Version tested: PlayStation 2
Four years, countless embarrassing defeats and an almost bionically rebuilt Johnny Wilkinson later, and England stand nervously on the brink of what could be history's most unsuccessful attempt ever at retaining a Rugby World Cup title. Such has been the lack of the enthusiasm and general sporting press buzz over England's chances in the run up to the France-based tournament that you could be forgiven for thinking it was six years, let alone six weeks, until the competition started.
It might go some way to explaining the somewhat quiet launch to EA's latest Rugby game then, being as Rugby 08 is the official game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and all. Of course, you might also put that down to Rugby's lack of popularity compared to football, but then we'd have to obviously have to ignore you for being so completely wrong about what is definitely the UK's most entertaining ball sport.
It's a shame, because Rugby 08 is a very good sports game indeed. Like previous games in EA's Rugby stable (the last being Rugby 06) Rugby 08 genuinely understands the sport it's based on. This is a game about possession, territory and momentum, rather than any kind of ridiculous, American Football-style field-length punts and runs. Understand Rugby, and you'll understand Rugby 08. Throw in EA's trademark polish and high-production values, together with the series' amazingly well conceived pick up and play controls, and you have a game no self-respecting rugby fan will want to be without.
Why? Because this is the perfect example of how an 'annual' franchise update should be done. The changes made to the core gameplay since Rugby 06 are almost all positive, making for a much tighter, more competitive match of rugby. Being able to offload the ball in a tackle - the desperate art of passing the ball to a teammate as a burly defender pushes you face first into the dirt - was one of Rugby 06's best additions, but it ended up an over-used and overly-powerful skill. In Rugby 08, offloads require not only improved timing, but better tactical awareness to ensure you always have at least one team member close by to act as a receiver. Insist on sprinting for glory at the expense of ignoring your fellow scrum buddies, and all you're going to end up with is an isolated winger, a crowd of over-eager defenders and yet another turnover.
Defenders don't constantly stray offside anymore; instead, the computer simply runs them back into an onside position for you, thereby removing one of the most annoying problems of any Rugby Union game you'd care to mention. Drop goals are much easier to pull off, making them a far more viable method of scoring, to the point where they're almost preferable to going for a try. Quick penalties and line-outs feel less like a novelty and more like a genuine tactical play. And passing a short ball from a ruck to a forward, rather than out to the wing, actually works now, rather than just falling uselessly to the ground as it often did in previous games. Try this with a team blessed with powerful flankers and you'll find yourself steaming through defensive lines like a hot knife through liquid butter.
Likewise the set-piece attacks that were introduced to Rugby 06 have been improved as well, and not just in a 'there's more of 'em' kind of way either (although there are plenty more, necessitating you to pre-select your favourites at the same time as choosing your team). Again these are activated by tapping the D-pad during rucks, but in a really nice touch, you'll often have to wait for your backs to organise themselves first, particularly if you've pulled them out of position or if it's an especially intricate attack. As with real rugby, this means you may need to hold onto the ball in the ruck just that little bit longer, thereby giving your opponent the chance to bind more people to their side of the ruck and increase the chance of the turnover. It all comes down to a delicate balancing act of how many men you want to commit to the ruck and how long you can wait before passing the ball back, proving that Rugby 08 is at last starting to get to grips with some of the more tactical nuances that make the real game so interesting to watch.
To counter the improved attacking set-plays, players can now change their defence line-up on the fly as well, again using a quick tap of the D-pad. It's another useful addition, but to use it to its fullest you'll need to know exactly what your opposition is planning simply by recognising the way their backs switch positions across the pitch. Deep stuff then; perhaps a little too deep for your average, frantic ten-minute run around.
But of all the positive changes, the most notable goes to the computer AI, which really pulls its socks up this year. The dark days of fish-like shoals of running drones are long gone, with defensive lines that react intelligently to your set-plays. Even better is the way defences now organise themselves when pushed back to their own try line. Forcing the ball down the last five meters of the field for a try has always been the hardest thing to do in rugby, simply because you're working against a defence packed into a smaller and smaller space, and so it is in Rugby 08. Some of the best moments can be had pulling off Herculean defence efforts on your own try line against phase after phase of concerted attack. It's like Rugby 08 finally cracks that thorny issue of making defence feels just as fun and dynamic to play as attack.
Not all the changes are quite so good, admittedly. The loss of the constant offside decisions is great, but it's been replaced by endless high tackles (in this case, performed by the computer). Being able to rotate mauls and scrums now also seems great in principle, but in all honesty, adds very little to the game tactically. And the decision to change the previously ineffective line-out system of timed button presses to a choice of simple or pro methods, the latter requiring you to mimic your arm swinging movement on the touchline with the analogue stick, is more actually a choice between overly-simple and overly-complicated. Then again, going by previous EA Rugby games, these are the sort of minor issues that will no doubt be fixed by the time the next game comes out.
So, any major problems then? Well, as the official World Cup game, Rugby 08 understandably concentrates on pushing the national side of the game. It still boasts all the licensed club squads and competitions of previous years, but the promising career mode introduced into Rugby 06 has been jettisoned in favour of a simulation of the six-week World Cup tournament (which, by its very nature, lacks any kind of transfer market), along with a brand new Challenge mode where players must replay classic moments from World Cup history.
Frankly, it's a rubbish decision - it's like PES forgetting to put the Master League in. To be fair, the Challenge mode has a fair amount of weight to it, with plenty of matches to plough through and numerous tasks in each ("score three trys with the same person", "run around behind the try line for ten seconds without being tackled before putting the ball down" and so on), but it's not really the same - or as good - as taking your own team from bottom-feeders to European champions, especially when the only reward is World Cup video highlights that could just as easily be found via a ten second search on YouTube.
Instead, Rugby 08 tries to inject a bit of campaign continuity to proceedings with its concept of Form and Morale. Essentially, each player now has a Form and Morale rating, both of which can go up and down depending on whether they're picked to play or not, how they play, what injuries they sustain, disciplinary record in a match and so on. Clearly, the idea is to keep these as high as possible, which requires a canny amount of team rotation on the manager's part, and as a system it works well, once you get your head round it, but it's still not the proper career mode it should be.
But even more bizarre is EA's decision to make the PS2 Rugby08's sole console platform. We understand that the game's essentially been built around the shell of the much older Rugby 06, which was a PS2 (and old Xbox) release, but with a PC version of Rugby 08 also out, surely an Xbox 360 version can't have been beyond the realms of possibility? Perhaps it has something to do with Rugby 08's continuing (and in this day and age) unacceptable lack of online play?
Even so, as the only Rugby game to be released in conjunction with this year's World Cup - Ubisoft's Rugby Challenge brand having officially sunk without a trace - EA could easily have just churned out a money spinning, license whore. Fortunately, for the genuine rugby fans out there, it didn't. Instead it has produced another well-conceived and well-executed update, with enough new gameplay features that Rugby 06 owners should warrant investing in an upgrade (we'll conveniently forget the lack of career mode) and enough gameplay concessions that fair-weather rugby fans caught up in World Cup fever can confidently purchase without fear of overly complex control set-ups or endless technical rules vagaries. Still, with PS2 being the only console to see a release, not to mention the continuing absence of online play because of that decision, it makes you wonder just how committed to its rugby licence EA really is.
8 / 10