Since so many people outside the British Commonwealth—Americans in particular—seem lost on both the history and the point of cricket, this review will be preceded by a handy guide to both the sport and this game.
Cricket dates back to the 16th century. It's one of the world's most popular sports (thanks, India!). Some variations can last for five days, others for a single evening. This particular title—Codemasters' Ashes Cricket 2009—is named after the oldest of such competitions, The Ashes, a series between Australia and England that's been going since 1882.
Up to speed? Great. Then let's see how this game manages to capture the spirit of this historic, misunderstood sport.
Loved Attention to detail—The game features real player likenesses, names, sponsors, stadiums, TV-style graphical aides (Hawkeye!) and two teams even have fully licenced kits and logos. There's even a selection of real commentators, who do a great job with their long, varied conversations during the game's slower moments. Cricket games have never gone to this much trouble before, and it's definitely appreciated.
Quick Single—For such a tricky sport (to watch, play and understand), gameplay is remarkably easy to get a handle on. Comprehensive tutorials will help explain the nuances to non-players, while experienced types will just see the helpful on-screen guide buttons and go from there.
A for Effort—This game was developed by a small Australian studio by the name of Transmission Games. They are most definitely not EA Sports. Yet despite their small size and what was surely a tiny budget, they've got some areas of this game—particularly in terms of presentation—looking far more big budget than you'd expect.
Bowled Over—While there's some issues with batting in the game, bowling is a delight. It's intuitive, and on-screen displays let you adjust everything you need, from the line to the length to any swing you want to put on the delivery. Most pleasing is the way the game handles spin bowling, since most previous attempts at depicting it in cricket games have been dismal failures.
Hated Tail-Ender—Cricket isn't just a sport. Batting is so fluid, so open to interpretation that it's often labelled an art form. So it's a shame that the batting options in this game are so limited. You're restricted to a set template of moves that apply a shot depending on where the ball lands (which the game sometimes gets wrong), and because the perspective for the game is always from the bowler's point of view, it's difficult as a batsman to get an idea on the flight of the ball.
Silly Mid-Off—There are soul-crushing bugs throughout the single player game. Sometimes, you'll take a catch that's simply not recognised as a catch. There's a sweet spot where leg spinners bowling to right handed batsmen nearly always hit the stumps. I once bowled an over where I had four LBW appeals, all of which were shown to be right on the money, turned down. I could go on, but you get the idea.
"Players"—There have been attempts to make in-game players look like their real-life counterparts. Attempts. And while the likenesses are quite good considering the template used, the template used looks like it was based on the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Difficulty Spike—Perhaps in part due to the difficult batting mechanic, but mostly I think to do with the game's raw, unpolished state, single-player games suffer from a tremendous spike in difficulty. Even first-time players will find "easy" too little a challenge, yet playing the game for a week I could only win a single game on "normal", as poor opposition batsmen became supermen, and teams like Ireland and Bangladesh started playing like Australia or South Africa.
I so wanted to love this game. It's a cricket game, I'm a cricket fan. The fundamental controls for bowling are almost perfect, I'm happy to see somebody making retail cricket games again after a two-year hiatus, and it's come at the perfect time to cash in on Ashes fever in Britain and Australia.
But the game is just too…under-done. Too raw, too broken. Single-player glitches and a punishing difficulty spike make the game attractive only as a multiplayer game, and even then, the game's dodgy AI (especially for umpire appeals and running between wickets) will eventually lead to arguments between friends or swift disconnects.
Still, the foundations are there. Hopefully the team at Transmission Games can build upon the parts they've got right first time around, fine-tune the disjointed AI and dodgy mechanics, and rebound next year with a cricket game that fans of the sport can really look forward to.
Ashes Cricket 2009 was developed by Transmission Games & Gusto Games, and published by Codemasters for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (version reviewed), PC & Wii. Released on August 7 in PAL territories. Played Twenty20 series to completion, ODI series and test match to completion. Tested local multiplayer on PS3 review copy (my PS3 is currently unable to connect to the PSN, though the game does support online multiplayer).