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TVG adjusts its protective cup as Codemasters bowls a yorker with Ashes Cricket 2009...
Unlike The Ashes series of 2005 and 2007, there's only one cricket game to play alongside this year's competition. The previous holder of the official Ashes license, EA Sports, has decided to forego an accompanying title this year, which has left Codemasters with a dolly catch. Now safely at its crease with the all-important license, the only thing stopping Ashes Cricket 2009 from scoring a double century in an empty marketplace is the game itself, and we're glad to say that it doesn't disappoint.
However, to say that the game is fully licensed would be grossly inaccurate - 18% official would be much closer to the mark. England and Australia are fully licensed throughout, which includes one-day games, Twenty20 matches and of course The Ashes mode. The other 10 international sides in the game (there are no domestic teams) are unofficial, which means playing with cricketers like C. Goile, S. Tenhukkar, and S. Ahkman instead of Chris Gayle, Sachin Tendulkar, and Shoaib Akhtar (although Akhtar, or rather Ahkman, does retain his trademark bowling style). However, a full player editing suite has been provided in the game for those of you with lots of time on your hands.
All Ends Up
Beyond all of these licensing cosmetics though, the one thing that Codemasters' previous Brian Lara games always had over their EA rivals was superior gameplay. True to form, Transmission Games has retained the series' focus on quality by developing what is, without doubt, the finest cricket game ever made. It's easy to look back at the Brian Lara games through rose tinted spectacles (the summer of 2005 was a magical time) but, in all objectivity, Codies' last two Lara titles were fundamentally flawed in some critical areas and Ashes Cricket has ironed out these flaws completely.
These inadequacies included a manic confidence system, canned animations across the outfield, and rudimentary batting physics. In turn, the poor confidence system made it difficult to build a steady test match run rate, canned animations affected a player's immersion in the game, and rudimentary batting physics made dismissals from edged shots a rarity. Put another way, a quick 10 over match of Brian Lara Cricket was good fun but a full test match was painfully frustrating.
Transmission Games has clearly identified these issues and spent a lot of time fixing them. For example, Ashes Cricket's new confidence system is much more finely balanced, allowing batters to build up their confidence gradually without the meter being decimated for a minor mistake. This allows players to keep a realistic test match run rate of between three and six runs per over without sacrificing batter confidence in the process. At the bowling end, retaining confidence requires an unrelentingly tidy line and length as well as a varied mixture of deliveries. It's perhaps a touch too difficult to rebuild a bowler's confidence once they've been batted around a bit but the system does reward steadfast consistency and strategic thinking, which fans of the sport will enjoy.
The ways in which it's possible to dismiss a batter are also a lot more dynamic thanks to improved physics. Edging shots into the covers as a result of poorly timed or badly chosen shots is now a constant threat in Ashes Cricket, which not only makes batting more realistic but also opens up more bowling strategies. We've literally spent hours drifting outswingers down the 'corridor of uncertainty', while the new reverse swing deliveries add even more tactical nuances. At the same time, however, Transmission Games has perhaps made it a little too hard to beat batters all ends up. The AI will defend its stumps stoically at all times, which makes dismissals from run-outs or catches much more likely avenues of success.
Speaking of run-outs, the AI does get unstuck in this area from time to time. On more than a few occasions we experienced batters going for an extra run when the ball was already on its way back to the stumps and, in some of the more extreme examples, the batter's judgment bordered on suicidal. Bowler AI is not without its problems either, such as a tendency to veer away from line and length deliveries for whole overs at a time. We're not against the odd bouncer or yorker but a whole over of them seems a little unrealistic, particularly when it's so easy to score runs off these deliveries with minimal risk once you've got a batter's eye in.
Perhaps the biggest improvement that Ashes Cricket has made over Brian Lara 2007, though, is in its graphics and animations. The Xbox 360 version of Lara '07 was basically the previous-gen game spruced up with HDR lighting effects and an all-too-generous application of heat hazing. Not only can Ashes Cricket now hold a candle to the graphical standard on current-gen consoles, but the animations are varied enough to immerse players in the experience and heighten the gameplay standard all-round.
This variation in animation is particularly noticeable when fielding a shot. Fielders will either chase the ball and stop it on the ground before coming back to throw it, or can sometimes muster the skill to pickup and throw it in one fluid motion. Unlike the Lara games, these throws are performed automatically but vary in their accuracy (depending on the skill of the fielder in question). Some throws land straight on the stumps, every so often the bowler won't get back in time and a fielder will back them up behind the stumps, and very occasionally the fielder's throw is way off target (sending the ball back into the outfield as a result).
At first it might seem unwise to make the fielding automatic in this way, thereby minimising gamer interaction, but it does make for a more varied fielding experience overall. For a start, it makes batters question their runs a lot more, but players can also pick which end of the wicket that they field the ball to, which is often the difference between being safe and a run-out. The gameplay is certainly satisfactory in this sense, but where it really comes alive is with the catches. Some impressive slow-mo camera work and a devilishly quick reticule over the ball (which turns from red to green to indicate the right time to catch) make each attempt a hefty challenge while injecting some nerves and adrenaline into the action.
We could go on and on about the inspired tweaks that Transmission Games has made with Ashes Cricket (like the more realistic bowling mechanics that put an end to Lara Cricket's ridiculous inswinging off cutters) but the fact of the matter that is that pretty much every area of the game is superior to the previous Lara titles. True to the sport itself, Ashes Cricket is deceptively straightforward at first but, under the surface, there are a wide range of tactical nuances and fine skills to master.
Having said all of this, Ashes Cricket does start to fall down where content's concerned. All in all, there's the well rounded Ashes mode and the option of playing one-day games, Twenty20 matches, or test series between any of the 12 international sides. Codemasters and Transmission Games have also put their own development teams in to bolster the line-up, as well as Asia XI and Rest of the World XI dream teams, but avid cricket fans will certainly be left yearning for more. One-day and Twenty20 matches can be played as either Exhibitions or basic Tournaments of up to eight teams, while all the different match types are available as either ranked or unranked online multiplayer games, but that's about as far as the options go.
Codemasters has requisitioned the coaching talents of Ian Botham and Shane Warne for the supplementary Legends Coaching mode, which is probably the most enjoyable game tutorial we've played all year. As well as lessons on some of the game's finer aspects, there are also some historical scenarios to sink your teeth into as well (including Warney's famous 'ball of the century'), so the mode certainly bolsters content in this respect. A wide range of unlockable content - from stadiums to skill points for specific players - are dished out via some nifty in-game achievements as well, but there's still no avoiding the fact that Ashes Cricket isn't a huge game by any stretch of the imagination.
As far as sound is concerned, Ashes Cricket's commentary team can't be faulted really. After all, who can argue with Jonathan Agnew, Tony Greig, and Ian Bishop? Blowers and Richie Benaud would've been nice but you can't have everything. Some of the dialogue can get a little repetitive over the course of a 5-day test match, although that's kind of inevitable really - the commentators would have to spend eons in the recording studio otherwise.
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