In the pantheon of global sports translated into videogame form, cricket has long been a poor relation. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Codemasters' Brian Lara Cricket franchise achieved a high level of popularity, but in recent years only Australian developer Big Ant Studios has kept the cricket-game flame burning.
Happily for cricket fans, Big Ant's 2021 effort, Cricket 22, is now available – just in time for the start of the sport's most epic Test competition, the Ashes. But will it bowl you over, or is it more bowled out?
Cricket 22 boasts the official licence for the Ashes, along with a welter of other official licences that make great sense in the context of a cricket game, including the 50-over and T20 World Championships, the newly inaugurated Hundred and Australia's answer to the IPL, the Big Bash League.
Only the IPL itself – understandably, given how that competition's big-money focus would surely lead to eye-watering licensing fees – is missing. Men's and women's teams are represented equally, with England and Australia captains Heather Knight and Meg Lanning sharing cover art with their male equivalents Joe Root and the hastily instated Pat Cummins.
So, Cricket 22 has all cricketing tastes covered, which is laudable. It's also by a considerable distance the most ambitious cricket game ever created – the first designed to run on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – and Big Ant Studios has conspicuously revamped many of its key aspects in comparison with its last game, Cricket 19.
But as with any modern cricket game, caveats must be applied. It simply doesn't have a budget in anything like the same league as the top modern sports games such as FIFA or Madden NFL, so if you're accustomed to the level of polish found in those games, Cricket 22 will feel distinctly rough around the edges.
While it does have 4K visuals, its handling of textures is far from cutting-edge, and occasional but noticeable visual glitchiness is in evidence, albeit not once you enter the field of play. Its commentary, too, is rudimentary, despite the presence of luminaries such as Michael Atherton and David Gower.
Polish the ball
If you can overlook the lack of polish – which is an inevitable outcome of its provenance from a small developer with an ungenerous budget – then there's plenty to admire in Cricket 22. For a start, it has by far the best tutorial ever created for a cricket game, which does a great job of teaching the deliciously arcane laws of cricket in the most succinct manner possible, while clearly setting out the mechanics of its gameplay.
Although those gameplay mechanics will be largely familiar to anyone who has previously played a Big Ant Studios cricket game, they have received a number of judicious tweaks and additions that end up providing the best approximation yet of what playing cricket is actually like, given that you have a gamepad, as opposed to a bat or ball, in your hands.
You can choose from two control systems: an arcade-style one which derives its timed inputs from button-presses; or a professional one which more or less confines itself to joysticks and triggers. We much prefer the former, finding the latter somewhat fiddly.
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Bowling is pretty familiar – once you set the type of ball (from an impressive array including the likes of cross-seamers and doosras) along with its length and direction, two timed presses are required for fast bowlers (representing jumping into your delivery stride and delivering the ball) and just one for spinners, with the left stick providing a modicum of after-touch.
One new aspect is instantly visible the first time you bowl an over: Cricket 22 adopts a zoomed-out camera angle which lets you watch your bowler running into the wicket. That takes a little bit of getting used to at first, since the batsman is quite far away, but a colour-coding system which denotes length helps enormously: blue for yorker-length ball, yellow for full balls, green for good-length balls, red for short balls.
That colour-coding system is also in evidence when you bat, giving you crucial split-seconds to decide which shot you're going to employ using the right stick, before timing that shot with one of the buttons. It's pretty similar to the system employed by previous cricket games and works well.
Cricket 22's fielding system has also received a useful revamp, with a bit of risk/reward added should you sniff a potential run-out, enabling you to choose which end to throw at and whether to throw safely to keeper or bowler, or shy at the stumps and risk conceding overthrows.
Start your career
Once you feel you have mastered the controls, you will find an almost-bewildering variety of matches or activities to jump into. You can start off with a full Ashes series, or a single game in whatever competition you fancy. Or you can embark on Cricket 22's Career mode, which again follows on from where Cricket 19's equivalent left off, but has received some tweaks that mainly make it feel a bit more believable.
Career mode sees you hook up with an agent, initially plying your trade for a top club side, before – once you level-up bowling, batting and fielding skills – hitting the county scene and getting yourself into the international frame. Net and gym sessions (the latter involving mini-games which can be quite fun) allow you to work on specific areas of weakness or strength so eventually you can fashion yourself into any type of cricketer – a super-twirly wrist-spinner, say, or a tearaway fast bowler-cum-middle-order biffer.
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In Career mode, and indeed in any match in the game, you can opt to control the entire team, picking and controlling batsmen and bowlers and setting fields, or to control just a single player, fast-forwarding to the periods of play in which he or she is involved. The latter makes particularly good sense in Career mode, but also comes in handy when you want to dip into a quick play-session and get a feel for what it would be like playing as, say, Ben Stokes or Joe Root.
In other words, Cricket 22 displays as much flexibility as you could possibly desire from a cricket game, and its control system – responsive, supportive of all the subtleties of cricket and as intuitive as you could hope for given the sport's innate complexity – is exemplary. Without a doubt, the game gets its most important aspects spot-on.
However, beyond the visual glitchiness visible in the build-up to matches and the tendency of the commentary to bear no relationship to what has actually taken place on the field, there are a few other quibbles. Chief among them being the absence of a split-screen mode which would have allowed two cricket fans on the same couch to play against each other.
Cricket 22 does support online competitive multiplay; at the time of writing, it was pretty underpopulated, which meant finding random opposition was a lengthy and sometimes unproductive process, but we were able to play against cricket-loving mates, at least.