Of all the different sports games out there, cricket has to be one of the hardest to translate from real-world sport to videogame equivalent. Ultimately, cricket is a game of three components—batting, bowling and fielding—and those elements need to align to make a truly great experience.
Cricket games of old used to opt for the arcade route, creating easy-to-play run-fests that are like watching Chris Lynn do what he does best in the Big Bash League. In more recent times, as sports games have edged closer to the simulator side of the spectrum, the Don Bradman franchise has risen to the top as a peerless cricket experience.
It helps that Don Bradman’s biggest competitor, Ashes Cricket 2013, was pulled from Steam shortly after its release. But to argue that Don Bradman Cricket 14 (DBC14) was only a success because it was the only competitor is unfair and unfounded.
The reality is that Don Bradman 14 had some issues at launch, but those problems were secondary to a mostly fantastic cricket simulator with second-to-none ball physics. It meant, for the most part, that when you were batting and got out, it felt deserved, and not because of some sort of canned code deciding it was your time to go. Additionally, when you selected the right shot and smashed it with perfect timing, well, you could expect it to crash into or sail over the boundary as a reward.
Better still, after subsequent patches, some of the bigger launch issues were ironed out and Don Bradman Cricket 14 solidified its status as a premiere cricket experience.
Unfortunately for that DBC14 praise, Don Bradman Cricket 17 feels like a step backwards for the series in many respects.
I spent more than 20 hours over the Christmas break playing Don Bradman Cricket 17 on PS4 (it’s only recently been released on PC) and I was incredibly disappointed, especially considering I’d recently returned to Don Bradman Cricket 14 and had a fantastic time. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is that the batting has been converted into a frustrating and inconsistent affair.
Batting has always been the most fun facet of a cricket game, and it’s great in Don Bradman Cricket 14. That said, I understand why Big Ant Studios made changes to the batting for Don Bradman Cricket 17. Pick the right batsmen with the right stats in DBC14 and you can hit boundaries until the cows come home with the right shot selection and decent timing. Hell, even playing as titular batting legend Don Bradman in DBC14—who opted for safer along-the-ground strokes over risky in-the-air shots—you can hit more sixes in an over and a half than he hit in his entire test career.
So it was clear something had to change. The problem is, hitting sixes or even fours in Don Bradman Cricket 17 is incredibly tricky to repeat with any consistency. I lost count of the times I was awarded good shot selection and ideal timing indicators for my strokes, only to pitifully lob the ball down the throat of mid on or mid off. Or be clean bowled. The only way I found to consistently hit boundaries was to advance down the wicket. But when you’re squaring off against a 140km/h+ bowler, your only way of using this tactic is to pre-empt shot selection, which is never great.
Similarly, despite streamlining front- or backfoot strokes, I was still able to successfully play almost every delivery type off the front foot with those same green ‘good’ and ‘ideal’ ratings for my shots. Initially, I didn’t mind that Big Ant had made changes to the batting, because I was determined to master them in the nets or in batting training. The trick is these are generally useless, and training isn’t deep enough for this kind of game.
Net training against pace bowling is more a test of reaction speed than a viable way of learning to improve your batting. This is particularly apparent in changes to the career mode. Before, you could hit the nets between matches to improve skills and, more importantly, the stats of your player in a no-risk way. Now, nets training doesn’t improve player stats; instead, you earn points that you then spend between matches.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it felt like there was a correlation between stat upgrades and batting in subsequent matches. My career player is an all-rounder and I put a grand total of zero points into improving his bowling. Despite this, I enjoyed greater success with the ball than with the batting role that I sunk all of my points into.
Given that the new addition of club matches are exclusively limited to T20 matches, and my player was an opening batter, I was determined to play aggressively and hit runs. After all, that’s how T20 cricket is meant to be played. So the vast majority of my points went into front-foot drives, control and aggression: all of the elements that should, technically, lead to an aggressive opener. It wasn’t to be.
No matter how many points went into these batting elements, I’d often get caught out in the inner circle, trying to play an aggressive shot with my supposedly aggressive batter. Even playing aggressively along the ground with the correct button combination rarely saw the ball hitting the fence, once again, despite green ratings for shot selection and timing. Despite a run of mediocre scores, I never lost my opening position, I was eventually invited to captain my team, and I was selected to play at state level.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the batting where Don Bradman Cricket 17 disappoints. The fielding is the biggest offender, and even though DBC14 still has average-at-best fielding, Big Ant has somehow made it worse. There’s no sense of hustle in the field, meaning it’s possible to take a single off pretty much every delivery.
If you appeal for LBW, your bowler is relegated as useless as a fielder, unable to chase until he’s finished appealing. There are other times when those amazing ball physics from DBC14 are thrown out the window as a shot sails through the bowler. If you make the mistake, as I did, of switching the fielding to manual (it defaults to semi-assisted), you’re in for a world of hurt. Players will only bend over to collect the ball if you run at it at just the right angle, and there’s seemingly no way to dive to stop runs or take a catch.
Manual fielding is at its absolute worst online. I played one match with it activated, and both my opponent and me were screwed over by one instance each of game-breaking camera angles. In my bowling innings, I was able to eventually fluke my fielder onto the ball, despite not being able to see where it was. In the instance of my competitor, I had to guide him to where it was because he flat out couldn’t find it. Even though I’d stopped running in this latter instance, the game refused to progress to the next delivery until he’d collected the ball and thrown it back in.
Semi-assisted fielding is the way to go, and Big Ant has added a bullet-time-like slow-time event wherein you have to move a joystick into a circle before the ball reaches the fielder to take a catch. This is better than having to rely on your reaction time during a fast-flying edge in DBC14, but there are times when you get the indicator in the circle and push the right stick in the direction of the ball (something the game doesn’t teach you because there’s no fielding training) only to drop the catch.
Bowling in Don Bradman Cricket 17 has been improved with a tightening up of the meters. Spin bowling in particular is less arduous than the multi-circle spinning requirement of DBC14. Bowling is more satisfying against human opponents, though, where subtle changes of pace and movement input are rewarded with poorly timed shots and edges.
When you’re bowling against AI, though, it’s more a game of patience. I’m not suggesting there should be the option to bowl an unplayable ball every delivery, but you really feel as though you’re at the mercy of the AI making a mistake more so than being rewarded for consistently great bowling.
If Big Ant had kept the batting and fielding the same and just implemented these bowling improvements, Don Bradman Cricket 17 would be a lot better for it. Because of the negative changes to batting and the (further) breaking of fielding, it’s hard to be impressed by the additional content, including women’s teams, a deeper customisation system (that includes stadiums and logos) and the logical inclusion of club matches in career mode.
At the end of the day, the core mechanics of on-field play have to be the strength of what keeps people coming back to play, more so than bullet point additions to justify why there’s a Don Bradman Cricket 17 and not just DLC for Don Bradman Cricket 14. It’s not all bad news for Big Ant, though. If you want to play a solid cricket simulator, Don Bradman Cricket 14 is in fine form (and $10USD cheaper on Steam).
If Big Ant can address the many launch woes of Don Bradman Cricket 17, there’s certainly the potential there for a great cricket game, particularly in light of the pedigree of the developer. But in terms of the form of what I played (after at least one patch, too), Don Bradman Cricket 17 is too rough around the edges to recommend over its superior predecessor. The good news for those who’ve already purchased the game is Big Ant is actively requesting bug feedback here, and it appears patches have already fixed certain elements if this forum thread is to be believed (via Kotaku).