Look, it’s one of my favourite games of the year. That’s not much of a surprise for someone who has spent nearly 400 hours on virtual cricket.
But while it’s a given that I’d be equally as keen on Don Bradman Cricket 17 (DBC17), which launched early last week, it’s got some problems. So just like the Australian team should have after nearly letting Pakistan win the other day, let’s sit down and have a chat.
Club cricket is great, but it could use some more formats
Apart from the excellent inclusion of female cricketers, perhaps the biggest addition is club cricket. It basically adds another level of matches you have to play through before breaking into state cricket, whereas the career mode previously dropped you into the state side of your choice.
Adding grade cricket is fantastic. But it’s not fully fleshed out: the only form of cricket you’ll ever play for your club is a T20 match. The format is fine, but it means specialists – openers, strike bowlers and first choice spinners – get more of a run than all-rounders, part time spinners, or middle order batters.
If you’re the kind of player who likes to do a bit of everything (so, basically everyone from the ages of 12 to 60 outside of Grade 1 cricket) it means it takes a few matches longer before you have enough opportunities to grab the runs and wickets necessary to complete the game’s objectives.
Fortunately, improving your player is a matter of spending currency earned in between matches. That resolves the chicken and egg problem of DBC 14, whereby you had to repetitively bowl deliveries or perform shots your character sucked at in order to improve it. You were always risking your wicket in picking a sub-optimal shot for the sake of training, but one concession was that you could level up your character slowly in between matches with training sessions.
That’s not the case anymore; the nets is purely for training purposes. But wedging all players into T20 mode means you’re forced into manufacturing shots rather than waiting to pick off the bad balls, at least if you want to win. And the only way to ensure you have enough time to practice deliveries, picking gaps and relying on subtle variation is to ensure you either bat at the top of the order, or you’re one of the first few bowlers. Eventually you’ll get a run regardless (as a bowler, anyway), but club cricket could use those longer formats.
Quick time events and cricket do not mix
There was always a mini-game of sorts when it came to fielding, in the sense that you needed to be pushing the right stick in the correct direction to not bugger up the catch. But it wasn’t explicitly outlined, or deliberately highlighted. You got it right, or you got it wrong. That’s how it went.
Now, reflex catches kick off a Matrix-esque bullet time sequence, where you have to navigate the left stick towards a small circle. For a game that markets its authenticity, it plays out in an exceptionally bizarre way:
Oh and by the way – you still need to push the right stick towards the direction of the ball. And while there’s an extensive tutorial for batting and bowling, there isn’t one for fielding.
The whole mechanic is a little reminiscent of the MLB The Show series, and it’s the kind of thing EA would add if they were still making cricket games in 2016. It cheapens the experience, and given that you’re still at the mercy of your stats either way you have to ask why Big Ant added an element that slows down a sport that doesn’t have a reputation for speed as is.
The touchpad isn’t used at all
Given that the touchpad has been around as a feature for a few years – and Big Ant were aware of its existence when they launched DBC 14 on PS4 – it’s a little baffling as to why the touchpad serves no purpose in DBC 17.
It would have made a logical, if not perfect, shortcut for the fielding menu. Or the scoreboard. Or for making bowling changes. Or replays. Or literally anything else to reduce the amount of clutter in the UI, which brings me to my next point…
The UI needs a rework
It’s not often that a sequel takes several steps backwards. And while it could be argued that DBC14’s UI had to change – it was awfully reminiscent of something EA had made – it hasn’t been for the better.
From a practical standpoint, it takes too long to change basic options. It takes two button presses to change the field, a process that only took one in DBC14 (and given how important field placings are in any form of cricket, it’s a process that should only ever take one). Checking the flight path of the previous ball? That requires pausing the game, a minimum of three presses on the D-pad or left stick, and then another movement.
It needs a redesign. And it’s visually ugly. There’s parts that are obviously rushed, bits where text isn’t correctly aligned or the spacing is clearly off. One of the more egregious examples is the partnerships graph:
And there’s plenty of other instances that just look unfinished too. Here’s some screens from DBC17:
Now here’s their equivalents from the original Don Bradman Cricket:
It looks like a visual downgrade. The actual quality of the animations have improved – the ball doesn’t get sucked into a player’s hands like it was a black hole anymore – and there’s more detail and life around the pitch, from better grass, pitch textures and an animated crowd.
