Let's be honest, it's hard to make cricket exciting in a video game. It's hard enough to make it exciting on telly. You know you've got a job on when half the players on the field spend most of their time signing autographs or having a drink. But that hasn't stopped Codemasters from giving it a shot with Ashes Cricket 2009, due out for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer.
Thankfully, Ashes isn't cricket for casuals, as a few hours hands-on with the game proved. Nor is it the intimidating and complicated proposition its predecessor, Brian Lara, was. It fits somewhere in between, with a bowling and batting system that's easy to grasp, but in-depth enough to impress cricket enthusiasts.
Brian Lara fans, however, might lament Codemasters' decision to ditch arguably the greatest batsman ever from its cricket game. You can understand it, though. Lara's retired, probably sunning himself on a white-sanded West Indian beach, sipping cocktails as he counts his money mountain as you read this. Releasing a Brian Lara game in 2009 would be like having Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (the greatest striker ever to play the game of football... didn't you know?) on the cover of FIFA 2010. So, given that cricket's at its most popular in the summer during the Ashes, we have Ashes Cricket 2009.
Cricket fans will want to know how it plays, and the answer is... really well. Batting and bowling have been modified somewhat from the multi-tasking mayhem of Brain Lara to allow players who simply want to hit the ball with nary a care for the intricacies of batting to do so, and to allow experts to put into virtual practice their superior knowledge. So, at its most basic, the left thumb stick is rotated to govern where you want to aim the shot, and a well-timed press of the A button (on the 360 pad, the version tested) will, hopefully, smack the ball for a boundary. Job done.
Aficionados, however, will want more, and they'll get it. Holding the left trigger puts your stance on the back foot, and the left bumper puts your stance on the front foot (you can let the computer decide, but it might get it wrong). This makes the direction of your shots much more accurate. Combining this with different types of shots and well-timed button presses gives you access to all the shots you'd expect a professional batsman to have up his sleeve. The X button, for example, triggers a defensive shot, and your batsman will play a straight bat. If it's smartly aimed you'll be able to annoy the bowler by sneaking singles here and there (running is queued by pressing the Y button, B cancels). B lofts the ball, which puts your shot in danger of being caught but can reap rewards. The success of the shot, however, is more to do with timing than anything else. Pressing the button about half a second before the ball hits the ground seemed to work well in the coaching modes, but during a game you'll need to vary your timing to cope with missiles that are being chucked down your throat. It's initially fiddly, but, after 20 minutes or so, becomes intuitive, fun and, most important of all, satisfying.
The timing principle that governs batting also applies to bowling. You pick the kind of ball you want to play - slow, outswing or straight for a fast bowler; arm, offspin or topspin for a spinner - and, during the run up use the left thumb stick to move a reticule that determines where the ball will land. If you can move it into a position where it turns light green, then you know you're bowling a good line. An execution meter then pops up on screen, which requires you to press the appropriate face button to release the ball. The idea is to stop the needle in the light green section, just before the red-coloured top part of the meter - press it too late and you'll bowl a no ball. Light green is what you want for placement and execution. You're also able to add swing with the triggers - it's hugely satisfying to get a nick with an outswinger. The whole process sounds complicated, and at first it is, but, like batting, it soon becomes second nature.
An interesting mechanic that runs over both batting and bowling is confidence. Your batsmen will start at the crease as "Timid", and part of your job is to slowly build up their confidence while decreasing the bowler's. As a batsman you can build up your confidence by spending time at the crease and scoring runs. As a bowler you can gain confidence and reduce the batsman's by forcing defensive shots and putting him under pressure with good deliveries. Right now it's unclear just what impact confidence will have on player abilities, but it's safe to assume the likelihood of getting out or getting hit for a boundary will increase. Talking of fielding, it's largely governed by the AI, as was the case in Brian Lara, but you can choose what end of the wicket you want the fielder to return the ball to, and there's a ton of fielding formations to tinker with if you fancy yourself a captain.
Although the mechanics of actually playing the game have been streamlined somewhat, outside of this Codemasters' hasn't pulled any punches with its commitment to realism. The weather and the wicket plays a huge part in a test match, as it does in real life. When setting up an exhibition, for example, you're able to tweak temperature, cloud cover, wind, light, wicket wear and ball types. As a five-dayer progresses, the wicket changes to simulate how it would degrade in real life. But there's only so much you can alter before a match - pitches are based on a play style that's tied to where it is in the world. An Indian wicket, for example, will be dry and crumbling, meaning spin bowlers will have a field day putting the ball on mischievous cracks.
All this talk of test match cricket might make you wonder how Twenty20 fits in. Well, 20 over matches are in the game, complete with US-style fanfares whenever runs are scored, but Codies doesn't have the official license, so can't actually call it Twenty20. Some fans will inevitably be disappointed by this. Others won't mind.
Of more concern are the graphics. A lot of animation work is clearly still to be completed, both on the bowler, the batsmen and the fielders. The fidelity of the graphics is solid, rather than spectacular. The pitches stand up well upon close inspection, the player faces are suitably detailed and the clothing's great, but the game's got nothing on the likes of the latest FIFA and Madden games. The crowd looks awful up close, too, as you'd expect, but from a distance they're not too bad.
Perhaps making up for any potential graphical deficiencies is how "official" everything is. Ashes 2009 is the "official game of the summer", as Codies puts it, meaning all the players' likenesses are officially licensed, and commentary comes from the voices you hear on telly (there's ten times as much commentary as the last Brain Lara game). In the coaching modes, Ian "Beefy" Botham and Shane "teetotal" Warne banter with each other as they show you the ropes. Every major team will be included, and the odd special team too (Codemasters XI, for example). On the multiplayer side of things, one versus one online play will be supported, as well as two-player local play, as you'd expect. There are tons of unlockables, too, including stadiums, different bits of kit and live action clips of Ashes matches gone by. It's clear that anyone looking for a long-lasting and authentic cricket experience will find here.
Ashes Cricket 2009 looks at this stage like a worthy successor to the Brain Lara series. Batting and bowling have been streamlined but there's enough depth to make it difficult to master. The graphics need some work, but the official licenses should please cricket fans. Watching the game being played will still no doubt be a snorefest, but playing it... well, that should keep cricket fans of all types happy.
Ashes Cricket 2009 is due out on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer.