Version tested: Xbox 360
With the Rugby World Cup climaxing in New Zealand, 505's officially licensed game faces competition from a new challenger this week: Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge from talented Kiwi studio Sidhe (Gripshift, Shatter). Find out which one deserves your hard-earned in our head-to-head review.
Rugby World Cup 2011
When a sports tournament begins to wind down, fans of every team that's out of the running turn to video games to set the world to rights. Last year's Madden entry must have provided heaven-sent relief to Chicago Bears supporters, while this year, Arsenal fans are probably using FIFA 12 to begin their fantasy football title run early.
The rugby faithful have had to spend quite a few years in the wilderness in this regard. The last rugby video game came courtesy of EA Sports and was tied to the last Rugby World Cup tournament. That was four years ago, on the last generation of consoles. No other publisher has taken a stab at constructing a decent rugby sim - until now.
The developer of 505 Games' Rugby World Cup 2011, which holds the official license for the tournament and several of the competing teams, is HB Studios. These are the same folk EA Sports tapped up for their last rugby outing, which explains why RWC 2011 looks and plays a lot like Rugby 08.
Passing is mapped to the shoulder buttons while kicking and tackling are on the face buttons. Right trigger activates sprint and rucks are won or lost depending on the speed with which the player hammers the A button. Mauls are handled by tapping the A button and pushing the analogue stick in the direction of the opposing team's try-line. Scrums are played out in a similar fashion, although the timing on when to hook the ball is something of a mystery.
The on-pitch action is a little arcade-like, but manages to capture the free-flowing movement of the back line and the frantic scrabble for possession once the ball goes to ground. The ball physics are more than a little questionable, with passes flying to their intended recipients with laser-guided accuracy. Winning the ball on the ground seems to hinge on something of an internal coin-toss; if you tap the A button too frantically, your team risks being penalised for having hands in the ruck.
It's a flawed but enjoyable experience on the easiest difficulty, although beating the AI becomes laughably simple after a while. Ramp up the difficulty setting, however, and RWC2011 can be more than a little frustrating, particularly when trying to co-ordinate defence. That's when the random nature of winning turn-overs begins to grate, and the way the AI controlling your own defence falls to pieces can cause moments of hair-pulling fury.
Where RWC2011 really falls down, though, is in its paucity of content. While 505 has splurged enough cash to snap up 11 official team licenses, they would have done better to invest that money in filling out the rest of the game. Beyond the World Cup tournament mode (which is customisable, to a degree), there's an online one-on-one mode, a warm-up tour mode, exhibition matches and a goal-kicking mini-game. That's it. There are no club leagues, no other international tournaments, no scenarios and no creative tools to speak of. To make matters worse, there aren't even any tutorials; players are forced to learn the controls during loading times when a picture of the control layout appears on the screen.
It may be grossly unfair to criticise RWC2011 for not offering the sort of package that football fans enjoyed with 2010 FIFA World Cup. After all, 505 probably doesn't have the funds available to the EA Sports developers, or their yearly polishing process. It's not a terrible game and in brief spurts it can be highly entertaining, but ultimately there's too little on offer here to justify recommending a full price purchase.
As it stands, it's difficult to work out who this game is aimed at. The absence of any tutorial mode makes it an uphill battle for newcomers, while committed rugby fans will probably be put off by its lack of depth. New Zealand games don't even begin with the Haka, and where's the fun in that?
6 / 10
Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge
Which brings us neatly to Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge, the second - and only other - rugby sim released all year. Rugby Challenge does indeed feature the Haka, presumably as part of the license deal with the New Zealand rugby team, and that's not all it has going for it.
This offering from Wellington-based developer Sidhe isn't perfect and it isn't always pretty, but in terms of offering a more compelling, deeper and altogether better rugby video game, it runs over RWC2011 easier than Lomu himself ran over Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup semi-final. (And just in case anyone thinks we're being mean about the former England full back, that metaphor was inspired by an Achievement in the game called The Catt Memorial Service.)
