Cricket video games have had a chequered history. The Graham Gooch cricket titles during the Spectrum era were reasonably decent. EA sports took a couple of stabs (that were mostly rubbish) before giving up. Codemasters had the Brian Lara (or Shane Warne, depending on where you lived) games that were fun but not spectacular. The more recent Ashes games were pretty good without being fantastic. Footy fans have their FIFA. Tennis fans have Virtua Tennis and Top Spin. Racing fans have all sorts of great titles. But us cricket fans? Some middlingly entertaining titles at best.
The problem, at least for me, has always been the rather dodgy controls. Cricket has a strange problem - unlike football or tennis or racing - of three separate complex activities that need to be simulated. Coming up with convincing and usable control schemes on the PC or on consoles for batting, bowling and fielding has been a challenge that no cricket game design has been able to crack so far. It's always been a bunch of fiddly on-screen reticules, meters, dials and needles, and weird combinations of keystrokes and timed clicks.
And this is the problem that Big Ant Studios tries to solve with remarkable success with Don Bradman Cricket '14. But many caveats prevent it from being an outright classic.
The heart of this game is really the controls. Big Ant has made some bold design decisions with batting and bowling controls, completely ditching convention and reinventing the way you interact with the game. It has removed or minimised most of the weird on-screen aids and focused player attention towards what the character is doing on the screen. And it works wonderfully well.
For batting, one thumbstick controls foot movement, the other determines the direction of the shot. Shoulder and face buttons act as modifiers, allowing you to play attacking, defensive, lofted, or even trick shots like the Dilscoop and reverse sweep.
For bowling, one thumbstick controls the type of delivery, line and direction of swing, cut or spin. The other controls the bowler's jump and delivery arm. Face buttons control length. But pace bowling is easier and more fun than spin, which is weird.
Once you get used to it, it all works quite beautifully. Batting feels natural and satisfying. Instead of watching some stupid on-screen pitch indicator and speed meter (there are some visual assists, but you can turn them off once you've mastered the controls), you're actually watching the ball itself, and instinctively choosing a shot to play. It's exactly as it should be - and is great fun once you get the hang of it. Bowling is similarly fun - it feels great plotting a batsman's downfall and then executing it using the subtle variations and sudden surprises in a bowler's arsenal. Fielding is a bit meh. But hey, it's fielding. It works well enough.
All this gameplay sweetness does come at a price. This is not an easy game to learn. It's not a pick-up-and-play casual experience by any stretch of the imagination. To truly enjoy Don Bradman Cricket '14, you will have to invest a lot of time practising and learning its controls (the game offers both net practice and stadium practice). But if you do, it pays off.
Once you learn the basics, an almost bewildering range of gameplay modes and customisation options await. Want to play a two-day, single-innings match with five-ball overs? Because why not? You can also design your own tournaments, series, and entire tours and seasons featuring multiple kinds of matches.
There's a career mode in which you can play as a single player throughout his career. (I spent half an hour padded up and twiddling my thumbs in the pavilion as a one-drop batsman in a county game, watching Michael Carberry and his opening partner put on a century stand. Easily one of my most bizarrely fun videogame experiences.)
You can design teams, players and even umpires (the game does not have licensed players out of the box, but it's a snap downloading all your favourite teams that the player community has created online. In fact, it's the first thing the game prompts you to do).
It's a hardcore cricket fan's delight, and should keep you entertained for years.
Is Don Bradman Cricket '14 an instant classic? The holy grail of cricket videogames? The FIFA for cricket fans? Sadly, not quite. The game has many flaws that you need to be willing to look past if you want to enjoy its undeniably fun gameplay.
The graphics, while serviceable, are nowhere in the league of modern sports games like the FIFA series. Player likenesses are inconsistent (since most of them are user-created, admittedly), animations are sometimes weird and jerky, and the menu screens don't look like a slick ESPN broadcast. The commentary is extremely limited and quickly becomes repetitive. The overall presentation feels a little rough around the edges. However, the gallery of Don Bradman photographs and old authentic scorecards from Bradman's games is a nice touch. It makes me wish that some major publisher sees the potential in the game and funds a big-budget sequel where these things can be ironed out and spruced up. Now that game could truly become a classic.
So while I cannot recommend the game to a casual fan looking for a quick, easy and fun experience, I can heartily do so to a serious fan looking to play a deep and engaging game of cricket. If you're willing to take the time to master the game's controls and look past its patchy presentation, Don Bradman Cricket '14 offers many hours of great entertainment.
Don Bradman Cricket '14
Developed by Big Ant Studios
Published by Tru Blu Entertainment
Platform reviewed: PS3
Platforms available: PS3, XBOX 360. Coming June 26, 2014 for PC
Anand Ramachandran is a game designer and writer based in Bangalore. @bigfatphoenix