Over the years, there have been a fair few attempts made at replicating the incredibly complex sport of cricket. Some have come close to perfecting the mix, with the likes of Codemasters having multiple attempts at getting things right. But there's always been the feeling that the developers who are trying to emulate the sport have focused too much on smashing the ball for six, making sure everyone has the exact real-life number of stripes on their jersey, and getting the TV presentation just right. What they haven't been able to do, is recreate the sport's more technical side, or the soul of the batter-vs-bowler experience.
Don Bradman Cricket – despite being essentially an incremental update of last year's Xbox 360 title Don Bradman Cricket 14 – gets that side of the sport right, along with a lot of other things. When you're batting, running up a big score isn't a case of just hitting a face button when an indicator says you should, then watching the ball run away for four runs. Every delivery can cause you trouble. Take a wild swing at a bowler's mistake, and you could nick it to the slips and be caught out. Get your footwork wrong, and you'll be bowled LBW. Step forward to smash a cover drive and misjudge your timing, and you'll be clean bowled. The constant need for concentration makes Don Bradman Cricket instantly more enjoyable than every other cricket game we've seen so far. Using the sticks to control shots – left stick for footwork controls, right for shot aim – also provides a nice degree of choice, without puzzling players with tons of options.
On the bowler's side, the method of actually lobbing the ball down the pitch is refreshing and well thought-out, too. Again, every ball is a genuine chance to get the batsmen out. Your left stick selects the type of delivery, and the right controls your jump timing (push down) and your release timing and aim (push up and left/right) of the ball. Players with poor bowling skills will have smaller windows in which to hit their marks, meaning that no-balls and wides will be common if you select a player that isn't particularly well versed with the ball. Spin bowlers can tweak the bounce of the ball by circling the left stick quickly to build up spin speed and the closer you do this to the point of release, the more spin you'll get on the ball. Given the sheer number of choices that bowlers have when it comes to delivery selection and implementation, Don Bradman Cricket does a fine job of providing all of the options you could want.
This does come at a cost, however. Batting is difficult, as it should be, but the basics can be picked up fairly quickly. Bowling, on the other hand, is something that takes time to get used to. Not only that, but outside of a very, very limited tutorial mode, there's no indication of which command is used to select a particular type of delivery. In the tutorial, the controller diagram indicates that pressing up and right on the left stick bowls an out swinger, for example. In a match, the available diagram doesn't go into that much detail, showing the left stick simply as being the one that selects the delivery type. This means that you'll need to memorise the options for each type of bowler, if you're really going to master things.
Also lacking, is an in-game pitch diagram. The idea is that as a batsman, you can hold the left trigger to switch into first person mode to look around and find holes in the fielding layout, returning to third-person view to play your shot. In reality, with the camera swinging in TV presentation style when you've hit the ball, it can be very difficult to see if you've actually fired it into the gap and should run, or if a fielder has caught up with it and is threatening to run you out if you go. An overhead map of things would make these decisions easier.
But, these are small complaints. The simple fact of the matter is that the on-pitch action is so good and so realistic, that we were just desperate for the off-pitch options to match it. Thankfully, they do, and then some. You can play pretty much any way that you want to. If you fancy taking on a T20 World Cup-style event, you can. If you want to play a full English championship season consisting of 4-day matches, you can. How about matching the Australian and English national teams of the 1930s against each other over the course of a few test matches, either facing or taking control of the great Bradman himself? It's just a few button-presses away.
What allows all of this to happen, is the outstandingly well put-together Don Bradman Academy. Here, you can create and edit players, teams, competitions, and even umpires. Not only that, but you can download other people's creations easily. In fact, the game gets around the pesky issue of player licencing beautifully using this feature. When you first load Don Bradman Cricket, you've got unlicenced teams and players populating the set. It then asks if you want to download the "best-rated creations" from the Academy to replace them all. Coincidentally, the best-rated creations all happen to be the correct real-world teams and lineups, more or less. Cunning.
If that doesn't float your boat, the player creation system is comprehensive. Some people have made comedy players to fit into your team, so you can have a pretty convincing version of The Joker opening the batting for Somerset, facing deliveries (not of presents) from Surrey's lead bowler, Santa Claus. Seriously though, the system allows for the game to run on forever. As an example, you can already play England's 2017 tour of India, and we're betting that when the time comes, you'll be able to play it with the correct players all in place, once you've downloaded them from the Academy.
Graphically, the game has had a bit of an overhaul from the Xbox 360 effort, as you'd expect. A new lighting system looks sublime at times, and while there are still a number of player animations that don't necessarily look as smooth as they should, this is still a great effort. Presentation as a whole – barring the commentary, which is repetitive – is very nice, it must be said. Every statistic you could want and every TV-style replay or overlay you could wish for are on hand, and this really adds to the match atmosphere. One of the most impressive parts of the game, partly for the way it's presented, and partly for it's affect on the game, is the review system. If an appeal is made for a catch, but it isn't clear whether the ball hit the bat or just sailed through, you get multiple camera angle replays, a negative "heat spot" replay, and the good old "snick-o-meter" which determines if any sound came from the ball hitting the bat. The umpire then makes a decision, and is more than happy to reverse a call if needed. Even with all the technology at hand, the umpires sometimes make mistakes - albeit rarely - which adds to the feeling that this is a simulation of the sport as it stands today.
What truly shines for us though, is the game's 20-season career mode. Here, you can start out as a 16-year old player on a team, and try to make your way up through the ranks to become an international superstar. You can play as a bowler, batsman, or all-rounder, and skip through any part of matches that you aren't involved in. So if you're an all-rounder, you can simulate the game up until you take your stand with the bat, simulate the rest of the innings when you're out, and simulate the opponent's innings up until you're chosen to bowl. If you want to stand in the field for the entirety of the opposition's stand, gathering the ball and trying to make catches, then you can do that too. It means that the game can play as slowly or as quickly as you want it to. Also of note, is the player progression system. You start out with poor statistics as a youngster, meaning that bowling is tough and racking up any sort of score with the bat is tougher. Do well at certain things and you'll get better at doing those exact things, though. Show skill at playing off the front foot, and your front foot rating will go up. Do well at bowling slower-paced balls, and you'll get a boost there and find that they're easier to pull off later. Conversely, giving up a bunch of runs with fast-paced bouncers or being given out when playing a shot to the off side will see you losing skill points in those areas. It means that you're rewarded for doing well, and areas which need improvement are highlighted.
Sadly, the career mode is a little lacking in terms of the way in which the game's universe plays out. New players don't appear, AI players don't see their skills changing, and teams don't trade or make transfers. This does mean that you can build up some multi-season rivalries against certain bowlers or batsmen, but it does take a little shine off the apple. Or the ball. We very much doubt that will stop you from becoming hopelessly addicted.
Don Bradman Cricket is a fine, fine game. As a simulation of a sport, it's right up there in terms of quality. A sharp learning curve and a few minor oversights do hinder Big Ant's title, but that doesn't mean that the beautiful cricketing sandbox that they've put together isn't massively impressive. But is it the best cricket game ever made? The way in which it simulates the battle between bowler and batsman as well as all of the other nice little touches it provides, means that it knocks the opposition for six.