There’s no doubt about it: the Ashes is the biggest spectacle in the world of leather-on-willow, yes-we-have-a-break-for-tea, professional cricket. Step forward Don Bradman Cricket dev Big Ant Studios (they’re Aussies - we’ll try not to hold that against them…), for their first foray into the light of a - at least partially - licensed sports game, with the creatively titled Ashes Cricket.
In a bid to reach a wider audience, Big Ant has implemented two separate control systems; Classic (from DBC) uses the analogue sticks to control foot movement and bat, then line and length when bowling, whilst Standard primarily utilises button presses, with the left stick used to aim in a more arcadey set-up.
The latter is great for an introduction, but you’ll find batting becomes ridiculously easy (Big Ant’s cricket games are usually hardcore in their difficulty) with balls often sailing over the fence. We scored at at least 10 runs per over in every test match we played using standard batting controls, with a lowest team total of 369 all out, and that was on the hardest difficulty setting... Comparatively, getting the same total on DBC17 on easy difficulty took a lot of patience and luck.
What fun it is to have your whole team scream "OWZAT?" at the press of a button.
When it comes to bowling, the simple button press set-up of the Standard control method certainly helps with accuracy, so we'd suggest giving it an extended go before switching to the analogue stick-led Classic controls.
The final - and perhaps most welcome - addition to this edition of virtual cricket is the excellent use of motion capture. DBC17 had some hideous animations for certain strokes (cut shot, we’re looking at you), and every bowler delivered the ball in the exact same way. Well, this is no longer the case, as Big Ant has enlisted the help of Australian stars like Glenn Maxwell, to ensure that batting is more fluid and picturesque, and bowling is more convincing.
There are welcome returns too with the lovely catching mechanic - a sort of QTE event where you match a reticule up with the moving ball to complete the catch - user-controlled appealing (what fun it is to have your whole team scream “OWZAT?” at the press of a button…), robust academy creation suite (players, teams, logos, stadia), and the career mode time-sink. The latter is especially splendid, as you take your player from club cricket all the way to Ashes glory, giving the game massive longevity.
Unfortunately though, it’s not all good news for Big Ant. Bugs and glitches are a bit of a problem here; fielders warp randomly into place, pitch cracks vanish sporadically, catches are taken with one hand whilst the player looks in a different direction, and perhaps worse - and we’ve had this happen three times already - you’ll get someone out only to find that they are still batting next ball, seemingly oblivious to what previously occurred! It’s here where Big Ant really fall down, but knowing their history for swift patches, we imagine this’ll be put straight soon.
To add further fuel to the disappointment fire, however, we must mention the commentary. The audio in general is much, much better this time around - the ball hitting the wicket keeper’s gloves is particularly meaty and satisfying, as is the inclusion of the Barmy Army's chants - but even Michael Slater’s presence can’t save the commentary. Phrases are regularly behind the action, or are off the mark entirely. It’s amusing, but it lets the on-screen action down.
So, as we reach stumps on the final day, we find ourselves largely impressed with this latest cricket offering from Big Ant. Online matches might be hard to find, and sure, we would’ve adored a classic Ashes scenario mode - imagine Edgbaston 2005, or Headingly 1981, or Adelaide 2006, etc. - but the core experience is excellent. For a sport starved of quality video games, Ashes Cricket stands with urn raised, celebrating victory. Take our word for it, chums: this is a must-have for lovers of the gentleman’s game.
The tough-old-bugger’s game of Rugger Union has never really received the video game it deserves. With that in mind, Bigben Interactive (Rugby 15, Rugby World Cup 15) step forward for their latest attempt at righting that wrong, with the outrageously titled Rugby 18.
Scrums droop from a complete lack of antagonistic weight, too. The bind, set, engage motions are performed with the sticks or triggers, and then it’s up to you to line up a reticule with a side-to-side shifting semi-circle to drive your players forward. In principle this system could work, but it sorely lacks the guts required of the sport’s true test of strength.
Mauls can feel great when you push towards the line and touchdown for a try, but just like the scrummages, you never truly get the impression that you’re in a battle. The lack of feedback in the controller across all of the aforementioned is a truly odd omission too, especially when you consider how combative a sport rugby is.
Tackling is perhaps the worst offender of them all though, with players often launching themselves in the opposite direction of the action, resulting in you losing ground, or conceding a try easily. The game also seems to decide on a whim when to activate a high tackle or mistake; it never really felt like our bad timing or placement was the reason behind it. A button especially mapped to serve as the “aggression” tackle could have helped to balance these injustices, and probably would’ve pushed the fun meter up, too.
Special mention must go to the wonderfully jumbled, constantly-behind-the-action commentary from Nick Mullins and Ben Kay.
