It's good to see that there's not just one, but two rugby games vying for attention as the warm-up matches kick-off and the countdown to the Rugby World Cup ticks on. I recently previewed HB Studios' return to the fray after a four year hiatus, noting that the gameplay offered some fine accessibility, but that the game - particularly in contrast with their predecessor Rugby 08 - was seriously lacking in content.
This is not a problem that the seemingly unlicensed Jonah Lomu/All Blacks/Wallabies Rugby Challenge (the name changes depending upon the country of release) appears to have at all. In fact, it's got content by the bucketload. And there's no need to uibble about licenses. True HB Studios have obtained the rights to the World Cup, but in name only. Rugby Challenge might not have the tournament name, or the clothing for most of the teams, but they do have official licenses for the Wallabies and the All-Blacks, as well as the Haka itself - which is something of a massive coup considering its revered status in New Zealand. On top of that, they have all of the licenses for the squads themselves, names, likenesses and all of the stadia too. RWC 2011 might have the name and the appearances down from a distance, but Rugby Challenge has much more to it than just a packshot.
On top of that, Sidhe's game has licenses to all of the domestic leagues too, from the Aviva Premiership to the French Orange League to whatever ridiculous moniker the Magners League is now calling itself to the Super 15 in the southern hemisphere. Add to that the Tri Nations, the Quad Nations and, unofficially, the Six Nations, as well as the ability to custom make any league, cup competition or knockout you want.
The customisation options are ridiculous. You can edit any player, any team, any attribute. You can put an entire squad of your mates into the game and have them gun for the 'World Championship' or Premier League title if you want. You can pit Argentina against Treviso in the same league, or have South Africa play Bath for the Bledisloe Cup if you so desire. The level of tinkering, the level of depth, and the prospects for replayability are insane. Every match earns your Rugby Dollars, too, which can be used to unlock stills and videos pertaining to all areas of development from sound design to motion capture, as well as delivering an entire squad made up of the dev team themselves. As a throwback to the original Jonah Lomu Rugby, you can also unlock an entire team of Jonah Lomus, all maxed out with 100% stats, as well as an All-Stars team of players from the last twenty years, but the latter comes through gameplay rather than Dollars. Content-wise, I will state this now: this will deliver an experience that, if you enjoy it, will keep you coming back long after the World Cup. I don't think I can say that about HB Studios' game.
There's a danger that I might simply list all of the different modes that the game has to offer, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the career mode and online opportunities as well. First of all, Rugby Challenge will allow the player to take a team through 13 seasons of the rugby calendar, and you can opt to play as a domestic or international team, or both. We were told that they wasn't scope for transfers, so no dream teams I'm afraid unless you create them in the 'Edit' mode (which seems like a small oversight really), but you can change teams mid-career and the players will dynamically age. There's multiplayer in there too, with both local and online multiplayer offering 4-on-4 gameplay support on Xbox LIVE, PSN and Steam, and leaderboards that will showcase the top 150 players in the world, as well as dynamically exhibiting and reacting to players' DNF ratings.
So far, then, it looks as if Rugby Challenge has the upper hand, being more stuffed than a Christmas turkey with content and licenses. But it's no good having all of this content if the game itself isn't fun to play. HB Studios' effort lacked significant content depth but offered deceptive accessibility, simplifying certain aspects of the game, but retaining important tactical features, giving players the opportunity to run set pieces from any breakdown, call marks inside the 22, and execute a little toe chip just over the defensive line. Sidhe's game, by comparison, is something of a mixed bag.
Passing is a simple matter of tapping the shoulder bumpers, as with RWC 2011, and Sidhe's game has a much more fluid and generous off load system that allows the players to maintain momentum, even if it is at times laughably unrealistic. Second row forwards brought to their knees by a crunching tackle rarely have the wherewithal or deftness to produce a 20 yard, perfectly aimed, behind the back pass.
