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?