It won’t come as any surprise to hear that the visuals and audio on offer grade from average down to abysmal, either. Menus are serviceably basic, but the in-game player models and pitch look absolutely ancient when stacked alongside the recently released Rugby League Live 4, not to mention the Madden’s and FIFA’s of this world. The visuals take an especially large dip in the jumpy, jittery, cauliflower-ear-ugly replays, too.
Special mention must go to the wonderfully jumbled, constantly-behind-the-action commentary from Nick Mullins and Ben Kay. It’s one thing for every other sentence to be fused with differing amounts of expression and enthusiasm, but Rugby 18 manages to take aural-description to new levels, with each word sounding as if it was recorded in different parts of the world, with swiftly swaying adjustments to phrasing. It is unabashedly heinous, but by jove is it hilarious to drink in.
Modes are on the stingy side as well, sadly. There’s quick match in local and online flavours, league mode - potentially fun once you put the gameplay atrocities to one side - career and my squad. The latter two are Rugby 18’s attempt to do an EA Sports; you’re tasked with building a team from scratch, with the former providing some depth as you climb the divisions, and the latter providing none as you are limited to just quick matches, with no divisional structure or merriment.
So, as the hooter sounds for the end of the match, we can’t help but feel dejected. There are some reasonable crumbs hiding amongst the rubbish, with many licensed club and international teams, a weekly challenge mode, an excellent quiz mini-game in the loading screens, and reasonably girthy league and career modes, but the frequently dross gameplay takes hold early on, snuffing out enjoyment any time you catch a faint whiff of it. With that in mind, folks, take our word for it: punt Rugby 18 into touch.
It’s that time of the year again, chums, as the smell of fresh-cut grass, drink-driving scandals, early managerial sackings, and fair-day's-work-for-a-fair-day’s-pay all combine to create the lopsided world of professional football. The new season brings with it the age old autumnal conundrum: FIFA or PES? We’ve gone in two-footed to bring you back a real piece of Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 to help answer that trickiest of questions.
From our first moments on the pitch, the sumptuous weight and control of the passing system wooed. Simple, slower balls across the back feel grand, one-twos speed play up beautifully, and crosses whizz off the boot of fair wingers and fullbacks. Holding down the left trigger also engages the full manual passing option, where every completed through-ball will fill you with sheer bliss.
You can add the glorious shooting to the celebratory pile-up, too. Just like the passing, the length of your button press provides control or power to your shot perfectly. Long range drives are Phillipe Coutinho levels of wonderful, side-footed strikes into the corners provide maximum satisfaction, and cheeky glanced headers raise a smile every time they hit the back of the old onion bag. Honestly, FIFA doesn’t even make the Europa League places in passing and shooting compared to PES’ title-winning efforts.
Defending is a slightly different matter, mind, as the simplistic pressing system prevents the more aggressive defensive tactics that we like to employ during our FIFA sessions here at PTC towers. Holding the pressing button down often leads to attackers easily waltzing around our midfielders and defenders, which proves frustrating. It’ll come as no surprise then that we prefer FIFA’s turn-and-face, show him down the touchlines defensive configuration.
As a result the gameplay is flawed, though still mainly great, but what about the breadth of options on offer? Those that have played any of the last few iterations of the game will be pleased to see familiar favourites like Become a Legend (take one player from amateur to super stardom), Myclub (PES’ attempt at FIFA’s all-conquering Ultimate Team mode) and online divisions return. Legendary single-player campaign, Master League, is still an enjoyable timesink, even if the AI are easier to beat than that of EA Sports’ game (we’ve found 4-4-2 and lots of crosses into the box wins most games). It all comes together to provide a varied and sumptuous banquet of gameplay, easily supplying you with your money’s worth.
This year’s instalment looks pretty good to boot, with mostly accurate facial models for the biggest stars moving splendidly across the pitch. Goalkeeping animations have notably improved too, which importantly also boosts the actual quality of the stoppers.
If Konami pull their finger out and sort the presentation of menus, kits and logos, tighten up at the back, and fix that rancid commentary, we can see PES 2019 mounting a real title challenge.
Perhaps the real winner here though is the lighting, where gameplay is put well before realism. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve struggled to pick up the ball because of stadium shadows, weather, or clashing kits in FIFA, as EA strive for Sky Sports-like presentation, but, thankfully, that never happens here. Whether you play during the day or under lights at night, you’ll see every bit of action clearly in PES 2018.
As the stoppage time boards go up, we find ourselves focusing on the positives from PES 2018’s performance. If Konami pull their finger out and sort out the presentation of menus, kits and logos, tighten up at the back, and fix that rancid commentary, we can see PES 2019 mounting a real title challenge. This year though, they’ll just have to settle for a Champions League place.
Channelling the ghosts of the past, NBA Playgrounds aims to play a game of charged-up arcade B-ball, but, like Dennis Rodman’s hair, it has some great moments, though falls short of reaching the play-offs.
