstrate, the batting physics completely let the game down. Sadly it's not only bizarre methods of dismissals that bring down the game's score. It is possible to hit sixes, at will, over third man and backward point. While you may see the odd shot smashed over there in real cricket, it usually comes from a top edge as a batsman tries to flay a short ball to the leg side. In BLIC, it is always a deliberate shot, and bizarrely it's often a big drive with the face of the bat open. Such foibles are unforgiveable for anyone who is as big a cricket fan as I am.
The commentary is functional and well-scripted, but as with many sports games the commentators often come out with comments that are completely inappropriate for the situation. One time I deliberately left a ball outside my off stump, only for Jonathan Agnew to pipe up with "the batsman was beaten all ends up there!".
The other glaring flaw is that the only licenced competitions are the 2003 World Cup and the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy. This means that if you want to play any other form of the game (such as, err, test cricket!) then you have to play with an England team made up of players such as K Peetersand, S Hermes and M Vorne.
If you can get past the batting physics errors then this is a very fun game to play for half an hour. Sadly, if you're a big cricket nut then you're going to be very frustrated with a game that could have been so much more.
6 / 10