While many were disappointed with HB Studios' take on Rugby late last year, its return to Cricket, in the form of Cricket 2004, is a much better title that builds on the best parts of its previous Cricket titles while ironing out many of the kinks that made it a less than stellar title.
If you're thinking of picking up Cricket 2004, you'd be well advised to either clear a lot of space on your memory card, or, preferably, pick up an entirely new memory card; the profiles in Cricket 2004 weigh in at a meaty 3,835KB each, almost half a memory card, and we've got no idea why. The game itself does do an awful lot of autosaving, although thankfully outside of setting up your initial gargantuan save file, this is a relatively speedy and painless process.
If you're familiar with Cricket 2002, you'll be able to drop right into playing Cricket 2004, as, by and large the actual game controls are unchanged. If you've not played EA's previous Cricket effort, however, it's virtually mandatory to head to the practise nets for lessons in batting and bowling, unless you like being humiliated again and again by the CPU players. Cricket 2004 has a reasonably steep learning curve, something that may put more casual players off the title.
The biggest single change in this year's game is the inclusion of the batting confidence meter. Whereas canny players worked out how to hit massive runs right off the bat in earlier titles, the confidence meter is meant to control this kind of behaviour. As your batsman starts off, you can build his confidence up with accurate shots, and as he gets more confident, he'll hit better shots, earning you more runs. This doesn't mean, however, that players gradually become unstoppable run machines -- a well-timed and placed delivery can still see you out in a matter of seconds.
Without a doubt the most jarring aspect of Cricket 2002 were the visuals; players -- especially fielders -- tended to stop still at the end of animations, wicket keepers wouldn't field and the whole game did look a touch shabby in the light of EA's usual careful approach to ingame sports visuals. Matters have been greatly improved in Cricket 2004, even above and beyond what we'd seen in early builds of the game. For the most part, player animation, whether bowling, batting or fielding, is much smoother and more lifelike, although it should be noted that a great deal of action takes place from relatively far camera angles. Like Rugby 2004 before it, and the similar Renderware-based NRL Rugby League game, player faces are quite ordinary, and while there are many named players on field, you'll often find yourself chuckling at their appearance during replays.
Cricket 2004's visual appearance walks a line between straight-up sports presentation and TV-style presentation, with a leaning towards TV. That's understandable; anyone can go down and play a real game of Cricket, but it's only in the virtual arena that most of us can get out there and bat for Australia. Commentary is supplied by Richie Benaud and Jim Maxwell, and while it's better than it was in our preview of the game, it's still quite repetitive after a relatively short period of time. As befits the game, ambient noise is on the low side, with crowd responses where appropriate and your team only really coming into voice when they catch a batter out.
Like most sports titles, Cricket 2004 offers you the opportunity to create players for use in real-world squads (*cough* diuretics *cough*), although this presents an interesting challenge to the player. The actual model editor itself is quite rudimentary, and the small number of adjustable body parts means you can't really make that many unusual looking players. What you can do, however, is adjust an impressive quantity of statistical variables, allowing you to easily and quickly create slow bowlers, fast batsmen or world-class all-rounders with surprising ease. It'd be nice to have a player editor that matched the level of skill depth that Cricket 2004 has to some really striking visuals, but maybe that's a treat we'll have to wait for until next time round.
While the game itself remains unchanged no matter how you play it, EA's gone all out in terms of game modes, from simple one-off 10 over knocks to full test series, and just about every other type of representative cricket you could care to mention. Match that up to quite well modelled stadiums across every Cricket playing nation on Earth -- and the usual rather spotty looking crowds that every sports title seems plagued by -- and as long as you like the basic game action, Cricket 2004 is a title that should keep fans happy until the sequel, which at this rate will presumably be Cricket 2006.