Platforms: PC | PS3 | Wii U | Xbox 360
UK Release Date: June 21st
Developers: Trickstar Games
Publishers: 505 Games
When a press event is arranged less than a month before a game is due to be released, it's to be hoped that there'll be extensive hands-on opportunities with a build of the game in question that's pretty close to being finished and going gold. You might, too, be hoping that a previously unseen aspect of the game might finally be unveiled, that there'd be plenty of fresh news and juicy new tidbits of information to gobble down and fashion into headlines.
Given that we had seen absolutely nothing of Ashes Cricket 2013 until a few days ago, anything beyond "this is a cricket game" was going to be new information.
Cricket games are tricky things to pull off, particularly given the fact that matches in real-life can last for the best part of a week. The Brian Lara series was always excellent at capturing the flashy side of things, providing a welcome arcade-ish slant on the game, and making it the prime choice for multiplayer shenanigans. EA Sports' Cricket series, on the other hand, took more of a simulation approach to things, with its focus on fine margins making for a hardcore singleplayer experience, even if it wasn't exactly thrilling to play with your friends.
Trickstar, of course, are no strangers to cricketing titles, having shipped International Cricket 2010 a couple of years back, to mixed reviews. The presentation was critically savaged, along with the poor commentary and the multitude of bugs, though the game did play a pretty good game of cricket. For this follow-up, three years on, Trickstar threw everything out and started from scratch.
"The animations we'd been using up to that point, the foundations for those dated back to 2005, so our engine was starting to show its age," explained Trickstar's Mike Fegan. "So we spent about twelve months working with new technologies, and creating a new engine, and then about eighteen months back we started putting the game itself together."
According to Fegan and producer Jamie Firth, there are now eighty different batting animations that can be blended together according to ball movement, creating what Firth described as an "incalculable" number of combinations. Looking at the build that was shown at the event, however, there were still a few rough edges, such as batsmen glitching into position rather than actually shuffling their feet.
The overhauled bowling interface does look interesting, though. Eschewing the traditional radial target, wherein you'd choose the exact spot you were aiming for in making the ball bounce, Trickstar have appropriated the bowler's mantra -- line and length -- to dictate their new system. Players will select the type of ball they want to bowl, be it a pacey straight arrow or a cutter for fast bowlers, or varying degrees of crafty spin for slower ones, from a wheel. They'll then set the line at which they want to bowl, quite literally with a line, before a roving horizontal line is set to determine the pace/bounce of the ball.
"It's a question of authenticity, really," said Fegan. "It was a bit too easy to work out where the ball was going to go in our last games, and players would just end up getting lots of easy fours and sixes, so we wanted to introduce that sense of randomness into the game by completely changing up how you go about batting and bowling.
"But then you've got the simulation aspects too. We wanted to give players a sort of captain's perspective, so you've got to keep an eye on the form and the fatigue of your players. You've got to make sure you're rotating efficiently. If you're riding your fast bowlers too much, they'll tire and the opposing team might be able to sneak more runs and swing the game their way."
The pitches and local conditions are important too, and Ashes Cricket 2013 will see dynamic weather conditions affect gameplay, based upon local geographical data and meteorological information for each of the game's stadia. So we'll see the ball move more off of the seam on the grassier wickets we have over here in England, with the drier, dustier pitches of the Indian sub-continent and Australia tending more towards spinners and fast bowlers respectively. Pitch deterioration is in for Test Mode, which will generate patches of cracked earth for spinners to aim for in order to generate a bit of extra, surprise turn.
Little fielding mini-games are out this time, though. Instead of incorporating little QTEs to have you fling he ball back from the outfield towards the stumps, the focus this time is very much on placement, and making sure you have the right men for the job. Impressively, it looks like you'll be able to set completely unorthodox fields in Ashes 2013. Working out the best way to set one's field has always been a key component of any cricket title, but now you'll be able move players wherever you want (within the restrictions of the match type). There are orthodox spots you can snap to for guidance, but Firth told us that you'll be able to plop your players down anywhere you like, with 50 preset field settings available for those who don't fancy tinkering.
"When we first looked at the fielding, it almost seemed like a step back to make that part of the game automatic," explained Firth. "But it actually makes very good sense. It didn't seem right that a well-set field and good tactical bowling could be undone by not timing a single button press correctly. So we've made it much more about fielder placement, and every player has extensive attributes for their fielding abilities, so choosing who goes where is equally important. You'll want youthful, fast players with good throwing arms in the outfield, with steady pairs of hands and good reaction speeds for the slips and up close."
I asked about whether the attributes of players will fluctuate depending on variable difficulty modes, and I was met with a negative answer for one good reason: there are no difficulty modes.
There are, however, full ECB and CA licences for the England and Australian teams, another fourteen teams to play as across test mode and T20, along with two village teams -- one from each country -- as per the competition 505 ran to invite amateur teams to participate in with the hopes of being virtually realised in the final game. On top of that, there's a player editing suite, so you'll be able to give the unlicensed lot their real names back, along with over 200 pieces of authentic equipment from the likes of Gray Nicholls, Slazenger, and Spartan.
The commentators have been confirmed for this game, with Mark Nicholas, David Lloyd and Michael Slater heading into the booth. Trickstar say that the game's commentary will provide key educational tips on how weather conditions might affect play, giving cricketing casuals helpful feedback and little pointers. Hawkeye is also licensed and in the game, though Firth told us that it wouldn't be available as a visual data tool at all times, saying that it was restricted to LBW decisions, but that this would be addressed in a later update.
It's clear that Trickstar have put in a lot of time and energy into the on-pitch action, but it's impossible to know if any of it works properly without getting hands-on with the game and, with the release date just around the corner, no-one will be doing that until the final code arrives, making it difficult to recommend in any capacity. Then again, though, it's not as if cricket fans will be paralysed by choice.