Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (previewed)
The rugby titles of two years ago -- Sidhe's Rugby Challenge and HB Studios' Rugby World Cup 2011 -- could not have been more different. The former showed off Sidhe's Antipodean roots, ad background in developing rugby league games, with a fast paced, if sometimes chaotic game, that made up for its lack of cohesion on the field with a whopping content offering. By contrast, HB Studios' effort was a clunky, tiresome title that, whilst capturing the tactical nature of the sport, was more sluggish than a tranquillised walrus and had seemingly splurged the whole dev budget on acquiring the World Cup licence.
It's a shame, really, because HB Studios' Rugby games under EA had actually been relatively complete both on and off the field, if nowhere near as slick as EA Sports' premier franchises. The point is that few games have managed to capture both the depth in play and fluid, fun sporting action that rugby fans want.
From an hour of hands-on with the game, it seems that Rugby Challenge 2 excels in the same areas that its predecessor excelled in, but it looks like some of the niggling issues that we had with 2011's game are still present and correct too.
The content package is still impressively comprehensive. Although Sidhe's not managed to get the international licences from EA, the volume of localised licencing and domestic leagues and competitions is staggering. Chances are, if there's a domestic rugby team that you follow, it'll be in this game, and that's a wonderful thing. The full range of customisation options is back, so you can sort the rosters out yourself on the international stage. Happily, Sidhe have managed to grab the Lions licence, so the 2013 Lions Tour is included as an officially licensed competition, complete with player names, likenesses, and the official kit, of course.
Irritatingly, the ratings of the forwards are still weighted towards the requirements of the backs, with positional ratings not taking the attributes required of that position into account when determining a player's rating. So it is that world class hookers can have a rating of below 40, whilst fast backs with awful stats everywhere else will be up in the 70s just on account of their pace. Going by Sidhe's ratings system, you'd assume that Leigh Halfpenny could play second row.
The biggest gripe we had with Rugby Challenge by far, though, was the mess it made on the pitch. Ingenious little quirks such as the slo-mo effect when kicking out of hand, or being able to select between jumping pods at the lineout and shuffling them back and forth, these were negatively balanced by a complete lack of order in open play and around the breakdown area.
Thankfully, Sidhe have made some strides towards rectifying that.
There are tactical options off of the D-pad now to rearrange your offensive and defensives lines, though running set plays still appears to be a jumbled scramble of chaos. You can pull defensive players out of rucks and mauls if you think you've lost the play, and try to spread yur line out. Too often in the original game we found that our roaming defenders would cluster around the breakdown area and not spread themselves, giving the opposition frequent five-man overlaps. That's less of the case this time around.
Offloading has been tuned up as well, making it a little more difficult to get that last-second pass away. Leave it too late, and you'll ship it blindly to thin air, possibly leaking a turnover. Speaking of which, if you're quick to the breakdown, you can now tap a button to try and scrounge the ball back quickly. A swift tap and your tackler will try to get back on his feet, or the first arriving ruckers will try to scoop up the ball for turnover. But you've got to be careful: mash the button too much and you'll give away a penalty for hands in the ruck. If you don't manage to quickly swing momentum your way with some cheeky McCaw-esque ball theft, redistribute your line, and get set for another phase of defence.
There are still a few too many moments when it's difficult to tell if your player has been tackled or is simply in the middle of a canned animation of him breaking that tackle, so there were a couple of moments during my hands-on session when I accidentally kicked the ball away or knocked it on because I was anticipating a ruck when the ball had yet to go to ground. But the action seemed a little sharper and tighter than before elsewhere.
These aren't huge strides, you understand, and the visual engine is pretty much identical, with some questionable passes and bizarre "headless chicken" moments cropping up with relative frequency. But it does seem a little more ordered than before. In the previous game, for example, mounting a defence on your five metre line never lasted particularly long, as gaps would open up everywhere due to some rather shoddy AI. With the additional tactical options on the D-pad allowing you to bunch and widen your line, combined with the option to pull players out of rucks if you're quick, it means that grinding battles of attrition and small margins become a reality. And that's pretty promising; the more variety in the way that you can play, and rugby is nothing if not a game that offers a gargantuan amount of tactical options, the better.
There are still things that need ironing out, such as the behavioural sliders for your team that need to be accessible at all times, including in-match. Scrums and lineouts are still fiddly affairs with tiny margins of error that need to be re-approached and revamped to make those little minigames engrossingly competitive rather than frustratingly alienating. The career mode needs to be more than just a league and a competition stuck together. Sports games have advanced so much in terms of the content that they provide that to settle for less would be completely disingenuous.
But Sidhe are certainly on the right track, and if they keep pushing and tuning and tweaking and refining, rugby fans might finally get the game that they deserve. I have my doubts over whether or not that game will be Rugby Challenge 2, though.