The All Blacks have been the dominant force in rugby for many years. Having first toured the world in 1906 they brought with them the intimidating pre-match Haka, and along with it a real sense of personality to the game of rugby. One of the biggest names in recent All Black fame has been Jonah Lomu, a man mountain who would dwarf the largest players in the game, but what really set him apart was that he could also sprint faster than most 100 meter athletes. The All Blacks put the Lomu giant on the wing, where traditionally the smallest and most nimble players would tear it up the pitch, and the All Blacks would then get the ball out to him as fast as possible and watch the slaughter, as those same agile players would attempt to take him down.
Naturally it is still Lomu’s face and name that adorns the latest offering for the PC, Jonah Lomu’s Rugby Challenge. The rugby world cup takes place every 4 years, bringing along with it enough global interest to produce a PC game. As a long term rugby fan I have always picked up these games with interest every four years. And I’ve found that the complexity of the sport has never been suitably brought to life, until now.
Rugby is often a fast paced, stop-start game with strategies being produced on the fly as each side attempts to find weakness in their opponents. Games preceding Rugby Challenge have always failed to identify what aspects of the game’s mechanics translate well onto our screens, while still enabling the player enough control of the action through a joypad. Trying to play Rugby Challenge with anything other than a 360 controller will prove pointless. The 360 controller is automatically configured allowing you to effortlessly switch players, support mauls, execute tackles and spin out bullet passes.
It is quickly obvious that this is not just another cash-in as the world enjoys its 4 year Rugby World Cup fever. Sidhe, the developers, have clearly thought hard about the best ways of delivering every part of the game, making sure the player can influence and partake, while not getting overwhelmed or confused.
One area that has been considered is the level of player control necessary for the continuous mauls and rucks. Important to the flow of the game, a ruck forms when a player is tackled, the ball goes to the ground and at least one player from each side connects over the top of the ball. Next, each team tries to push the opposition back until they are able to step forward over the ball. Multiple players can link to form a stronger, heavier group allowing them a better chance to be the side that steps over the ball, which is then released to the speedier back players to begin a running or kicking play.
In the past these highly important and frequent rucks might have been resolved through furious joystick waggling or quick-time events but Rugby Challenge has taken a brave side step and simplified this. You tap a button to bring one of your giants forward into a ruck where he will bind hard or light depending on your choice. Hard bind offers more strength and weight to the ruck but means your forward will take longer to extract himself from the tangle of men once the ball has been released to the backs. In this case, Sidhe have provided the player with more time to think about the running or kicking strategy they may wish to employ next and therefore enhance the intelligence and flow of the game. Before long you will be setting up power plays out the back of a scrum or handing off a defender before going for a sneaky drop goal. With a little practice you can even get up-and-unders and box kicks to land successfully. Another point of note is that Sidhe use slow motion when you wish to kick to touch. This is an excellent way of keeping tension while enabling pin point accuracy. Obviously it takes practice but it is very possible.
Whether you are new to Rugby or not I strongly suggest you take yourself through the playable Rugby Challenge tutorial that allows hands on practice with the many different elements of Rugby and how the game controls deal with these mechanics.
As with most sports sims the longevity of the game is always a plus. Honing your skill takes practice and with Career modes, World Cups, all the major leagues and national sides and classic team unlocks Rugby Challenge will keep you busy for some time to come.
Only yards from the try line Rugby Challenge fails to score a comfortable win.
Had I ever tried to tackle Jonah Lomu in real life I may well have actually been killed. He is a juggernaut and like him the men that play rugby are awe-inspiringly powerful. These brutes battle it out with each other for 80 minutes and it is often carnage. Bearing that in mind, three very important areas of Rugby Challenge are left wanting.
Firstly, you do not adequately feel the weight and power of these players as you control them, getting no clear sense of who’s bigger and stronger. This leads into the second issue. The tackling feels light and unsatisfactory. There is limited tackle control; you cannot choose to pile drive a player into the ground or make a diving lunge for the opponent’s ankles, the game decides this for you and does not always deliver a satisfying outcome.
Finally, you may find yourself wrestling with the controls to get your player to score. On a number of occasions the ball was pulled out of the ruck by my scrum half, a yard from the try line. We have seen this many times before and everyone knows what he will do: dive for the line and put the ball down to score. What actually happened was, he would run over the line and sometimes straight out the other side into the dead ball zone. Failing to score. On other occasions he would run a handful of yards into the Try zone, not put the ball down and get tackled, which would result in the referee deciding whether or not it is a Try. The problem here is that the game would seemingly not allow the chance of a try without you having first crossed the line, removing your choice of a diving try. These three areas represent the missed icing on an otherwise testosterone filled cake... of rugby? OK so that analogy doesn’t hit the mark either but you get the idea.
While there may not be any other modern rugby games, on any platform, at the moment I am happy to say that this is the best representation of the game I have played and the first one to capture the complex mechanics. Dropping the ball in a few key areas has cost Rugby Challenge that one all important mark but with the core of the game in place it may be a simple patch that enables Sidhe the chance to bring the first Rugby sports sim to the masses.