You may not have noticed, but the biggest event on the international cricket calendar is poised to get under way: the England team is in Australia for an Ashes series, commencing 23 November 2017.
Cricket nowadays feels like a rather neglected sport – the England and Wales Cricket Board's disastrous decision to take coverage away from the terrestrial TV channels in 2006 caused its profile to plummet, culminating in the even more insane decision to award the rights for the current Ashes series to BT Sport (not even Sky Sports). And cricket-loving gamers have cause to feel equally neglected: cricket games are so rare they deserve to be placed on the endangered list.
So Koch Media – especially since it's a German company – deserves massive respect for publishing Ashes Cricket: a game bearing the official Ashes licence and developed by Australian outfit Big Ant Studios, with much input from the Australian Cricket Board.
Batting and bowling
Anyone who has played cricket knows that the game's chief strength lies in its sheer complexity – which supports a more diverse range of skills plus greater subtlety and nuance than any other sport, from the gentle art of spin-bowling to the sheer brutality of unleashing 90mph-plus missiles at a batsman's head (as anyone lucky enough to see the first Ashes Test at the Gabba in Brisbane will witness).
Unfortunately, anyone who hasn't played cricket is liable to find it baffling. And the same applies to Ashes Cricket: as a game it assumes a pretty intimate level of knowledge of the sport. If you don't know what a doosra is or where forward short leg stands, it's a safe bet that it isn't the game for you.
However, Ashes Cricket also has the most accessible and logical control system we've ever encountered in a cricket game. To be precise, it has two control systems which you can choose between – and you can choose one for bowling and the other for batting, if you want. The best of the two is called Easy, and it combines directional use of the left stick with timed button-pressing (the other system, Classic, uses both sticks).
When bowling, you can select just about any type of delivery – in-swing, away-swing, or even leg and off-cutter or scrambled-seam balls – plus the length (which can be fine-tuned using the left and right bumpers), before setting the speed and direction when you hit the timed button-presses. In other words, there's all the fine control you could ever want, and the same applies to spin-bowling. The only thing Ashes Cricket lacks is some sort of reverse-swing engine – it fudges that issue by letting you impart swing even when the ball would have become old and soft.
When batting, the button you hit determines your general approach to the shot (defensive, aggressive, aerial and so on), and the left stick takes care of shot-selection. You can also force your player onto the front or back foot, or to abandon orthodoxy in favour of uppercuts, ramp-shots and the sort of fare routinely seen in Twenty20 games.
If you've ever played a cricket game, you will feel instantly at home with Ashes Cricket's control system – indeed, you'll be impressed with its lack of fiddliness – but there's a comprehensive tutorial which takes you through all its nuances, which is well worth trawling through.
Strictly for the fans
Structurally, Ashes Cricket provides pretty much all of the options that any cricket-nut would want. You can jump straight into an Ashes series – impressively, the default England team in the game leaves out the currently limbo-bound Ben Stokes, although if England do submit meekly to Australia without him, you can easily draft him into your virtual team for some what-if speculation.
There's an intriguing Career mode, which can be played a number of ways. You can design a cricketer from scratch, and work your way up from club sides to the international stage. Or you can play as an existing cricketer, taking on contracts to play in various competitions around the world.
There's a role-playing-style level-up system which allows you to improve specific skills (although, playing as Jimmy Anderson, it cost vast amounts of Experience Points to upgrade his already-sublime bowling skills).
In each game you play, you can opt to control either your entire team or just your player, fast-forwarding in that case between bowling or batting spells.
You can also embark on full international tours (with or without warm-up games, or you can design your own fictional ones), as well as just about any cup competition that exists in world cricket, from the Women's Kiwi Cup right up to the T20 World Championship. Admirably, women's teams are well represented in Ashes Cricket. As with the men's teams, only England and Australia are fully licensed, so if you play any other international teams, their players all have fictional names – even if their stats might be based on those of real players.
For inveterate tinkerers, the Cricket Academy lets you design your own player in great detail, along with things like fictional logos for bat sponsorship and even stadia. Perhaps more importantly, Ashes Cricket lets you play online against your mates, something that precious few existing cricket games support. The online side of the game operates as smoothly as you would expect in this day and age.
There are downsides to Ashes Cricket, most of which stem from the fact that it was created by a small, specialist developer and published by a company which is far from being a corporate behemoth.
The most obvious is that it doesn't exactly possess the sort of production values you'll find in the likes of FIFA 2018. The Australian and English men's and women's teams were all scanned for the game, but the results aren't hugely convincing: most of them look vaguely like their real-life counterparts, but the Uncanny Valley crops up more often than not. But it's only really when players are coming out to bat or on to bowl that this becomes a problem.
Graphically, there's a notably texture-free vibe, which you soon get used to, but nevertheless it looks pretty old-fashioned. At least the animations are thoroughly convincing. But the commentary is appalling – when it isn't getting on-field events completely wrong, it's terminally repetitive. Turning it off is a merciful option.
But those are all the sort of drawbacks you would expect from a game which didn't have a development budget akin to the GDP of a small South American country.
All the important elements of Ashes Cricket – how it plays and its underlying structure – are absolutely spot-on, so if you're a cricket enthusiast and can forgive the graphics and commentary then it's simply the finest cricket game you can get your hands on.
It's also perfectly set-up to give you a great chance to vicariously redress any humiliation a Ben Stokes-less England might encounter in the coming months Down Under. Howzat!?
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