A little star power goes a long way. Be it Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! back in the day, or the domineering presence of Michael Jordan in NBA2K11, an iconic sporting figure makes for both a powerful marketing tool and a rich source of gaming features. It is perhaps hardly surprising that New Zealand game developers Sidhe have trumpeted the inclusion of Jonah Lomu in their just-released Rugby Challenge.
Ultimately though, star-power will still only carry you so far. As developers, gamers and Graham Henry know, it is results on the field that count, and on this count Rugby Challenge is a success, with Lomu’s inclusion a bonus in a title that largely stands on its own merits.
Rugby is a tricky game to capture on a console. Both the free-flowing simplicity of soccer and the structured repetition of American football are excellently suited to gaming but the chaos and variety that defines rugby has always been difficult to capture. While Jonah Lomu Rugby was entertaining, and EA Sports’ Rugby 08 saw marked improvements in graphics and game play too, no rugby title has really stepped from “game” to the level of “simulation” increasingly achieved by major sporting titles.
Graphically, Rugby Challenge is solid, if not spectacular. Player resemblances are good and the game is for the most part glitch-free, although the default perspective switch that occurs when players have an opening to score is disorienting and best switched off immediately. Stadiums are also well-rendered, offering the excitement of playing the first test in Dunedin’s new glass-house and the vaguely poignant realisation that this is the last time we are ever likely to see Christchurch’s AMI Stadium in a game.
However, Rugby Challenge still struggles where rugby games have always tended to struggle.
Passing is not always very responsive and offloads in the tackle are unduly hard, making backline play frustratingly stilted at times, even if a bit of practice goes a fair way to remedying this. Meanwhile, the manner in which rucks and mauls are simulated does little to capture the true nature of forward play. Very little player skill is required to secure the ball with a superior team, and there's very little a player can do to secure the ball with an inferior team. The black arts practiced by the likes of Richie McCaw are not accessible in any way, making it all seem just a little random. Of course, all sports games leave some things to chance or simulation, but forward play is such a major part of the game of rugby that it is hard to imagine ever finding a truly satisfactory rugby title until that part of the game can be more fully captured.
Similarly, while players have a range of kicks and cut out passes at their disposal,there is no effective way to set up plays on the fly in the way current soccer titles enable. Too often attacking play is reliant not on the intent of the player, but the vagaries of their team, meaning that while AI teams have their own styles, it is hard for a player to really establish a tactical approach to game play to the extent most back-seat All Blacks coaches might like.
There are also some inexplicable moments from the opposition AI - kicking a penalty to end the game when behind by five points for example. While other concerns are reflections of how difficult it is to capture rugby in a game, this seems like a more easily avoidable flaw.
So rugby challenge is not the perfect rugby title fans might one day hope to see, but it is fun.
Forget for a second the quest for perfection and it is easy to get caught up in the ebb and flow of a game. While Rugby Challenge may not reflect some of the sport’s subtleties, it does capture the sinking feeling of seeing an Australian back breach your last line of defence and canter 40 meters to the try-line, the frustration of seeing your backline knock the ball on after stringing together 10 phases of play, and the disgust at watching Sonny-Bill Williams act like a prima-donna.
Or, at least, it delivers those first two sensations, and more besides. Sidhe haven’t fully mastered the science of rugby in its entirety, but they have captured its spirit admirably. Once practiced enough to ratchet up the difficulty level, players will enjoy games that see-saw back and forth between defense and attack, forcing kicking, placing a premium on possession and bringing enough of the excitement of the game to their screen that many of Rugby Challenge’s imperfections will be easily forgotten.
Adding to its merits, Rugby Challenge has a lot of game play to offer compared to previous rugby titles. While there are the usual licensing related disappointments, most notably the lack of real South African sides and World-Cup branding, these are both mitigated by the ability to develop teams, strips, players and even competitions.
Better yet is the wealth of competitions available to be played. Not only is the Tri-Nations available, but so is next year's iteration featuring the addition of Argentina. Given the somewhat irregular cycle of rugby releases, this is excellent future proofing on Sidhe's part, and is complemented by a perfectly enjoyable faux world cup and a wide range of club and provincial competitions, including Super 15 and ITM cup. True, the format for the ITM season is already out of date, but the ability to play Ranfurly Shield challenges is a pleasing inclusion.
Likewise, player creation, career modes, the anticipated Jonah Lomu All-Star squad and a potentially exciting 4 vs 4 online multiplayer mode ensure that Rugby Challenge includes a wide enough array of challenges to keep players occupied well beyond the hype of this year's Rugby World Cup.
Ultimately, anyone wanting the next level in rugby titles, or just a fun game with a local flavour, could do a lot worse than Rugby Challenge.