You might have heard there’s a sporting event coming up, something about rugby and a cup. While this is bad news for anyone on the hunt for a cheap hotel room, it is good news for gamers, who after a three year drought are now presented with not one, but two rugby titles for their consideration. It’s also good news for HB Studios, who have secured the rights to said World Cup for their Rugby World Cup: The Official Game release.

Not-so-good news for HB Studios, however, is that Rugby World Cup will not be compared against the last major rugby title from 2008, but instead against the concurrent release of Sidhe’s Rugby Challenge.

Things start well enough, with official Rugby World Cup branding, licensing of the South African union – which is lacking in Rugby Challenge – and generally slicker menus and introductions. Initially, therefore, Rugby World Cup looks to be the officially sanctioned big brother of the Rugby Challenge release. That is, until the game is played.

While Rugby World Cup presents well, and brings certain things to the table that Rugby Challenge doesn’t, it only serves to simultaneously shine a light on all the things it lacks.

Take for example, the presence of a fully licensed South Africa. Great, until you consider that other teams are missing, New Zealand being the most notable amongst them, leaving fans to play as a fictional team of men in black. Obviously the complexities of licensing negotiations are such that game developers can’t be too harshly criticised for failing to secure certain rights (and one always likes to imagine the South African Rugby Union as being particularly difficult to deal with), but having an official World Cup title without the perennial favourites and hosts is still going to disappoint many fans, particularly here in New Zealand.

Similarly, having the fully licensed World Cup is an obvious asset to the title, much as it was an obvious omission from Rugby Challenge. However, on closer inspection it quickly becomes evident that the Cup is pretty much all the game has to offer. That’s right, in 2011 we have been presented with a sports title that offers a seven game tournament, as well as one-off tests and a tour mode that, while an authentic addition, is essentially just a way to string together a series of one-off tests.

The net result is a game that doesn’t have much lasting appeal, especially when contrasted with the plethora of competitions and formats available in Rugby Challenge, or indeed any other sports title. While licensing issues are forgivable, this is another issue entirely, and provides the first hints of the real nature of Rugby World Cup: a cheap cash-in, rather than an honest stab at making a good game.

Of course, the evident longevity issues would be mitigated considerably if the on-field action were sublime. Despite a credible effort, Rugby Challenge is far from flawless and there are certainly a number of ways in which another title could seek to match or better it in terms of game-play. Sadly, Rugby World Cup fails to deliver on this front also.

While most of Rugby Challenge’s problems were linked to difficulties of adapting rugby for gaming, there was at least evidence of a desire to make a good game and (hopefully) build a platform on which to base future titles. By comparison, HB Studios has delivered a game that offers only the most basic of progressions from EA Sports’ Rugby 08, and no sense of commitment to the future iterations of the game. Instead, this title exists in a world where graphics have apparently only advanced marginally in the last three years. Camera angles are limited, player likenesses are vague at best, and motion is far less lifelike than gamers have right to expect in 2011.

Gameplay is also fairly basic. Like Rugby Challenge, Rugby World Cup struggles to capture the nuances of forward-play, but it also falls down in terms of the overall flow of games. Matches play out repetitively with less evident variation between opposing teams and a sense that success in rugby comes simply from hurling your backline at the opposition again and again until they crack.

Of course, rugby titles will always lag behind bigger budget endeavors in other sports, but Rugby World Cup is inexcusably last-gen in its presentation, gameplay and commentary. The overwhelming sense is of the Rugby World Cup being milked, rather than any serious attempt having been made to deliver a good title. It is fun to play in an arcade sort of way, but beyond the enjoyment that can still be had in multi-player competition, it is hard to get at all excited about this game, or imagine it capturing anybody’s attention beyond the end of the event it promotes.

At the end of the day, it is frustrating enough for New Zealand sports fans and gamers that rugby and cricket titles are so few and far between, and that they will never be made on the sort of budgets that Madden or Pro Evolution Soccer enjoy. To then be presented with such a cynical, half-hearted effort as Rugby World Cup masquerading as a legitimate contender with a full-retail price tag only adds insult to injury.