But there are so many instances that make you stop and think, “Wait, does that look worse than the game I bought three years ago?” (If you’re playing on PC, you won’t get DBC17 until January.)
There’s no cloud saves for your career, on console at least
It’s 2016, and cloud saves aren’t the DRS of video games. Come on, Big Ant.
Bugs, bugs, bugs
The old reverse throw
It’s not just club level players, but international stars too. Occasionally you’ll be starstruck as you watch a drive go past, only for your teammates to refuse to react or respond, standing in place as the ball runs to the boundary.
Another annoyance: when a player drops a catch, occasionally they’ll stand there shaking their head, wallowing in disappointment. That’s all well and good – it’s basically a weekly rite of passage for the under 15’s – but the batters don’t stop running in the process.
That’s not as annoying as pressing the simulation button, however, only to find your batter is stuck at the other end of the pitch:
— Alex Walker (@thedippaeffect) December 13, 2016
But the bowling is much better
The core mechanics of bowling and batting haven’t fundamentally changed – left stick controls footwork and delivery type, while the right stick determines the direction of your delivery or shot. Pace bowlers have seven types of deliveries, while spin bowlers have four, although spinners have the advantage of being able to control an additional amount of drift or bounce every ball.
That subtlety is part of the artistry of cricket. And the mechanic for spinners has been reworked slightly. Beforehand you would have to rotate the stick multiple times, almost Decathlon-style, and push up on the right stick to ensure the perfect delivery with the highest amount of turn/drift/spin/Shane Warne hair gel.
That’s still largely the case, although the need for speed has been reduced, and you only have to rotate the stick at least once. It’s a smart quality of life change, and it’s what any good sequel should do: improve on the ideas from the original game.
Although back foot shots are basically irrelevant for the most part
In cricket you get two options. If you’re going to hit the ball, you either do it off the back foot, or go on the front foot.
There’s pros and cons to both in real life, but not so much in DBC17. Front foot shots (at least on Legend difficulty, which is a fair enough challenge that it really should be the default) have a better margin of error, are more likely to reach the boundary, and are just less prone to get you in trouble.
For its faults, DBC14’s progression system meant you could skill up a player to be a front foot or back foot specialist. And it meant you could strengthen your effectiveness – and at least give you some measure of security when playing shots – on one foot or the other.
Instead, footwork is now a single attribute. That’s a shame, since it reduces the amount of effort needed to become a truly rounded player. But like DBC14 was at launch, the game is heavily biased towards the front foot right now (courtesy of where the AI bowls) so it’s probably irrelevant.
There’s plenty of customisations, for players and stadiums
Not everything’s two steps forward, one step back. The player customisations would be suited to a Fallout game, and the stadium creator is a boon to a community that was already thrilled with the ability to make players, bats, logos, billboards, and everything else you’d see in a game of cricket.
Remember, this is a game made in Australia by a small studio, about cricket. It’s not a AAA project – so the level of customisation is pretty impressive. And besides, it’s not right without a few Benson & Hedges ads on the sidelines.
A few important shots and animations are missing
The great promise of having the controls bound to the left and right sticks is, in theory, being able to replicate any shot – or at least the ability to hit anywhere on the ground.
And for the most part, it’s not too bad. But like DBC14, which took a few patches before players could hit a square drive, DBC17 has some batting blind spots.
The major oversight driving the community up the wall is the absence of a proper cover drive. Not having a proper square cut is a pain too – at the moment it’s more of a sideways stab, instead of the original game’s full blooded chop. Not being able to glance the ball fine off the front foot is a bit frustrating as well, considering the AI has a penchant for targeting your ankles.
But it’s still the best game of cricket
Cricket fans are a durable lot. The sport itself is about enduring, a test of patience, concentration, a battle against your own instincts as much as anything else. That’s certainly the case for people who somehow tolerate the hundreds of milliseconds of lag associated with online matches (given that outside Australia and England, a lot of fans hail from the subcontinent).
Don Bradman will get better with time. Most games do. But if you’re thinking about picking up Don Bradman Cricket 17 over Christmas for yourself or someone you love, know that this is what you’re walking into.
It’ll get better. Eventually.