So another high-profile cricket series brings us another cricket game from Code Masters, but is it any good? Recent history has been a bit mixed: The 2005 iteration may have marked a solid rebirth for the companies long-running Brian Lara series, but the 2007 World Cup edition was a buggy mess which felt rushed to the market in order to coincide with the dates of the tournament. So does the new version, Ashes Cricket 2009, offer an improvement over Code Master's previous outing, or is it simply a new name for an old game?
From its announcement, Ashes Cricket seem to mark a clean-break from the Brian Lara series. Not only was development entirely seized by Aussie outfit Transmission games, developers of the PSP Brian Lara title, but we were told that the game engine had been rebuilt from scratch in order to to take full advantage of next generation consoles. Now I don't want to call anyone a liar, but upon firing up the game it becomes clear that the depth of change isn't as much as some of the promotional interviews would have had us believe.
A good place to start would probably be the graphics. These are, simply, rubbish. The technical side of things is pretty bad, with low-poly models, dirty low-res grass and horrendous crowd modeling, however the most worrying thing about the graphics for this game is the inconsistent effort which seems to have gone into producing them. In particular, the player likenesses range from the spot-on (Ravi Bopara, Shane Watson) to the hopelessly inaccurate (Brett Lee, Andrew Flintoff.) Considering the importance of these two to their respective teams, it seems unforgivable that such major players have such generic likenesses.
Similar inconsistency is found in the animation. Though some of the animations in Ashes Cricket are convincingly realistic (I particularly like some of the new inside edges onto pad), others are shockingly bad and detract from the experience. Although they run-in at the right pace, for example, the animation for fast bowlers appears to have been set to fast-forward at some point along the line. Special mention also has to go to the fielding animation which is dreadful for two reasons: Not only is it unrealistic, with fielders taking catches and fielding the ball in an ugly, long-winded fashion which you simply would not see in an international cricket match, but much of it is quite blatantly lifted from the Brian Lara games, despite it being ugly then and even uglier now.
Speaking of things being lifted, I am sorry to report that much of the commentary has been taken directly from the Brian Lara games. This is a shame for all those who, like me, had grown sick of hearing Jonathan Agnew say '..and the quickie to bowl another over'. The game might introduce a bit of new blood in the shape of Shane Warne, but sadly his delivery is about as convincing as it is in his hair adverts. Worse still, the commentary is as bug-ridden as in the Brian Lara games, with balls punched to the boundary edge 'dribbling out to the covers', and teams which have just won the final of a tournament being 'through to the semi-finals'. This all seems a bit sloppy: If they're going to recycle so much of the commentary, they should at least fix the bugs and make sure it works.
Indeed, general sloppiness effects much of the game's presenetation. A further example are the TV camera effects. Hit the ball hard enough, for example, and your virtual camera man will lose track of it on the way to the boundary, causing the camera to jerk around the ground as the cameraman tries to find the ball. This is a brilliant bit of attentiveness to a very subtle detail. On the other hand, Get a wicket and the TV replay you'll be treated too will inevitably be distant from the action and from a totally bizarre angle, often giving you a view which is worse than from the original perspective and unlike any television replay I've ever seen. Quite how they could manage to emulate something subtle and insignificant as the behavior of the cameraman, but manage to fowl-up something as important as the action replays, is beyond me. It feels like about half the design decisions were taken by people who understand and generally love cricket, while the other half seem to have been taken by people who applied for the job expecting to be making a game about a burnt insect.
Of course, all presentation issues can be forgiven if the game plays well, so how does it fare? as with previous Brian Lara titles, batting is as simple as pointing the left stick in the direction you want to push the ball into and pressing the appropriate face button at the right time to strike the ball (X for grounded attacking shot, O for lofted attacking shot, for defensive shot.) Bowling is as simple as using a face button to pick a delivery type (which changes depending on bowler type) then using the cursor to highlight where you would like to bowl the ball on the wicket and pressing the same face button at the right time to bowl the ball correctly. while Fielding is mostly automatic, with catching handled by a QTE which tasks the player to press the x button when a circle around the ball turns green, and the right stick being used while the computer is fielding to allow you to choose the end to throw the ball too.
To Transmission's credit, both batting and bowling have undergone significant tweaking since the last Brian Lara title. When batting, for example, the player can now opt to bat from either the front or back foot, which allows the player to trade greater accuracy when placing shots against the risk of missing the ball entirely if the wrong footwork is selected. This is a great addition to the game, as it forces the player to think more like a batsmen. My only criticism is that it doesn't go far enough: go up against a person who bowls a tricky lengh online, and you can always switch back to the far safer option of automatic foot selection, which feels like a cop-out.
From the bowling perspective, the major change is the lack of a power gauge. In the last Brian Lara game, the player was in full control of the amount of pace a bowler delivered the ball at and the amount of swing they generated. In Ashes Cricket, aspects such as swing are set in the bowler's run-up and the delivery gauge only covers how well the bowler will bowl the chosen delivery. Again, this is another fine addition to the game, as to bowl perfect deliveries you will need to get yourself into a rhythmic groove, just like a real bowler.
There have also been some welcome removals too. The broken sweep shot mechanics from Brian Lara 2007 have been entirely removed, with the shot being reintroduced into your normal repertoire, and the effects of batting/bowling confidence meters have been toned down dramatically, so there's no need to block a couple of deliveries before you can march down the wicket as a batsmen, and bowling is less geared around your surprise delivery. This also means that, in a test match scenario, you're able to leave wide balls alone without your batsmen turning to jelly.
