Having never played the previous two instalments in Sidhe Interactive’s Rugby League series I’m not in a position to comment on how Rugby League 3 improves on its predecessors. So with that in mind I’m reviewing the game as if it’s the first in the series – based on its own merits.

It should also be noted that I am a football player – of the round ball persuasion, but I do love league and know the game pretty well. That said, I’m reviewing the game as a gamer, not as a league fan. For the technical side of the game I sat down and had a marathon session with someone who knows the game very well indeed – Simon Mo’unga, the standoff and goal kicker for the Bartercard Cup winning Canterbury Bulls.

First and foremost Rugby League 3 is a Wii exclusive and it’s a bit of a shame really. The game would look amazing in HD on the 360 or PS3 and well, it just doesn’t on the Wii. But we must keep in mind that this wasn’t made by EA Sports with a gajillion dollar budget and doesn’t match up visually to their sports franchises, even on the graphically inferior Wii.

It would be easy to criticise the quality of the ambient graphics such as the crowd in the background, which is barely above Amiga quality, but I guess you have to focus on what’s important – the gameplay itself, the control method and the character animations on the field.

If there’s one thing that Rugby League 3 is, it’s comprehensive, with over 80 licensed teams from the NRL, Toyota Cup, State of Origin, Super League as well as international squads. No Bartercard Cup though, much to Simon’s dismay, but maybe next time eh Sidhe? Add to that 38 faithfully recreated stadia and you can play as your favourite team on pretty much any league ground in the world.

You can create your own players, teams and competitions if you wish and while the create-a-player mode isn’t as detailed as EA’s benchmark feature, you can generally get a reasonable likeness to yourself with a bit of tweaking.
This can be handy for making the handful of players who aren’t included in the game, such as Lote Tuqiri, as the game’s player roster is up to date as of September 2009.

There are three very different ways to control Rugby League 3 two of which involve Visceral Wii Remote motion controls. The first uses both the Remote and the Nunchuk and has the player using the thumbstick on the nunchuk to move players around the field. Flicking the remote left or right performs a pass in that direction and flicking it up makes the ball carrier kick. Combinations of these movements and various buttons perform variations of the end result e.g. up & under or grubber kick, or short & long passes. We both found this method to be fickle in the results that it produced and instilled more frustration than enjoyment. You need to train yourself to keep the remote very still in between motions as the slightest movement left as you’re about to flick it right and you’ll pass the wrong way. In the end we lost patience with this control method and moved onto the second one which is the Wii Remote by itself.

With the remote turned sideways you use the D-Pad to move players around and passing is performed again by flicking the remote left or right in a mini passing motion with both hands. This worked slightly better, but still produced inconsistent results. Player movement was also more blocky using the D-Pad and using the trigger button with the remote on its side is really awkward.

This brought us to by far the best method of controlling the game, but unfortunately the method that most gamers won’t have access to. Using GameCube controllers. This took all the motion control out of the equation and really allowed us to start enjoying what the game had to offer. It controlled the game in a way similar to other rugby games. The shoulder buttons are used to pass left and right with a tap performing a short pass and a full press a longer pass. In-game kicking takes slightly longer to perform, requiring a shoulder button and a face button to be pressed, but before long it becomes second nature. Kicking for goal is a breeze and follows the tried and true ‘click once for power and again for timing’ method. Overall the GameCube Controller method beat the others hands down in every aspect of gameplay.

Relying on your team’s AI to do all the work for you is a bad idea in Rugby League 3 as on many occasions the opposing team spun it wide to score in the corner while my winger stood on the try line and watched the ball carrier run past him to touch down. It happens all over the park and forces you to flick control to the player nearest the ball so you can be sure of the tackle and force turnovers by performing big hits and steals. However if you approach a tackle and then switch control to one of the markers in the tackle area, your previously controlled player just stands there offside instead of retreating immediately.

Andrew Voss supplies the commentary once again and is excellent as always. But there are occasions when he seems to be watching and calling another game altogether. Once, playing as the Kiwis, I had an opposition winger run straight into Manu Vatuvei and got hammered, the commentator announced that the winger had run into a gaping hole in the defence when this was clearly not the case. One nice audio touch is having the referee’s whistle, calls and chatter come from the Wii Remote speaker (if you’re using the remote of course). It gives a sense of being amongst the players and in the thick of the action.

Most of the well-known players have been reproduced so to be instantly recognisable. They don’t have very many changes of facial expression – some of them score a try and look like their Aunty just passed away. When you get down to the lesser teams and second-fiddle players they tend to get more generic in their looks with hair, skin colour and general build being the only noticeable difference.

At the end of the day I have no doubt that Rugby League 3 is the best League game on the market to date. Once you get the hang of the controls then you can really start to enjoy the game itself. It’s very easy to get frustrated by the motion controls, and if this is the case then I cannot recommend more pulling out or investing in some GameCube controllers.