Ah rugby union. The sweepingly grand, orchestral music; the expansive, multi-faceted, deeply tactical gameplay; the snarling, hairy behemoths that make up the forward pack; and the fleet-footed, elegant pirouetting of a blazing backline. Rugby union is a complex spectacle of a sport...and translating that into the form of an accessible game that retains the depth of play but provides an enjoyable experience hasn't always worked too well.
Thankfully HB Studios are well steeped in the trials and tribulations of bringing the egg-shaped ball to gaming platforms. The Canadian studio was last seen trotting out Rugby 2008 back in 07, a sprawling epic of a sports title that took in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, was jam packed with licensed teams from both hemispheres and came loaded with a fully fledged career mode that saw players taking control of a team of unknowns and working their way through the leagues, slowly but surely generating enough cash to put together a dream team of sorts. It had its issues, the lag on the canned animations (particularly the sidestep) was pretty awful, but it held my attention far more than FIFA's relatively abysmal effort that year.
Four years on and we have another Rugby World Cup on our hands, and HB Studios have once again been challenged to deliver a tie-in to capitalise on the event's growing popularity.
Thankfully, the other night we got a chance to try out the game for ourselves and see how things are shaping up ahead of the game's release on August 26th. Assembled together with a handful of representatives from both gaming and rugby focused areas of the internet, we engaged in our own mini-emulation of the upcoming tournament.
The basics remain relatively unchanged. The two bumpers ship passes left and right, releasing the backs off of the breakdown, while the triggers offload to the forwards with pop passes from the back of rucks, mauls and scrums. You can still make a variety of kicks in open play, from thebasic punt through to the grubber and the risky up and under, and now a simple tap will sent a chip kick over the oncoming defensive line for your players to chase through as well.
The game is an exaggerated form of its titular sport, but then what sports game isn't. Pacing is notched a few degrees higher than your average scrum-fest, referees are more inclined to let the more dramatic tackles - tapping 'A' offers up a rather satisfying spear hit if you time it right - go without pinging and penalising (although off the ball tackles and clothesline infringements will undoubtedly see you sent back ten yards), lineouts have been simplified and no longer require timing both the throw and the jump and the breakdowns have been tidied up to make for a less daunting experience for the newcomer.
Now when the ball goes to ground and a ruck is formed, or a player gets held up and a maul is started, mashing the 'A' button will up the Intensity of your team's players, committing more people to the breakdown area in a bid to win the ball. As this happens, a bar will begin to fill. Push it too far and the bar will start to flash, greatly increasing the likelihood of a penalty against your side as players get a bit over-excited. It's a simple system that works rather well compared to the fluctuating energy bars of previous games.
Other new gameplay additions include the new quick pick-up mechanic. In previous games if someone went to ground out on the fringes of play, with little support around them, opportunistic players would have to try and run their player over the ball and hope that he'd pick it up. Now, if there's a chance for swift opportunism, the a button will appear over the tackling player's head for a split-second, allowing for a quick pick-up if you're fast enough. 'It's a small window of opportunity,' said game designer Matt Lane, 'but it can turn the game around in an instant so we didn't want to make it too easy.' It's a nice feature that ensures you keep a beady eye on the breakdown, and is crucial if you're playing a lower level team looking for any chinks in your adversary's armour.
Sadly, for the tournament itself, we drew the short straw with the lowest ranked team on offer - Tonga - but still managed to emerge second in our group with an emphatic win over GodisaGeek's French side. The local multiplayer will support up to four players at any one time in any combination, though the online matchmaking - a new step for HB Studios - will be more focused on head-to-head gameplay.
The on-field action is shaping up nicely - although there were a few disappointing remnants from previous games, most notably in terms of canned animations occasionally zipping completely unrealistic passes, and the longstanding issue of slight lag for sidesteps and hand-offs not being solved as the animations run their course - but we had some reservations about the amount of content in the game, and whether or not it could justify a full price tag considering that its competitor is making good use of the domestic licenses and has a full career mode.
'Well we found ourselves in relatively new territory, stated Lane. 'This being our first game for the HD platforms, we really wanted to make sure we had solid gameplay before anything else. We wanted to make sure that it was up there visually, too, and we had to develop our own technology - rendering systems, animations systems and also, another first for us, online technology as well.
'We made a decision early on to focus on international rugby, and with the World Cup branding and official licensing it allowed us to really try and nail the gameplay. With the small studio size and the new challenges facing us, we didn't want to try and do too much and upset the balance. You should have seen our wishlist, though.'
It was a fair enough answer, but the worry is that the wishlist of which Lane speaks may extend to approaching gamers after a while as well. There is a player editor of sorts and you can jiggle about with the stats to your heart's content, but will it be enough? For the layman, the answer is 'probably'. The official branding is always a massive bonus - as FIFA fans will tell you. But as their PES counterparts might justifiably argue, that in no way means its a better game. Rugby World Cup 2011 might just be the most accessible rugby title so far, it was certainly a lot of fun to play and that's actually quite an achievement considering the depth of the sport it is trying to represent. But can it keep a player invested and will it satisfy in the long term? We have our doubts about that.