Many moons ago, when the 51allout office was agog with the candy floss entertainment on offer in the IPL (or perhaps just by Katy Perry), we wrote a rather mean article denigrating the captaincy qualities of Sourav Ganguly. In our opinion he was making such a mess of being captain of the Pune Warriors that even Ricky Ponting could have done a better job than him. So there was a great deal of excitement (and no little amount of undignified squabbling as to who got to play first) when the latest version of International Cricket Captain (ICC) landed on our doorstep. Now we finally have the chance to prove how incompetent Dada’s captaincy really was, and lead the mighty Pune Warriors to their deserved glory.
For those out there who might be unfamiliar with ICC (and with a free two-day trial available on the Childish Things website, you really have no excuse not to be), it’s a series of cricket management games that enables you take control of on-field affairs as nominal captain by setting your batsman’s ‘aggression’ and bowler’s line and length, whilst mucking about with field placements as well. Off the field you take on the role of the teams manager, charged with setting training regimes and over-seeing player acquisition and contract negotiations. You can choose from any of the current full nation international outfits, and manage in the English or Australian domestic competitions as well. Whether you decide to turn Bangladesh into a Test match force to be reckoned with, or choose to spend your idle time heaping further misery on the hopeless Leicestershire, there is no shortage of different options to choose from.
The typical criticism of the ICC series is that each iteration is virtually identical to the last, with the only changes being minute tweaks to the player database. In truth this complaint is unfair; most of the changes between each version occur ‘under the hood’ so to speak: updates to the match engine, player creation and development, and all the other little variables that go together to provide as realistic simulation of the cricketing world as possible. Yes, when compared to the other series that dominates the genre, Football Manager, ICC can seem to be a little feature light, but ICC’s developers are without the mammoth resources commanded by SI Games or the legions of devoted fans prepared to give up their time to provide regular updates of player information for free. To its benefit though, compared to Football Manager where a single season takes an age to get through these days, seasons in ICC fairly race by, and before you know it Kevin Pietersen is knocking about in the Sky commentary box complaining about the silly hairstyles kids have these days.
This year’s version does take a huge step forward however with the inclusion of the much demanded IPL. It’s quite an accurate simulation of the competition too, thankfully minus the blanket advertising and Danny Morrison’s inane ramblings. Sadly the game begins just before the competition commences and as a result you are stuck with last season’s squads, meaning you have to wait ’til the second season for the fun of partaking in the shady back-room deals necessary to fill your team with second-rate Australians. On the positive side T20 games play much better now than in last year’s version, where we were often reduced to screaming at our batsmen as they blithely let balls through to the ‘keeper in the critical final overs. This time around they seem to have a far better understanding of what is required, and T20 games feel more natural as a result. It’s also good to see the Big Bash included, even though the competition lacks the proper licenses.
The other major update is how the game handles statistics, which is now far more comprehensive than ever before. Strangely the game includes the statistics from the most current completed season, but not the updated player squads, but this is an oversight that will be no doubt rectified in successive future patches. The addition of statistics from retired players, both real players and those who have appeared within your game, is both a long awaited and very welcome feature. Anyone even considering playing a game like this has to admit to at least some degree of statistic fetishism, so the more stats included the better, and now we can finally accurately measure just how well Steve Smith ranks up next to the Don. He’s already one ahead in terms of Test wickets, for a start.
There are still the many small irritations that have plagued the series for years though. It’s nice to finally see all-rounders being able to be classed as an opening batsman, but they seem to have missed out on updating some players, which created all sorts of dilemmas around where to bat Luke Wright in the Pune lineup. The international rankings are also a mess; England are ranked the third best Test team at game start, behind South Africa and Australia, but the world’s number one ODI outfit. It would also be nice if the game remembered the line and length you set for each batsman, rather than having to set it again with each different bowler. A small quibble, but one that can begin to grind when totals begin to reach English 2010/11 Ashes dimensions. Some aspects of the game, however, such as the match sounds and commentary, are simply superfluous extras. In fact the entire 3D match engine comes across as clunky and poorly implemented. The whole point of being able to watch the action live is to gain an insight of how well your decisions are panning out, but the 3D engine provides no feedback that could not gleaned from statistics generated elsewhere, and is therefore practically redundant.
Where the game continues to seriously fall down though is in its lack of player feedback. The only way to know how well things are progressing with a players development is to wade through pages of statistics and try and spot a clear trend or wait till the game informs you that a player has improved through training. We spent a good few seasons in our game trying to convert Steve Smith into a dour Test opening batsman with no discernible success. It was probably a flawed plan from the beginning, but it would have been nice if the AI, in the form of an assistant coach, could have tapped us on the shoulder and asked us just what the hell we thought we were trying to achieve. It’s the same story during a match, where due to the lack of feedback from the match engine, bowling and fielding changes are random affairs undertaken in the blind hope they will influence proceedings rather than as any strategic response to on-field events.
So what to make of the game then? It’s a pity that the poor match engine detracts from the overall package because the game as a whole provides such a realistic simulation of the world of cricket that it’s easy to simply take it for granted. The game frequently creates gripping contests that are all the more tense for occurring within believable contexts. You certainly never feel cheated by the AI like you do in some other management games. Limited overs contests can be brutal affairs, particularly because games can get away from you in the space of a few overs, but the longer forms of the game are a pure joy to play, where the dynamic weather and pitch conditions combine to create the sorts of scenarios that make the sport such a compelling spectacle.
At the end of the day ICC, despite its many warts, provides an engaging experience largely as the result of the superb job it does of simulating the extremely complicated and nuanced world of cricket. It is by no means perfect, nor can it be expected to be considering its humble origins, and whilst we could moan about its flaws for far longer than we have here, at the end of the day it passes its most important test, and that is that it is actually a heap of fun to play. It is for this reason that it is the clear leader in the genre, and will remain so for some time to come. Incidentally, we would also like to take this opportunity to offer a full and heartfelt apology to Mr Sourav Ganguly for our earlier unwarranted and misguided slurs against his captaincy of Pune this season.
We would like to thank Childish Things for providing the review copy. We wish we were able to send it back, but unfortunately Nichael destroyed the case in a fit of rage after Jesse Ryder ran Luke Wright out.