Games Review: Ashes Cricket (PS4, 2017): Big Ant rack up an impressive strike rate

I know, I know, it’s a review of a cricket game. Those of you that don’t care about cricket have already regarded the headline of this piece with a disgusted look. Those of you that do like cricket are already wary. Video game representations of sports Australians like aren’t reliably … good. At all. But here’s the thing — Ashes Cricket actually is good. The pitch is occasionally a bit bumpy, but it doesn’t stop Big Ant’s confident leg spin from finding the stumps.

Now that I’ve gotten obligatory the cricket-terminology-as-decriptor segment out of the way, I can now talk about the game such that people who weren’t raised on a diet of 90’s and early 2000’s One Day Internationals can understand a word I’m saying.

Having left the Don Bradman name and license of their older games behind, Melbourne developer Big Ant Studios feel like they’ve been freed to make something more their own flavour. The sport’s elder statesman here in Australia, any game with Bradman’s name attached almost necessarily felt like it had to be a grounded, workman-like take. With Ashes Cricket, Big Ant are swinging for the fences in both mechanics and presentation.

The controls honestly feel like they’re a bit too deep on first inspection. There’s so many different ways the game allows you, just as a batsman, to attack the ball and none of them are as finicky as Bradman‘s always felt. Doing away with the older system where batting and bowling alike was performed with specific flicks of the control sticks, Ashes Cricket moves almost everything to the face buttons. This simple change instantly makes Ashes more accessible to new and returning players than Bradman ever was, but never diminishes the precision required to make or land a play.

Big Ant have overhauled the game’s player animations too which allows for much greater on-field awareness, especially for batsmen trying to read a fast bowler on the wind up. Everything’s much smoother now, more fluid, and the game’s readability even for cricket novices is now much greater. The new controls and the more precise animations ram home the importance of making the right play at the right time — misjudge the bowl and you’ll suffer the consequences. These improvements mean that I never minded or felt that the game was penalising or dismissing me unfairly. I could see quite clearly where I’d gone wrong and what to do next time. It feels like, if you’re making a sports sim, that should be par for the course, but let me tell you, it rarely is and to be able to clearly see that the game is being simulated properly and fairly as a critic and a fan is such a refreshing change of pace.

The opponent AI has also seen a few tweaks. It’s very good at picking on certain shots you prefer and adjusting its tactics or positioning accordingly to try and pressure you into messing up. This only works to a point, of course, and even on the harder difficulty levels I found that the computer could still make some weird, exploitable decisions from time to time. Sometimes it would read me completely wrong and arrange its fielders for a play I was never going to make in a million years, allowing me to chip through the defense for an easy four runs.

Ashes Cricket also features fully licensed men’s and women’s Australian and English squads and the model work from Big Ant is worth noting. Sports titles are known for having photorealistic recreations of real world players and Big Ant give it a red hot go. The result is a look that’s not quite as detailed as something with a megabudget like FIFA but a far cry from the indistinct blob battle of something like Rugby 18. Big Ant have clearly worked hard to get the little details right — walk cycles, expressions and gestures are all quite true to life and give the game the kind of Broadcast energy that so many other sports titles aim for and miss. The Australian women’s squad in particular deserves special mention with Big Ant recreating their expressions and mannerisms to extremely convincing effect. The game’s non-licensed teams look, move and are identifiable as human beings but do feel like they’ve all shown up to play for A Broad Gesture At A Map Of The World With A Big Question Mark Over The Entire South Asian Region rather than any particular team. That’s okay, Big Ant, I get it, baby steps, we’ll get that West Indies license next year.

It’s not all stadium-priced beer and skittles gameplay-wise however. I rant into a few persistent issues around the game simply getting ahead of itself. From slow motion replays to something as simple as appealing an umpire’s decision, sometimes the game would either kick in late or bow out early. Nail a drive and send a ball on its way to the boundary? There was about a one-in-four chance that the game would kick off an instant, slow motion replay and when it did, it would begin with the ball, in-flight, halfway to the fence. I don’t know if you’ve seen a cricket ball in slow motion, but it kind of just looks like a ball that isn’t moving. Not exactly riveting. Demanding a second look on a possible LBW from the umpire would switch the view over to the hot spot camera, which would then disappear before I could get a good look at it. Despite its otherwise very neat and tidy UI design, the game would do nothing at all to tell me what the actual result of that appeal was. Bit frustrating, and one of the only areas where it felt like the game was really short-changing me on the rules end.

The biggest presentational issue I had with Ashes Cricket was that the commentators apparently need to be poked with a sharp stick from time to time or they go to sleep. Whole overs would pass by without a word from the commentary team of Michael Slater, James Taylor and Mel Jones, to the point where I’d forget they were there. Then, out of nowhere, they’d speak up, scaring the absolute shit out of me, but only to complain that I hadn’t made the right call on a big swing. Look, Slats, only my mum gets to jump out at me with this sort of wild and un-asked-for criticism, get off my back.

With the exception of the narcoleptic commentary box, Ashes Cricket sounds exactly like what you’ve come to expect a televised cricket match to sound like. There’s the murmur of the crowd, the odd Barmy Army chant and the atypically feeble Australian responses, the sharp knock of hard leather on wood as the batsman connects and the ball goes flying. Players yell out to each other, the familiar “Yep YEP!” as a frantic sprint for the far crease begins, the excited “CATCH IIIIIT” as a ball is sent into the air. It’s good stuff, and Big Ant have really captured the game day feel of a live match with the eye of a long-time fan.

There’s a few rough edges here and there, but Ashes Cricket is without a doubt the best video game version the sport has ever had. With ongoing patches and community-created content, this will be one for fans to watch. Another huge feather in Big Ant’s well-decorated cap.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great look; Great feel; Great atmosphere
Lowlights: A few AI quirks that still need ironing out
Developer: Big Ant Studios
Publisher: Big Ant Studios
Platforms: PlayStation 4; Xbox One; Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.