As an Australian, you wouldn't pick yours truly to have anything to do with the sport of lacrosse. But then, you wouldn't pick an Australian developer to not only take an under-represented sport and make a game out of it, but make the most accurate digital iteration you could hope for. At least, until Casey Powell Lacrosse 17 comes along.
Lacrosse is a tough ask to model. It has a complex aerial element, spread between the speed of ice hockey and the positional field game of soccer. It has the constant player-on-player harassment of a Gaelic or Australian Rules variation, complicated by intricate dodges and checks. And while its roots as training and proxy for tribal war have been beveled by modern codification, lacrosse remains a physically demanding undertaking.
When I thumbed into my first game of Casey Powell Lacrosse 16, I expected disappointment. Not because I doubted Big Ant as deft digital craftsmen, but because I knew first-hand how sinuous the real game is. How much nuance demands to be captured in elements like guarding and shooting. Ostensibly, how a game like lacrosse would suffer, were it merely a superfluous nod to a sport that deserves, for lack of a better word, the fidelity of an EA treatment.
Thankfully, joyously, wonderfully; I can attest that, for a first tilt at a fully-fledged field lacrosse game, the bar has been set high.
Casey Powell Lacross 16, henceforth written as CPL16 for brevity, spreads itself across career, online, exhibition competition and casual game, as well as offering a robust sharing library for custom teams and players. Career mode can be played exclusively as a player or coach, the latter including a layer of business brokering and sponsorship targets to meet. As with any dynasty mode, there's probably no greater feeling of progression that taking some gangly scrub or bottom-rung team and dragging them from embarrassment to name whispered with trepidation. It's the great post-modern RPG, an arduous climb from rags to relative riches in any number of the official college, regional and professional leagues. Low-tier players feel sludgy and slightly unresponsive when engaging on the fly; prone to fumbling or ineffective stick-checking. As they increase in skill and experience, pulling off deft swim-dodges or fakes is easier, as is more impressive dive and corner shots.
And that's really where the pedigree of CPL16 is. Where it might not have the production values of an EA product -- the pomp, the ceremony, the sweat bead-rendering technology and super-reactive commentary -- CPL16 has a really fluid sense of motion and grasp of lacrosse's technicalities. The variety of checks are in attendance, both stick and body. The aforementioned dodges and jukes are there. Fidelity of guarding and switching well represented.
Big Ant have bound pretty much every button on your controller to a specific action, including fighting game equivalents in stick motion plus button combinations that, admittedly, my withered brain took some time in getting used to. But when I eventually did, effecting these manoeuvres in the defense throng was downright awesome. Faking out a goalie with a canceled wind-up, then cranking the rubber with an unexpected quickshot feels wonderfully tactile.
Akin to many of its peers, CPL16 does require a dual-analogue controller to play. It's a given, as so much of the game's finesse comes from thumbing those sticks and augmenting many of the contact and shooting moves with a held bumper. Faking requires a trigger wind-up, then a bumper tap to cancel. Dive shooting, itself enough justification for the slow-mo replay cameras, the product of a half-circle that mimics the shot power and inertial arc of the player. Bull-dodging through defense is a heartily-held bumper and a determined jam with the right stick, hopefully punctuated by a harasser firmly planted on the green.
CPL16 does take a little time to let the combinations settle into the muscle memory, but it's a logical, easily parsed clutch of controls. In abstraction, if you're looking for a similar speed and degree of turn-over to an NHL, or Blades of Steel for the codgers, CPL16 is a pretty compelling proposition.
Though not made on a budget of multi-millions with staff in the hundreds, much as they did with the incredible Don Bradman 14, Big Ant punched well above their weight in making CPL16 look and sound the way it does. Don't take my prior comment about production values as disparaging; CPL16 is clean and crisp. Animation is tight; the swim-dodging and pivots look terrific, power shots look great and the body checks appropriately hard-hitting. Scrubbing through the replays can highlight some quirky kinematic contortion, particularly in close-quarter defense on goal, but otherwise everything looks spiffy at speed.
Provided largely by veteran lacrosse callman Eamon McAnaney, commentary is varied, although given the speed of the game, does fall prone to slight and unavoidable repetition. It might have been offset between two commentators -- Hello, Cricket '96 -- but mixed with a reactive crowd whose cheers undulate with every hit, shot and turn-over, there's nothing anaemic about the sound presentation.
Official licensing does extend to the game's namesake in virtuoso spearhead Casey Powell, as well as a selection of gear from Epoch, Stylin Strings and others. Beyond that, and in keeping with the way Don Bradman Cricket 14 sidestepped licensing, the Academy element of CPL16 uses community-crafted teams and players as a proxy. It's a painless process to stay updated, with a single click dragging down the most current rosters from the Academy servers. Players can create, customise and edit their own teams for uploading as well, without the need to dump files on external file hosts or websites. An official license for leagues and players would be preferable, but for a partially crowd-funded attempt at something of this magnitude, it's an acceptable concession. As with Big Ant's prior effort, the community does a bang-up job of replicating the real thing.
There is the question as to why the women's Lacrosse leagues are not included, perhaps absent due to asset design. Also, given the relative differences between the two codes, It might be an investment beyond the crowd-funding budget. Team-based sports games have lagged behind in gender equality, and the inherent political thorniness in today's digital landscape is hopefully a passing phase. I'd love to run a women's team in one of the big American leagues as much as stomping with the New York Lizards. With the customisation in subsequent Big Ant titles, it'd be nice to be supplied the basic feminine frames and features, then let the community do the rest. Perhaps down the line.
Woman's lacrosse grievances aside, I breathe out a sigh of relief when sit back and take stock of Casey Powell Lacrosse 16. Under consultative counsel of Crosse Studios, Big Ant have put together a cohesive, fully-featured lacrosse experience. The game might not have the exterior fluff of an EA title -- the cross-media tie-ins and junket hooks -- but it has the vision, guts, difficulty and fidelity of one. This is the lacrosse game we've been waiting for.
Casey Powell Lacrosse 16 hits digital shelves on March 9 (Xbox One, PS4 & PC)
Review code supplied by Big Ant Studios