If you're an Aussie or UK sports fan, then the next few months are all about one thing--the Ashes series being held Down Under. EA is capitalising on that buzz by releasing Cricket 07 just before the start of the first Test at the end of November, and the good news for cricket tragics is that Cricket 07 is EA's best effort at replicating the sport to date. The bad news is that some finicky bowling mechanics make it an uneven experience, with batting by far the more enjoyable half of the gameplay. And just like in real cricket, even the shortest matches can result in some tedium.
If you're a big fan of the sport, then you know that a little tedium is part and parcel of the whole experience. Indeed, Cricket 07 plays more towards hardcore supporters than casual followers, as the real-life game is represented here in almost simulation-like quality. While there is scope for slugfests at lower difficulty levels, Cricket 07 is very much a game that rewards patience and persistence, particularly when you get to Test match levels at higher-than-average difficulties.
EA's latest cricket offering features its biggest innovation to the series so far--the Century Stick control system. As opposed to previous entries in the series, which mapped shot selection to a PlayStation 2 controller's four face buttons, Cricket 07 uses both analog sticks for batting. The left is used for foot choice and batter placement, while the right is used to select shots and determine power. A hard pull straight down on the right analog stick, for example, will result in a fierce straight drive, while a gentle flick to the right will result in a batsman doing a leg glance. An impressive array of shots can be played in Cricket 07 (depending on where the ball is relative to your batsman), including French cuts, square cuts, cover drives, on-drives, pulls, hooks, sweeps, blocks, and more.
The Century Stick system feels more intuitive than the old button-mapped method, and you'll be pulling off a sweet variety of shots in no time flat. At the easier difficulty levels, Cricket 07 games will quickly become four- and six-run slugfests, as smashing shot after massive shot is criminally easy. However, if you ramp up the difficulty, timing and placement become much more crucial. Timing your shots accurately at higher difficulty settings can take some time to master, as mistimed shots are almost always the main cause for wickets falling. To make the task easier, Cricket 07 features an optional batsman timing gauge, which can show you whether you're swinging early, late, or right on time. This feature becomes essential as you play down the batting order of any team, as lower-ranked batters have significantly smaller "sweet spots" than the top order.
Running between wickets is a straightforward affair in Cricket 07--simply press the circle button, and your batsman will start to run. Choosing the right time to run is a skill you'll have to learn early, as even at the easiest settings opposition fielders have a tendency to be deadly accurate when returning the ball. Fielding is similarly easy to master in Cricket 07--at the default settings, all of the fielding is automatic, which means catches and throws are handled by the computer (and handled well for the most part). Even the assisted fielding option is pretty basic--Cricket 07 only lets you take control over the strength of a fielder's throw. If you're the type who wants complete control in the field, then you're out of luck.
While batting and fielding are relatively pain-free experiences, the bowling side of Cricket 07 is less smooth. To bowl, you first select from an array of deliveries available to each individual bowler--the better or more experienced the bowler, the more selections you can choose from. For fast bowlers, this can include deliveries like inswingers and outswingers, and for spin, it can include deliveries like leg spinners and googlies. Special deliveries (bouncers fall into this category) or signature balls (such as Shane Warne's flipper) are selectable once the bowler's confidence meter is completely filled--which is boosted each time he sends a good delivery.
Once a delivery is chosen, you'll need to select the pace and direction of the ball while the onscreen bowler does his run in. Setting the pace is easily done by pressing the X button before the pace meter rises above a certain point. Pushing the pace meter too much will result in a "no ball." Setting direction is where bowling becomes more finicky. In Cricket 07, you'll need to select a spot on the pitch where you want your delivery to initially land--and in this the controls become far too sensitive. You'll need a feather touch to accurately place a ball, as anything more will see the pitch indicator veer wildly. There are plenty of instances where you'll find the sweet spot for a ball, but then a slight movement of your thumb on the left analog stick will change the direction completely. While there's scope to argue that this replicates the real-life difficulty inherent in bowling accurate balls, as you can imagine, this can get a little frustrating during gameplay sessions.
That's not to say that bowling is impossible to lock down in Cricket 07--with enough practice and a light touch, bowling decent deliveries becomes regularly achievable. But despite your skill, you'll find that coming up with wickets was a torturously difficult affair, particularly when playing against computer opponents on high difficulties or even against human opponents willing to be conservative with their batting strokes. Cricket 07 seems to be geared more towards batting than bowling--it's easy to come up with high scores if you're patient, look for obvious gaps, and keep big shots to a minimum. Bowling is much more frustrating, as you'll be reduced to serving up the same deliveries over and over again--with the occasional change in pace or direction thrown in to hopefully catch a batsman off guard.
Of course, you could argue that cricket is like this in the real world. The delicate interplay between batting and bowling, between aggression and control, is what captivates the sport's fans, and in many ways that feeling is replicated in Cricket 07. Playing Test matches in Cricket 07 will take hours and even days between two skilled opponents, and even limited overs games can stretch out into gruelling affairs. In other words, if you're not already a fan of cricket's particular pacing, then Cricket 07 won't win your allegiance.
But if you are a fan, Cricket 07 will drown you in game modes--in a good way. Aside from quick matches which let you play international sides in limited overs or Test matches, Cricket 07 features enough in-depth international and domestic modes to make cricketers reach for their mobile phones in delight (you didn't think we'd let a cricket review slide by without a Warney reference, did you?). International options include world championship, world series, knockout cups, Test Series, and tours. Domestic modes focus on sides from England and Australia--on the English side, there's the county season, county championships, the NatWest Pro40, C&G Trophy, and a Twenty20 Cup; in Australia, you can play a state season, the Pura Cup, the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash, and the local one-day domestic series.
Cricket 07 also includes a dedicated Ashes mode, which lets you take charge of either the Aussies or the English in the 06/07 Ashes Tour of Australia. And if you're an Aussie wanting to erase the memories of last year's Ashes loss to the Poms, there's also the option to replay the 2005 series from scratch. Cricket 07 also features Ashes scenarios from 2005. These scenarios place you in charge of either the Australian or the English side from 2005, and you're asked to either emulate or change famous incidents from that Ashes series.
Graphically, Cricket 07 is all over the place. Detail is a little on the low side considering that other sports games are able to produce much better looking images on the admittedly ageing PlayStation 2 platform. Players are mostly unrecognisable, although some of the signature hairstyles of players, like Australia's Jason Gillespie, do mark them out. Player animations are generally smooth and lifelike, although there were plenty of instances of odd movement--players standing at wickets, for example, seem to swivel without moving their bodies. Even worse, the ball has a tendency to disappear for split seconds--this seems to happen almost exclusively when the ball is in the air on its way to the boundary. As for the stadiums, most are well represented, although the crowds themselves are horrible-looking 2D images.
Cricket 07 features the commentating pair of Mark Nicholas and Richie Benaud, with Nicholas also serving as the voice for all of the in-game tutorials. Nicholas and Benaud do a pretty good job of calling the games, although the range of phrases and expressions seems fairly limited. You'll hear the same quotes over and over again, and in some cases, the calls will also be completely opposite to what's happening onscreen.
If you're a fan of the sport, no doubt you're already lining up Cricket 07 as an early Christmas present to help you re-create all the real-life action of this coming Ashes series. However, some of the game's play issues ensure that Cricket 07 won't win any fence-sitters or new converts to the gentleman's game.