There are, however, a number of significant problems present in Ashes Cricket which are unwelcome hang-overs from previous Brian Lara efforts. The ball physics, in particular, remain largely unchanged from the previous games. While this is fine from the batting perspective, with the ball regularly flying over the boundary rope, when bowling the physics make it difficult to get wickets using real strategies: In real life, for example, an outswing bowler tries to use sideways movement of the ball to catch the edge of the bat, sending the ball flying to one of men placed behind the bat in catching 'slip' positions. In Ashes Cricket, like Brian Lara before it, such a strategy is fruitless. While 90mph balls scream off the edge of a bat in real life, in Ashes cricket these inevitably bobble tamely into the air, falling to the ground well in front of the hands of your eager cordon of slip fielders.
This problem might not have been so bad if you were offered full control to place your fielders, but unfortunately Ashes Cricket retains the custom field settings from Brian Lara Cricket. This means that, while you have enough control to move your players between authentic cricket field placements (from, say 'fine leg' to 'extra cover'), you lack the control to make more subtle (but still quite important) changes, such as deciding when to bring your keeper up to the stumps, or whether or not to move your slips closer to the batsmen.
Another major problem is the AI. Though some of the more broken elements of the Brian Lara Cricket 2007 AI has been fixed, the computer is still prone to occasionally take suicidal runs in unrealistic situations, such as when the ball is half way in the air between the fielder and keeper. The Ai also doesn't pace innings like a proper cricketer: they'll inexplicably try to blast you out of the ground in the second over of a test match, only to watch ball after ball sail by in a high-pressure Twenty20 game. To make matters worse, the balls that the games decide are bowled at a 'good' length feel counter-intuitive. A clever outswinger on a good length will get you blasted for 6, while an ugly half-tracker will probably get you a wicket. The AI is also no better when batting, as the AI bowlers find it impossible to bowl to a field. They'll bowl it at your feet with little protection down the ground and then bowl a bouncer when there's no protection square of the wicket. When taken together, this mean that Ashes effective rewards bad play: bad AI fields promote wreckless batting over watchful play, and bad AI batting promotes bad balls over good ones.
This is a shame, as the coaching mode does a great job of explaining the mechanics of both Ashes Cricket and the game of cricket itself: Indeed, i'd argue that The need for automatic footwork is removed by the highly-effective in-game demonstration of when both types are appropriate, and it's such a shame that things introduced so well in the coaching mode (such as setting fields for out-swingers and to setting a trap for the hook shot) are of little use in the actual game.
Overall though. Ashes Cricket is probably most effected by issues emanating from the core mechanics of all Codemasters (and EA) cricket games. The sad fact is that afree, browser-based flash game contains a better representation of batting than all of the games which have retailed from £30-40. The problem is a simple one: real batsmen don't have cursor which tells them where the ball will be bowled. By giving you an indication of both the line and the length, Ashes cricket removes much of the decision making process a real test batsmen has to go through. Once you have the timing down, there's no reason why you can't safely take 10-20 runs off every single over. This might be fun for a casual weekend rental (and from that perspective it's good that most of the trophies/achievements can be obtained within a couple of hours), but can't be considered a realistic simulation of cricket and, as such, the basis for a decent cricket game.
Ashes Cricket does, however, have one saving grace: Multiplayer. Although the removal of the Ai still doesn't help Ashes become a perfect simulation of cricket, the introduction of a human opponent makes for a more exciting and tense experience. Although the game mechanics make it far too easy to launch the slower bowlers out of the ground, swinging deliveries, cutters and slower balls can be used much more effectively against a human, making for a much more (but not entirely) even and enjoyable contest between bat and ball.
Sadly however, the online multiplayer has its problems. The netcode, for example,isn't the greatest with even a small amount of lag having devastating consequences on your ability to time the ball. The online mode also seems to be more prone to fielding glitches, with the automatic fielders stubbornly refusing to run towards balls edged behind the field. The community don't help matters either, with grumpy players often quitting the match if you have the audacity to hit their star bowler for repeated 6s or destroy their entire top order with a couple of good overs. There are also some missed opportunities: 2 on 2 matches (with plays controlling one batsmen/bowling end each) would have been an amazing addition to the multiplayer offering.
So, overall, it is a difficult to recommend Ashes Cricket. On the plus side, it is the official game of the summer: You can play all of the correct Ashes tests at the correct grounds and with the proper player names (even if the likenesses are a bit dodgy.) To be fair, the game also includes reasonably robust team customisation, so you will be able to keep the team sheets current for years to come. Don't be deceived though: It might have a new name and a shiny new front-end, but this is essentially Brian Lara with a couple of bug-fixes and this just feels lazy for a company that has had 2 years to get the formula right. If you've had issues with any of the previous Brian Lara games, then i'm afraid you'll probably have the same issues here too, even if they have been toned-down a little. The online is admittedly very fun, but too much of the overall product is recycled for me. I have trouble looking passed the rehashed commentary, recycled animations, reheated physics and, worst of all, unfixed bugs. It might be the best cricket game on the system by default, but that's not enough to stop me giving it a distinctly average 5/10
5 / 10