Platforms: PC, PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Publisher: Tru Blu
If Rugby World Cup 2011 showcased a few elements of Northern hemisphere rugby (excluding Wales, perhaps) - bulky, clunky and with a focus on set-plays - Rugby Challenge is almost certainly the Antipodean equivalent. Pacy, punchy and entirely focused on open play, Sidhe's challenger makes a good attempt at taking on the complex tangle that is rugby, even if a few key things mean it's far from perfect.
Let's start on the field. the bumpers fling the ball left and right, with the face buttons used to perform a variety of kicks. One of the finest little touches is having the game dramatically shift into slo-mo as you hold down a button to prepare a kick, allowing for more accuracy with the boot. There are welcome little touches at the breakdown area too, with little button-mashing setups for rucks and mauls, timing challenges at the scrum that see you trying to flick the analogue sticks as the lines on a gauge match up, and a wealth of options at the lineout, including the ability to manipulate the position of your jumpers, which is a fantastic little addition.
Open play is a bit of a mixed bag, though, if we're being honest. As long as you've not hit the deck you can still offload the ball in the tackle, although some offloads (and indeed some regular passes) are frankly miraculous - the ball zipping into the hands like clockwork, or being flung idiotically ten metres behind your own attacking line. Skill moves are mapped to the right stick, with handoffs and dummy passes easy to pull off, though sidestepping requires a little more work. Launch a run beyond ten metres and the camera will zoom in on your player with a little 'swoosh', that's quite nice, but it does mean that if you're tackled you can't see where the rest of your team are.
There's also not a huge regard for team positioning. Backs will throw themselves into rucks and mauls; forwards will be found in the line; it's all a bit indisciplined and jumbled up. A bit like under-11 schoolboy rugby, really. That last comparison is rather apt, particularly because, as with kids with short attention spans, Rugby Challenge has no real time for set-moves. It's almost like playing a game of rugby league - with the only real difference between forwards and backs being mobility.
What this all adds up to is a bit frustrating experience on the field - at least against the computer. The AI - both on your team and amongst the opposition - is pretty hit and miss. You can adjust the way a team will play in the menus before you start, but it's irritating not to be able to do this on the fly as you can with the D-pad in FIFA.
One area in which the game excels, though, is in terms of content. There are tutorials that you can run through in an Arena-esque training ground as you wait for matches to load, and they do a pretty good job of introducing the basics. There are competitions galore, including official licences for the major club leagues around the globe - playing with a fully kitted out Bath once again was an utter joy, even if the squads weren't quite up to date (still missing World Cup hero Stephen Donald). International licences aren't here though so, aside from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Georgia, you'll be facing a bunch of bizarre names. These are customisable, though, in the game's extensive suite of options, along with creation capabilities for players, teams and tournaments.
There are still a few little annoying quirks in the back end, though that can frustrate. One is that when swapping players, their names will swap instantly but it can take up to ten seconds for the right image to change. Moreover, things get more confusing when you try to 'fix' the dodgy licensing in the backend by manually inputting player names because instead of simply changing one or two letters (Tindall to Tinfell, for example), they've given players completely new names. Some of the default lineups will have you scratching your head too, and it's worth noting that the stats given out are predicated on pace, agility and handling. This means that some of the world's finest forwards - particularly props - are reduced to a universal rating below 60, which is a bit odd. Just goes to show the game's relative disinterest in individual player positions.
Online, though, much may be forgiven. With up to four players available in co-op and up to eight online, the game opens up in new ways as you whittle down the effect that AI brings to bear on the game. Matchmaking was pretty smooth, however we found a fair amount of lag around the breakdown area and at the set pieces - scrums, lineouts, kicks. Those little timing minigames suffer throughout the game, but it's especially noticeable online. The online modes offer up only the basics, really - a quick play mode and a custom match option that's only available to friends you've already made online - but it performs its duties well. Leaderboards are included for the competitive types, but it should be noted that as yet there didn't seem to be a penalty for rage-quitters, rendering the leaderboards a bit of a red herring at times.
Rugby Challenge isn't a bad game , and its wealth of options, modes and content make it a far better long-term prospect than its World Cup counterpart. But it's far from what hardcore rugby fans want and deserve. The presentation is superb (although the commentary is often unintentionally hilarious), the slick player animations a treat, and the game is stuffed with nice areas of detail, but the lack of organised play makes no sense. Why have four different types of kick, the ability to move pods at a lineout and two different kinds of bind at the breakdown, but completely forget to put in options for your backline? Rugby World Cup at least gives you the option to clearly differentiate between forward and back play, and also offers up scramble attack options, even if that game is clunkier than a rusty bucket.
The bottom line is that neither game proves terribly fulfilling. Granted, Rugby Challenge has a lot more going for it, but it sells an illusion of competency that is all too easily broken. Casual rugby fans will find a great game that, whilst not immediately accessible, does offer a guided route into the action. But those who've been waiting patiently for years will be disappointed again
- Wealth of gameplay modes
- Plenty of customisation options
- Nice tutorials and unlocks
- No set plays
- AI is laughable at times
- It's just a bit of a mess
The Short Version: Rugby Challenge is a quirky little game. Nicely detailed in some respects, and stuffed with content, it also drops the ball in some painfully obvious areas and the sporadic licensing leaves much to be desired. Its fast paced, well-presented play makes for the most acceptable rugby of this generation. But that's not saying much.