Dan Carter kicking off the second half.

A group of 23 men, in the best shape of their lives, challenge you and call you out. You stand resolute, along with your 22 compatriots, watching this challenge, knowing you are now a part of history. You are face to face with the Haka, a Maori war dance that the All Blacks perform before their rugby games. It has given birth to many things and is a staple in the rugby world. Some teams even began singing their own national anthem in an attempt to drown out the intimidating Haka.

Rugby Challenge 2 helps fill a void in the rugby world. Many people do not have the option of playing this highly physical sport in real life, due to their geographic location and have to settle for watching it on TV or playing it on a gaming machine. Either way, sitting on a couch at home. RC2 is the sequel to Rugby Challenge and was reviewed by Felix here. This time around though the game is focused on the British And Irish Lions Tour, which only happens every four years. This year the tour headed for the Wallabies home turf in Australia.

Sporting titles are not usually renowned for their graphics but RC2 manages to do a half decent job in this area. It is great to see rugby get the Madden treatment. The players all look different and the options to make your own player are almost staggering with the number of sliders and options for your player. On top of this the game also features the haka as performed by the All Blacks. Sadly, the haka doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it could have, but it is still great to see it. The animations are pretty decent too. A player will crash into you and your guy will start pushing his head down and try to wiggle his way out of the tackle. The animations shine even more in the replays. Its satisfying to control your player to hand-off an opponent (hand off is a polite way of saying, smash an opponent in the face) as they try to tackle you just before you score a try. However, these animations can miss the mark sometimes. It is a strange sight to see someone stick his arm back at an impossible angle to fend someone off, but these sights are only slightly jarring to the overall immersion.

The gameplay itself is fun. With over a hundred teams, numerous competitions, cups and the career mode it is hard not marvel at the replayability on offer. Each team also has its own playstyle that if not used will yield poor results or be a great deal harder to win with. My personal style is to keep hitting the line with rucks and not worry as much about passing and offloads. This works great with some more physical teams, but other teams aren’t great at rucking and the tactic quickly falls apart. However, those teams are much better at offloading the ball and blasting up the sides of the field. This is a breath of fresh air as most sport titles have limited variation from one team to the next, often leading to the discovery of a single tactic that works and then sticking to it. In RC2, if you play the team wrong you are not likely to take the win.

I played for 3 to 4 hours in the first sitting with the game, finding it hard to put down. To get good at RC2 you have to hone your skills. But this makes it all the more satisfying when you are able to execute a great plan to perfection and the AI falls for your play, just like a human opponent might. However, it is quite the opposite when the AI does something impossible to thwart your hard efforts. To add more gameplay options RC2 also comes with local co-op, so you can play alongside your buddy on the same coach or even compete online. It also features a thirteen season career mode that allows you to take the reins of a club team or an international team and lead them to glory.

However, not everything that glitters is gold. The AI seems almost too good, even on normal difficulty. They can make near impossible offloads that a human would have a very hard time replicating and if successful would be more luck than skill. On top of that they seem to almost magically be able to contest the ball during a ruck. The player will have two guys at a ruck and they will still somehow be able to contest it and win. individually these issues would not be much of a problem, but when combined it makes even the worst opponent a difficult team to beat. This leads to teams like Kenya, rated 41 of a total 100, being able to keep a close game with the All Blacks, rated 91. Again, not normally a problem, but having the computer controlled Kenyan team nearly disrupt your All Black career through unbalanced AI can lead to understandable frustration.

While on the subject, nothing is worse in the game than working an awesome move that leads to the hard won try only to have the referee recall it for no reason other than the random calculation of the game. Having this action within the videogame does represents an aspect that is very real in an official game of rugby but its application into the videogame is questionable as it is simply a random calculation that can seriously dampen a gamers enjoyment. Sometimes the opposite can occur, you cross the line and get nailed but still get a try. Leading to the feeling that it is a gamble once over the try line. But that is the way of rugby, you will be wishing you could have just gotten a breakaway and scored with no one around. A final negative that certainly needs mentioning is that Rugby Challenge 2 is hard to play on the keyboard. It isn’t just a matter of having fat fingers or not knowing what to do, it is just hard. With nine different keys used to play with the ball not including the four for movement it gets really hard. Using a controller is the way forward.

Despite the above grumbles RC2 scales its difficulty level really well. Very Easy will feel like you are playing a dumb AI, just like it should, while pro will make you sweat, curse, and, wonder why you even thought you were good enough, just like pro should. The AI become better, faster and use more tactics on harder difficulties. The line outs become faster, scrums more exact, kicking more complicated, and passes a bit harder to throw. The best place to start, no matter how demeaning, is easy or very easy. This is mainly just to get the hang of all the controls and figure out what is going on. Once the controls are understood your move on to Normal difficulty feels natural, jumping to pro like I tried once is a bad idea and will result in you wishing you had more of a clue.

One fix I noticed though is the weight of the tackles. Your player will be pushed to the side even if someone just brushes him with a tackle. A heavy forward will stop you in your tracks, but a light back will be cast to the side. The sense of player weights and strength feel solid. Running with a forward feels like someone turned the games speed down, while running with a back feels like you are superman. A cool feature is during break aways the camera pans in behind your runner on the field level. This helps determine when to side step or fend someone off when they come up on you. Plus it provides a real sense of satisfaction and immersion as the camera pans down to follow your player as you sprint down the field and score your try.

RC2 does a great job in providing gamers the world over with a chance to play the highly physical game of Rugby even if it is from the couch or chair. However, at 40 US dollars you need to think about whether you can forgive the sometimes flaky AI. But being an indie developer it is a great feat to see rugby get the Madden treatment. Giving Rugby Challenge 2 your support will certainly help the future of Rugby in videogames as there really arent many alternatives. If the developers, Sidhe, deliver a solid patch to address the AI, the game would be great and could easily consume many hours of your life.

The haka performed in front of the Wallabies.