If I’m brutally honest, the princely sport of cricket has never captured my imagination. Not even mild stirrings are felt in the excitement cauldron as a round, red object is hit with essentially a glorified and horribly mistreated piece of wood. All the fuss over REAL world cricket never got the pulse going. In games, however, well that’s a completely different story. My romantic weekend spent in with the curtains shut and a copy of Brian Lara International Cricket 2007, however, ensured that a secret love for cricket games was kindled and kept. Now, with Ashes Cricket 2009, it appears that once again, it’s time to have a bit of a play with my bat and balls.
The menu system has a pretty clear offering, with a range of tutorials (which I badly, badly needed), match types and other general options including the ability to modify the theme of the menu screens based on your selected international cricket team. Needless to say, my screen was littered with lions from the off and having exhausted the diversionary offerings of the main menu, it was time to head on to the pitch and let my wood roar.
Being the foolhardy and reckless cricket player I make for in real life, I dove straight into the main, titular portion of the game, the Ashes tournament. After being soundly battered for a few overs, I decided humbly that I wasn’t as skilled as my anticipatory inklings had led me to believe and dove straight back out. It was back to basics, ABC building blocks, tricycles and stabilizers. I had to learn EVERYTHING – and who better to teach me than Mr. Shredded Wheat himself, Ian “Beefy” Botham, and Aussie cricket beast, Shane Warne?
As it transpired, there would have been many people who would have taught me my “batting basics”, I’d even go so far as to say my Grandma would have done a better job. The tutorials ensure you are well versed in the different types of shots, not by teaching them in any brilliant way, but rather hammering them blow after blow into your skull, treating your hippocampus like a lump of ham, ready for tenderizing with the whining, complaining and sometimes even threatening voice of Warne.
Having trudged like a thirsty pack mule through the arid deserts of the tutorials, which are themselves, at times, buggy, it was onto the giant frustration magnet of the actual game. The meat on the bone. The bail on the wickets. As accurately as it performs as a simulator of a sport, a game has to remain enjoyable to play. Happily, Ashes ticks those boxes leaving me laughing in mirth as I sink another poorly delivered Aussie bowl into the unsuspecting face of an unwitting crowd-member for yet another six. It offers moments of hysteria as you put ball after ball up and over the boundary, or as you bowl out an entire lineup’s worth of batsmen in a few simple throws of a ball. The problem comes when things aren’t going your way, and due to the miniscule scale of time that makes the difference between smashing that little red ball for a six and edging it right into the hands of a slip, this can be a frequent occurrence. There have been times where I’ve been about ready to get up from the comforts of my bed and bash the projected image of the fielder who caught me out to death with my controller. It must be considered though, that while it is easy to become frustrated with Ashes, these fleeting instances of frustration make your bouts of success all the better, leaving a grin spreading across your face as if you’d ACTUALLY won the Ashes.
With sports games, in addition to accuracy of simulation, which Ashes surely has, presentation is very important. Sadly, and for reasons I don’t understand, Codemasters appear to have burdened this stump-splitting cricket sim with extremely last generation graphics. Most of the crowd look as if their faces have been moulded out of dried faecal matter and their animations are jerkier than a quadriplegic wielding a jackhammer. The ground is barely textured, making the pitch visuals barren and unimmersive, completely and utterly letting down the effort that has clearly gone into making an accurate simulator of the supposed sport of Kings.
The visuals are not the only place I have quarrel with Ashes, either. While the commentary is sound with the voices of Jonathan Agnew, Tony Greig and Ian Bishop putting in their two pennies worth, the aural symphony of the crowd, of the bat hitting the ball, or the joyous celebrations after a catch, just isn’t captured. The sounds feel minimal and not developed enough, as if they were the sounds used when testing the engine to be added to later. Considering that the audio experience is so important in today’s world of 5.1 and sometimes even 7.1 surround sound, Codemasters have let themselves down greatly on this front.
As an ensemble, while some of the components let the side down in Ashes, the package hits a definite 6 for me. While it can bring your frustration levels to new heights and can make you more furious and wrathful than old-testament God, it always had me coming back for more. The satisfaction of smashing bowl after bowl out of the field entirely justifies the broken controllers and snapped game disks that will inevitably litter the floor of the once too often frustrated player.
In short, Ashes was always a game that would appeal more to cricket fans, those with a subscription to Sky Sports and the elderly in general, but that doesn’t mean that people falling outside of these groups should dismiss what is, in the end, a rewarding and often enjoyable game. Due to the rarity of cricket games in the release schedules, the lifespan of Ashes is at least a year and it’s tempting ‘come back for more if you think you’re hard enough’ feel will always have you coming back with a vengeance, only to edge your first ball right into the hands of a slip.