While Brian Lara video games have been published intermittently since 1994, this is the first version to appear on PSP – released, to confuse sporting terminology, as the Twenty20 World Cup kicks off. Which is odd, as the bulk of the game centres around the ICC World Cup, concluded almost five months ago, having seemingly taken as long to complete.
Cleverly, though, the developer has made nods to the most memorable incidents of the last World Cup. Where there was a suspicious death in real-life, here continuity is murdered, as tortuous loading times delay every over. As you probably recall, the organisers of the World Cup were criticised for not letting spectators exhibit their natural flair; here, the crowd is similarly dull, and actually two dimensional. And where confusion existed at the culmination of World Cup final itself, the PSP offering is similarly bewildering, bordering on being both fun and frustrating, almost in equal measures.
Indeed, it's difficult to know what to make of it. At its heart, the game is a competent simulation of a surprisingly intricate sport. (Graphically, the animations are fluid, with players bearing more than a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts.) And as in real life, the advantage in each game can swing from one team to another almost ball-by-ball. Varying ball delivery when bowling is crucial, chucking the odd aggressive bouncer a valid tactic. Whilst there's sadly no option to hurl Jelly Beans, psychology does play an important part as both batsmen and bowlers are subjected to the whim of confidence. Hit a series of good shots and the chances of hoiking the ball over the in-field and out for a four or a six increase.
When batting, options are limited. You can scurry across the crease, but not off it, limiting aggressive – if risky – shots. Three types of shot are available – defensive, ground-based and up in the air – and each must be combined with the nub or D-pad to determine the direction of the drive. It's impossible to accurately exploit gaps in the field every time, which makes judging when to run pretty tricky. More often than not, it's a case of beginning to run initially, then calling players back to the crease when the camera angle changes to display the opposition's position.
Bowling is a slightly more complicated affair. Tap the button to begin running, place the bounce of the ball and tap a button when the power bar fills up to your liking, then guide, and finally affect the flight of the ball with the shoulder buttons. On 'Village' standard, it's ridiculously easy to break the wicket. Even on 'Test' and 'Slog' standards, it's possible to hold the majority of batsmen to ducks.
When fielding, there's no choice as to which wicket to throw the ball back to, despite the fact the computer opposition appears to alternate this at will. The timing bar – indicating a theoretical 'sweet spot' – is redundant in all but catching opportunities. If the ball's being chased by one of your players, you can simply sit back and let him take care of business. Only a ball in the air requires time-sensitive attention. You can adjust the field to your liking, but only the most anal retentive fan of the sport will tinker with the game's default settings.
So far, so video game cricket – the intricacies of the age-old sport distilled into a series of button presses in a manner that doesn't break any fresh boundaries in the gameplay department. Crucially, it lacks any sort of creative freedom or, at the lower end of the difficulty levels, any actual skill – games can be won pretty easily. And when you're chasing an Australia total of 22 off 10 overs (realism blatantly disregarded), it's actually boring. Which is what some would say of the sport itself.
Notch up the difficulty level, and things become tougher, albeit quite random. The South African top order can be dismissed for nothing with successive balls, only for the middle batsmen to suddenly score 60, with little rhyme or reason. Indeed, the whole game sometimes gets topsy-turvy, with the AI having so little respect for the lower order that you can sometimes charge to 70-odd all out from mid-twenties for seven, thanks to some strange fielding decisions permitting a succession of sixes and fours through unopposed boundaries.
The new Pressure Play mode, meanwhile, disguises a rudimentary training section with some short-term objectives (replicate or change history during some of the game's key matches, for example), but, often, you'll be spending as long looking at the loading screen as you will in the task itself. Playing these Pressure Play levels would be far more enjoyable if you actually spent more time playing.
Multiplayer does up the ante a little. Playing the game against someone of relatively similar standard actually makes for a decent game of cricket. There are fewer unrealistic batting collapses, and tighter battles in the field. But solitary play – where the bulk of the time is spent – is either too easy or too difficult, with little middle ground.
So all in, mixed emotions. Sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious – in that respect it emulates the game itself admirably. But one can't help wish the developer had taken more leeway with the subject matter and made a video game rather than a simulation. It wouldn't be cricket, but it'd be a lot more fun.