Hands-on: Ashes Cricket 2009

icon_preview1It feels a little strange to be writing a preview for a game that’s going to be in stores within a week. But we were invited over to the Microsoft office to try out Ashes Cricket 2009, and of course we obliged. No one was able to confirm to me whether or not this was the final build, but this close to release, I’m going to assume that it was. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to play the demo on Xbox LIVE or have, but are still on the fence about whether or not to pick it up, hopefully this will help you out.

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For those who haven’t played the demo, it’s safe to say that, in terms of pure gameplay, this is probably the best cricket game yet. The core mechanics work great and the basics of batting and bowling are spot-on. Fielding is satisfactory as well, although the QTE-based catching system could have been better and fielders often give away one more run than they should.

Since I was well accustomed to the gameplay after having played the demo quite a lot, the first thing I did when I got my hands on the full game was to head into the Edit mode. The developers promised detailed and comprehensive customisation options, but anyone who’s played other sports games will realise that the player customisation here is as bare bones as it gets.

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You can rename players, but with the character models looking nothing like their real-life counterparts, you’d obviously want to change their look as well. But you can’t customise individual facial features such as eyes, nose, jaw, cheeks, etc like you can in other games. Instead, you’re required to pick from 60 preset heads, and the chances of finding the right look amongst those are pretty slim. Besides that, you can choose hair style and one of three skin tones – West Indies, India, and England. You can also edit kits for each individual player and pick from a selection of accessories from various brands.

Attributes can also be re-adjusted, but you’re restricted to distributing a fixed number of stat points across various batting and bowling skill attributes and you can’t increase or decrease a player’s overall skill. I was hoping that the team edit section would allow us to edit the team’s attire, but all you can do here is shuffle the squad around and select your ideal starting eleven.

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Once I was done with editing, I headed over to the Legacy training mode, which includes batting and bowling tutorials as well as challenges in the form of pivotal Ashes moments from over the years, which you’re required to relive. I didn’t spend much time here, but the tutorials seemed quite similar to BLIC/YSIC 2007.

What I was most interested in though was to find out if the AI in the full game was as erratic as it was in the demo, and I’m happy to report that that is not the case. I started an Ashes Test match on Hard difficulty and batted first. On the same difficulty level in the demo, I was able to comfortably score 40-50 runs in three overs. But here, I was all out for 72 within 12 overs. Bowlers bowled a consistent line and length and, more importantly, they bowled to their field.

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The difficulty also seems to have been tweaked here and timing is a lot more important than in the demo. I never felt the need to use the block button in the demo, but here there are times when you will have to. When the bowler bowls stump to stump and pitches it up (which they will do quite a bit), the only real stroke you can play is the straight drive. But chances are that if you time it right, fielders at mid-on or mid-off will cut it off. That is the positive outcome. If, however, you mistime the straight drive, you’ll either present the bowler with a caught-and-bowled opportunity, or if you go for a lofted straight drive, you’ll probably sky it and not even clear the infield. So rest assured, you will use the block button, and more so as you move lower down the batting order.

Another thing that may not be evident in the demo is how you will need to change your timing based on whose bowling. It doesn’t matter when facing Johnson and Siddle, because the timing required to face both is quite similar. But once someone like Watson comes on, you’ll need to readjust how soon into the delivery you play your stroke.

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A lot also depends on the confidence of your batsman. Going back to the stump-to-stump situation I mentioned above, for a batsman who is new to the crease, you’re best served to block or attempt a straight drive. But once you’re set and your confidence meter stands at ‘Confident’ or ‘Fearless’, you can attempt to play more square off the wicket, and a skillful player like Pietersen can often pull it off.

While I came away impressed with the batting, I can’t really say the same for bowling. Like in the demo, I was unable to take any wickets, even after going at it for 13 overs and trying every bowling option. I only had one catch opportunity which too went down on account of the finicky catching system. The AI plays both defensive and offensive strokes and also lets many go through to the keeper, but it just doesn’t seem to make any mistakes. Naturally, when that happens, you start trying something different, and get rewarded by getting walloped for 20 runs in the over.

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When you’re batting, the game lets you know after each shot what you did right and what you did wrong, but that isn’t the case with bowling. You’re never quite sure if you should continue to bowl the same way or try something different, because whether the AI hits you, blocks you, or leaves the delivery, it does it so reassuringly that you don’t really know if that approach is ever going to get you a break through. I sincerely hope that there is something I’m missing here because otherwise, this is going to be yet another cricket game where no one wants to bowl.

Still, I (rather leniently) see my inability to pick up wickets as more of a challenge than a deficiency in the game, and after playing for roughly two hours today, I am even more certain that Ashes Cricket 2009 is the best cricket game I’ve played.

Title: Ashes Cricket 2009
Developer/Publisher: Transmission Games/Codemasters
Genre: Sports
Rating: 3+
Release date: August 7, 2009
Platforms: PC (Rs 499), PS3 (Rs 1,999), Xbox 360 (Rs 1,999)

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