Ashes Cricket (Playstation 4 Review)
Released a week before the Ashes series starts in Australia, Ashes Cricket is the latest attempt by Australian developer Big Ant Studios to create a cricket game that matches up to the success of the Brian Lara Cricket series from over a decade ago. Cricket games since then have become a cumbersome, enthusiast series with a very steep learning curve and an extreme lack of anything in the way of licensing. Ashes Cricket is a first in the latter regard, with both the ECB and Cricket Australia fully endorsing the title. Unfortunately, whilst the game does deliver the best cricket game available on modern consoles, the end result is one that, hopefully unlike England’s Ashes campaign, is tinged with disappointment.
Big Ant Studios have history with the genre, with the Don Bradman Cricket series showing plenty of promise in finally making an enjoyable cricket game. The problem with those games, however, was the complicated and unwieldy control scheme, requiring a lot of prior knowledge of cricket as well as an incredible amount of patience. Luckily, Ashes Cricket rectifies this with the options of two control schemes – the pre-existing dual analogue stick controls as introduced in Don Bradman Cricket return and are available for the purists of the series, whilst a more beginner friendly control scheme using the face buttons is now also available. For a fan of Brian Lara Cricket 2005, this immediately felt familiar and easy to use. Eventually though, I began to prefer the analogue controls for batting and the face buttons for bowling. Luckily, the flexibility of the control scheme allows you to mix and match as you wish.
For a genre which is, out of necessity, often lumbered with a complex control scheme, Ashes Cricket has an excellent tutorial system to get new and returning players up to speed. Covering all aspects of the game, and both control schemes, the tutorial is a nice interactive way to ease you into its world. However, the tutorial is where the first warning signs appeared for me. The game features a slow-motion reflex catch mechanic, where a ball going close to your fielder triggers a slow motion mini-game where you have to move the left stick until the cursor is in the circle and press X to execute the catch. In actual games, this is a fun and useful mechanic that allows you to feel in control of your fielders; in the tutorial, I was never able to complete even a single reflex catch, as the batsman would never hit a shot that would trigger the mechanic. I tried this for roughly 15 minutes, including restarting the game and console, and never once received a shot that would trigger it. Undeterred by this glitch, I decided to dive into the game for real.
In a game called Ashes Cricket, the main lure is of course The Ashes mode, and I’m delighted to say that this mode is the crown jewel. Featuring both mens and womens teams, fully licensed, The Ashes mode allows you to play through a full series of the eponymous cricket competition, including the 5 Test matches as well as the One Day Internationals and Twenty Twenty cricket matches. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Alistair Cook score a century at The
Gabba in the first test of the Ashes, and honestly it’s an experience that’s almost worth the price of admission alone for cricket fans. However, as I continued through the series, it became apparent that there were a number of problems that were souring the experience for me.
The biggest problem with the game is how glitchy it is. From wicket-keepers phasing through a batsman to stump the batsman out to a visual glitch where the outfield disappeared from focus so you can’t tell where the fielders are without looking at the radar, Ashes Cricket is crammed full of glitches. The most egregious glitch encountered was in the third day of a test match. Whilst bowling against Australia, the batsman drove the ball into the covers, and his colleague started running towards him. However, the batsman who had just struck the ball did not run, and stood frozen on the spot. The other batsman joined him at the crease and simply stood next to him. As the fielding team, I threw the ball towards the stumps and missed, so had to throw the ball down to the bowler’s end to run out the batsman. While this was happening, and it took about a minute due to the inaccuracy of my fielding, neither batsmen moved. It was a glitch that, while to my advantage, undermined the greatest feeling Ashes Cricket gave me – a sense of hard work accomplishing something.
Ashes Cricket is not an easy game, even on the lowest difficult settings, and it requires a lot of patience and time in order to see the most of it. When I finally bowl David Warner out when he’s about to reach his century, that’s a feeling of accomplishment that I rarely feel in other sports games. It’s amazing. However, for every hard-earned wicket or century I hit, the majority of my successes while bowling tended to come from glitches, and it felt like I wasn’t entirely responsible for my victories.
Conversely, while bowling and fielding can feel a bit unbalanced, the batting game is strong and the most entertaining aspect of the game. Simply put, smashing a fastball over the boundary for a six is exciting every time, and Ashes Cricket really makes you feel in control of that.
Visually, the game has a solid, if slightly washed out presentation, with the real life cricket grounds of the MCG and The Gabba looking great. The player likenesses, for the most part, are also excellent, with players like Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and Joe Root looking brilliant when you see them for the first time. The gloss and glamour of seeing these licensed players does slightly get marred by the terrible facial animations, including the eyes that make every player look like they’ve just stepped onto the pitch after going over the top at the Battle of the Somme. With their thousand yard stare, every close up has a slightly terrifying feel to it. Still, the fact that a cricket game has licensed players, even if they’re not perfect, is commendable. It does, however, highlight the fact that every other player and team is not licensed. This can be rectified via the download of replacement players and teams (including the proper logos and outfits) from the Cricket Academy community download hub, but this is still a time consuming process.
The commentary features real life professionals such as Michael Slater, but unfortunately this is not a positive. The commentary is, quite frankly, the worst I have ever encountered: it’s insipid, monotonously delivered and often incredibly repetitive. During one over, I heard the phrase “plays that defensively, good ball” five times in a row. With commentary so repetitive and so grating, it’s a better option for your own sanity to listen to music or a podcast while playing.
While the single player modes, such as the aforementioned Ashes Mode, the excellent Career mode and the custom Tour mode, provide hundreds of hours enjoyment, the online offering is slightly less accommodating to the casual player. In my experience, Online mode turned into an unfortunate whitewash at my own expense every time I played, being pitched against players with custom teams featuring the best players in the game in one squad. I was paired against the 8th in the world in my first game, and consequently received an absolute drubbing. With so few players playing online regularly outside of the die-hard enthusiasts, the casual cricket fan who fancies a game may wish to keep the experience offline.
Ashes Cricket is, therefore, a bit of a mixed bag. While I found myself enjoying great swathes of time playing through The Ashes with England, scoring centuries left and right with the excellent and tight batting controls, the sheer number of glitches upsetting the difficulty balancing for bowling and fielding meant that it truly was a game of two halves. Whilst the game is undoubtedly Big Ant’s best outing to date, the lack of polish meant that the game was slightly too frustrating to recommend to absolute newcomers to the genre. Given a few patches, this game will be easily an excellent addition to any cricket fan’s library, but right now, it’s just not quite the experience it could and should be.
Editors Note: A big thanks to Ryan (not Esler) for helping us out with this review. You can catch him on twitter @rlsandrey.