There’s a lot of things you can mutter the phrase “It’s just not cricket” at, but Cricket 19 is not one of them. That’s mainly because, though it’s in video game form, it is actually cricket. Just in time for what is bound to be one of the biggest cricketing summers for fans, what with the Cricket World Cup starting at the end of May, and the Ashes through the height of summer, Big Ant Studios have returned with another entry in their cricket series.
Though it has an audience that spans the globe, cricket isn’t a sport for everyone. Many in the UK will just tune in for the Ashes (just like those who pay no attention to tennis outside of Wimbledon), but given it’s huge popularity throughout the rest of the Commonwealth it’s perhaps a little surprising that it doesn’t have more of a presence in video games, similar to how MLB The Show does for baseball.
Speaking to Big Ant’s Development Director Mike Merren, he said, “It’s a weird one, and you could go into great detail over what the sport has going for it and not going for it, but the key thing with baseball is that it’s all under one big umbrella. You’ve got MLB, they own everything, and everything about it can be given to someone as a license and off they go. For cricket, yes it’s a global reach, in the commonwealth countries anyway, but you’ve got people who are fans of T20 cricket, people who are fans of test match cricket, you’ve got guys who are into Indian Premier League, you’ve got county cricket… it’s so diverse.”
With their licenses only covering the England and Australia teams, he admitted, “Right now, with the best will in the world, we’ve got a game that will appeal in England and Australia. It still has some reach in the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, but it’s still not exploding in India because it hasn’t got that IPL license.” Still, the plucky community can dip into a mode that lets you customise uniforms, players and more that can be shared online, similar to PES.
One thing that does help is that the game’s relatively easy to pick up and play. You’re given plenty of different camera angles, from behind the batsman to first person bowling, or just a traditional TV-style angle when playing local multiplayer. Thanks to the on-screen UI displaying all the options, the controls are relatively straightforward to figure out as well.
On the bowling side of things you simply select the type of ball you want to deliver, angle it slightly as you take the run up and hit the mark on the two consecutive power meters. As a batsman, it’s a case of getting your position at the crease, picking a shot direction and type, and then timing it right. With the bowling and batting difficulties at their lowest, the timing is at it’s loosest for both, with a healthy dose of assistance on shot direction for the batsman.
Mike said, “I think when you’re on easy, especially if you’re on easy batting, I’d say it’s probably skewed more towards the batsman as opposed to the bowler. But as you take the levels up, and if you’re more on medium or hard, you’re going to find that difficulty levels up quite quickly, and that actually the bowling becomes the one that you want to do more.”
Thanks to this, playing on easy let me spot the gaps in the field and let rip, racking up fours and sixes like nobody’s business until a bit too much recklessness sent balls into waiting hands. Stepping the difficulty up a notch and it definitely takes more effort and concentration to get it to come together, the timing shifting around a little – you see after a ball how you did with various ball and shot selections, as well as timing.
Some of a batsman’s performance comes from their building confidence through an innings, which builds as you select the right shot for the occasion and loosens up the timing for your shots – “if you want to win matches you’ve got to block the ball sometimes.”
However, there’s more to consider here, from the deterioration of the ball through the overs, making spinners more useful, through to the effects of weather. Mike explained, “Overcast skies, as much as scientists will say doesn’t affect the swing of the ball, I think you can talk to any fast bowler and they’ll say they totally believe that it does affect the ball. So our game does, because I think anybody who’s into cricket at all will expect that to have an effect.”
Of course, as a first time player, a lot of that nuance was probably lost on me, and I was more trying to get a handle of the basic strategy at play. What should I look for in a ball’s path for shot selection? Can you really build an over to try and lull someone into a trap? It’s definitely there, but it’s something that would take much more play time to figure out.
“We’ve brought this into the AI,” Mike told us. “In terms of the bowling strategy that they’ve got, they will effectively bowl to their fields. They know the batsman, and the different skills that that are attributed to the players and their weaknesses. So one might be a hook shot as one of the weaknesses, so they’ll put a fielder out deep and then entice them with some bouncers to do that.
“The AI will definitely try to entice you to do those kinds of shots, especially because as you go up the levels, to do it correctly, you’ve got to get your footwork right, get the shot type right as well as the timing. So if they’re putting a bouncer at your head, you’ve got a choice to duck and miss it, or do that hook shot and get on top of it to bring it down. Mistime it slightly and off it goes, you’re out.”
Of course, playing against another human and a lot of that can be thrown out of the window. In that instance, Mike continued, “It’s more to do with their ability than it is the actual batsman. You might know them and, for whatever reason, they might be weak against spin because the timing window changes slightly, the ball’s slower, whatever it is. So as soon as you know this, you can bring the spinners on to affect him, or just change one so that one end’s got the spinner, one end’s got the pace bowler, and that can screw up people’s timing if they’re not concentrating.”
Even at the best of times, cricket isn’t a fast-paced sport, and even speeding things up through the magic of video games, a T20 match, let alone one day or test match are going to take a good bit of time to play through. It’s a blessing that Big Ant have got a short and sweet five over mode that can be stuck on for a quick blast.
“We’ve got a good range there,” Mike said, “from the more simulation side, if you want to call it that, through to the more arcade. I like to call our game a sandbox cricket game; with all the creator tools and being able to tailor the rules to how you want to play it with the match designer, it is a sandbox. Bring some players down from the server, create some bats, put in some rules, set up a tournament and away you go. It’s all there for someone to create whatever they want.”
Cricket 19 ticks a lot of boxes. It looks pretty decent, the gameplay mechanics are solid if a bit robotic when fielding, there’s both realistically long and ultra-short forms of the game to take on, and it’s coming out this month ahead of what’s going to be a summer-long feast of real world cricket for fans. The trick will still be getting more people to pick it up, so Big Ant are taking it to the sport’s fans: “As this series starts and the world cup starts, there’ll be lots of chances for people to actually get exposed to the game and have fun at the grounds. There’s actually going to be booths around each of the grounds for the world cup.”
Maybe they’ll even put one next to the Pimm’s bar for the members at Lord’s to give a go.