Get some friends over, however, and you’ve got yourself a cracker of a party game. Elbowing a friend to the floor as they look certain to score a dunk is glorious, as is activating the score x2 multiplier when you're not on the receiving end. It’s a shame that the single player elements of the game don’t carry the same wonder, but not surprising considering the market that Playgrounds is pitched to. Online multiplayer is almost equally as fun, provided you can find an opponent who doesn’t rage quit, but it lacks the divisional tiers that make the likes of FIFA or NBA2K such enjoyable time sinks.
Get some friends over, however, and you’ve got yourself a cracker of a party game - elbowing a friend to the floor as they look certain to score a dunk is glorious...
Playgrounds’ visual presentation is a definite highlight, with both the players and the playgrounds themselves really shining. The chunky, cartoony character models exaggerate the features of each player, as well as gifting them comically bulging muscles to provide some real laughs. Courts add to the fun factor by playing on recognisable stereotypes, from Shanghai’s cherry blossom trees, to New York’s graffiti, to Westminster with the London Eye.
Shooting from deep, the game also scores on the audio front. A cracking hip-hop theme tune plays in between games, with a vocoder-infused voice blasting lines about being “a high flyer” against a backdrop of rhymes like “alley-oop to the hoop”. The fun doesn’t stop there though, as each venue has its own theme tune, again riffing on the stereotypes of that country - Paris has accordion in its tune, par exemple.
NBA Jam had classic commentary phrases as legendary as its gameplay, and Playgrounds aims for the same territory here. Jam’s very own Ian Eagle is present, along with co-commentator E.J. Johnson, creating a mostly hilarious pairing. Lay-ups are met with comments about finger rolls, jelly rolls and butter rolls, and they also take great pleasure in breaking the fourth wall with nuggets concerning your ability with the controller, which usually bring about a chuckle.
While initially entertaining, the verbal bashings get old rather quickly, mind; we’ve lost count of the number of times Mr Eagle has ended a game harping on about his own skills on the hardwood. Playgrounds is proof that new isn’t always better than old, with nothing coming close to the genius, childhood-defining delivery of “BOOMSHAKALAKA”.
So, as the shot clock ticks down and the game nears its close, it’s obvious that, although Playgrounds can be fun, it certainly isn’t the new NBA Jam. If you’re a huge fan of NBA Street et al then you’ll get your £15.99’s worth, but for everyone else, the ball will hit the rim and bounce back out.
Saber Interactive were good enough to provide us with a copy of the game for review.
Cricket is an interesting sport to convey in a video game; do you go full arcade with T20-like fireworks, boundary side hot tubs and constant sixes, or do you go down the route of simulation with rain delays, one-man-and-his-dog crowds and forward defences? Codemasters tried for years with its Brian Lara series (99 on PS1 being the highlight), EA then picked up the baton with mixed success, but nobody has gotten as close to replicating the gentleman's game as Big Ant Studios did with Don Bradman Cricket 14. Can the follow-up build on the promise of the original? Strap on that jock strap and join us at the crease.
The brilliant control system is still present, but there are now areas of the pitch that seem impossible to hit, no matter how hard we try...
The animations for these shots have also gone backwards, the cut shot in particular looking awful when compared with the 2014 edition. It’s also been made apparent that certain shots will result in you getting out every time; never attempt to late cut a spinner (a bread-and-butter shot in the real game and in DBC 14) as you will be caught behind by the gymnastic wicketkeepers without fail. Running between the wickets has also brought about some problems, as on occasion the AI decides to create a mix up, regardless of your button presses - we’ve been run out a few times because of this bug and it is very irritating!
All of these niggles will hopefully be addressed in future patches (Big Ant are brilliant at fixing bugs and issues), as the core gameplay is still engaging and fun, while the addition of precision shots (hold down the right bumper when playing your shot) is a nice touch for the single-run-loving purist.
The modes and options available are as thorough as the original DBC, with the highlight still being the wonderfully engaging, time dissipating career mode. A lovely improvement from DBC 14 is the inclusion of club cricket. In the original your career began at county level (Hampshire is the CORRECT choice) before progressing to international fixtures. Being able to play for local towns is grand, and it’ll give you a chuckle when the commentator stutters their names out too.
Finding an online match has been an issue for us so far, whether this is down to player numbers or Big Ant’s servers is unclear at this time.
As the bails are removed and we reach the close of play, we have to be honest; we’re slightly disappointed with Don Bradman Cricket 17. Most of what made the original great is still here, but in trying to reach a wider audience DBC 17 prods at a wide one and edges to slip. Here’s hoping Big Ant continue to listen to their community and patch out the bugs and glitches, as if they do, we’ll have the definitive console cricketing experience.