Rugby Challenge has a few things in common with its competition; players still pass the ball with the shoulder buttons, the kicks and tackles are mapped to the face buttons and rucks still involved a bit of button bashing. However, you have greater control over passing and kicking, while rucks, mauls and scrums aren't so randomly decided.
In mauls and rucks, players can tap A for a quick bind - bringing in fewer players faster, allowing for a brief gain of ground - or B for a strong bind, meaning players will arrive a little slower, but will bring more power to the ruck when they do. During scrums, a semi-circle appears at the rear of the player's pack, and then it's a matter of flicking both sticks forward at timed intervals to drive over the ball. In these confrontations, the size and power of the player's forwards are really brought into play.
Once the ball is in the hands of the scrum half, myriad options open up. Holding a shoulder button causes face button symbols to appear above players in the back line, making it easier to send the ball to whichever back you desire. You can also press both shoulder buttons to send it deep to the fly half (and if they're out of position, the full-back) for a kick at goal or touch. If you're having problems breaking through the defending team's backline, you can even have the scrum half take a box kick and have the loose forwards pursue it.
In the back line, you aren't limited to waiting for an overlap; the right thumbstick allows you to dummy, sidestep and, if your player has the power to do so, hand-off and break tackles. You can also position grubbers, up-and-unders and touch and goal kicks more accurately. Holding down the button for each kick-type slows down the action, allowing you time and space to direct your kick more accurately - think of it as the Rugby Challenge version of bullet time, complete with slow-motion movement (apart from the kick-direction arrow) and muted sound-effects. This only works if the player has sufficient space on the pitch to take a kick; Rugby Challenge bullet-time is cancelled out the moment a tackle is imminent.
The on-pitch action is helped immensely by the fact that that Sidhe has wisely chosen to give the camera a raised viewpoint behind the player's back-line. This gives you a better view of your team's positions - who's onside, which side of the scrum is lined up for the ball and so on - and it also means that the shoulder buttons for passing don't reverse at half-time.
The difficulty can also be tweaked to cater to any skill level - from players who just want an enjoyable, slightly challenging knockaround, to those who don't care if a rain-slicked ball causes umpteen knock-ons.
Rugby Challenge is also kinder to newcomers to the sport than RWC2011 - and indeed, most sport sims currently available. Aware that rugby doesn't have the draw that, say, football does with gamers, Sidhe has included not only a huge list of easy-to-follow tutorials on how to play its rugby sim, but also some videos that lay out the rules and nuances of the sport. Veterans will also want to play through the tutorials as doing so earns both an Achievement and, more importantly, Rugby Dollars, which open up bonus content ranging from dev diaries and interviews to a team comprised entirely of Jonah Lomu clones.
Away from the unlockables and on-pitch action, Rugby Challenge has in spades what its competitor lacks: depth of content. There's a decent-sized career mode, a competition mode and the game supports co-op and competitive online and local matches. Rugby Challenge may not have the 11 teams in RWC2011, but it does have the All Blacks (Haka included), the Wallabies, the USA and 96 domestic teams including the Australian, New Zealand and English rugby leagues.
Also, unlike RWC2011, Rugby Challenge covers the areas it doesn't hold official licenses for with some decent approximations. While there's no Six Nations, there is a Euro Nations featuring England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. Everything rugby fans could wish for is here, including international competitions (for both nations and clubs), domestic leagues and the ability to create your own players, teams and tournaments.
Perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Rugby Challenge would be to point out that any weak feature the game has seems to be due to a lack of budget rather than any inherent design flaw. There's the odd hilarious occurrence on the pitch, the graphics aren't going to win any beauty pageants and the sound effects seem to come from the kind of bargain-basement package that EA Sports slung in the dustbin years ago. The commentary, which sounds like it was stitched together from random sound files, is the ultimate low point.
But Rugby Challenge is the nucleus of a truly great rugby sim. It's certainly the best rugby game currently available and one can only imagine the heights it could scale if a publisher with enough cash were to throw its weight behind it.
Are you listening, EA?
8 / 10