Kicking is handled very well, however. There are four main kicks - the punt, the drop goal, the up-and-under( the high ball) and the grubber (a little kick along the ground) - all mapped to the face buttons. Tapping one will give you a quick little kick, but holding down the button sends the game into slow motion, allowing you to finely tune exactly where you want the kick to be placed. The landing target varies in size depending upon your kicker's attributes, determining accuracy, but it's an excellent mechanic that works incredibly well. The end to end default camera perspective also allows for far greater vision than the old side-on view and is very welcome indeed, with the camera panning 180 degrees automatically, depending upon who has possession.
Set-pieces are handled pretty well, too. Rucks and mauls devolved more often than not into button mashing, but scrums see players engaging in a little timing mini-game, requiring a button press as two lines come together, propelling the scrum in the desired direction and securing possession of the ball. Lineouts, conversely, require the player to stop a marker in the centre of semi-circular dial, with mistimed execution sending the ball in too far left or right, depending on where the marker ends up. The latter, in particular, is a very nice idea, although the the lag on button input required us to telegraph the button press way in advance - a problem that would also make place kicking something of a misfiring nightmare. It would have been nice, too, to have seen options for pop-passes to forwards running from deep, close to the breakdown, to differentiate as you can in RWC 2011 between flinging the ball to your fly-half for further distribution, and passing to a meat-headed battering ram.
It's clear to see that this game was delivered by a southern hemisphere studio, primarily (one would think) to capitalise on the rugby fever Down Under - not least helped by this year's tournament's location, as there's a clear emphasis on open play, with players able to side-step left and right with lateral flicks of the right stick, and give oncoming defenders a pleasantly aggressive hand-off. But passing in open play feels far less solid than it does in RWC 2011, and rather more of a mess. Instead of feeling like an organised team effort, more often than not it felt as though there were just thirty individuals running amok on the pitch.
You see, although my hands-on time with the game was very brief, there were still some glaring reservations, most of which centred around the breakdown area and backline play. The most glaring omission, it would seem, is that players are completely unable to run set-plays off of the back of rucks, mauls, scrums and lineouts. That means no dummy switches, no cross-field kicks to the wing unless you try and pull it off manually, no pivot moves, miss pass tactics or ways to bring the full back into play. This is a problem as it renders the running game, and the organisation of the backline, completely redundant.
There are arguments that you don't want to overcomplicate things, this I understand, but considering that this is a game for rugby fans (who else would buy a rugby game?) removing a healthy chunk of established tactical, training ground gameplay seems a little ridiculous. It's even more unfathomable when you consider that there are little, minute details in there - such as being able to move lineout jumping pods backwards and forwards to throw off the opposition - that the casual fan would overlook. When it comes to rugby, the best bit about it, the aspect which gets people off their feet and chanting, is epitomised when a switch puts a fleet-footed full back such as Foden through the gap and he breaks the line.
There are a bunch of sliders that can be tweaked in the 'edit' section of the game for each team that decides how often players will look to go into contact, whether or not a team will look to offload, run moves, pick up and drive or whatever. But apart from tinkering with the AI, I have absolutely no idea why on earth this would be in a menu that requires you to leave the field to change. In a game of rugby, the two sides are marshalled effectively by the two half-backs of either side. Well now you're controlling them...why the hell can't you control the game?
Rugby Challenge is shaping up to be a game that gets everything off the field absolutely right, but it is my desperate hope that they manage to sort out the little niggles that are in danger of ruining the on-field experience. There are so many good things in here, such as the FIFA-esque arena that lets you muck about as you wait for the match to load, not to mention running through tutorials (the game's tutorial mode offers comprehensive videos and challenges to help newcomers and veterans alike) rather than twiddling your thumbs. Not even EA Sports's flagship lets you do that. But they need to fix that lag and they need to implement set plays because right now, even though the rival has a fractional amount of content compared to this game, even though this should by all rights be the better game, it deserves to be the better game, for pick-up and play rugby enjoyment I'm actually leaning towards RWC 2011.
NB. It's worth mentioning that although we've seen a lot of both games, my hands on time with both was highly limited. Thankfully in between watching the real World Cup, I'll have plenty of hours to fill with these two.