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Unorthodox technique

Underlying that personality is a suite of customisation tools that Sidhe says cannot be matched by any other sports title on the market. The player creator alone includes eight pages of options, with each page comprised of a vast array of minute features. These features are not a collection of defaults, or even sliders, but a grid, allowing for asymmetrical features such as a left eyebrow that is slightly larger than the right.

Beyond the physical appearance of players, an extensive list of abilities can be set from zero to 100. In addition to the sorts of items you might expect to find, such as speed, endurance, dominance and tackling, these include much more nuanced skills such as the ability to offload a pass mid-tackle.

Customisation options, says Sidhe, run to “lots of zeroes and a large exponential factor.” (Sidhe has since followed up with us, saying that there are more customisation variations in Rugby Challenge than there are atoms in the observable universe. It’s a number that, frankly, is too large to republish.) Simply put, any player from the prop in your local club team to tomorrow’s undiscovered super-star can be recreated in every particular.

But Rugby Challenge facilitates customisation well before a ball is ever in play. Upon launching, the game detects the system’s location and plays close-up in-game footage of the corresponding country behind the menu. New Zealand gamers will see the All Blacks scything through a tattered Wallabies defence. In Australia, it's the opposite. Elsewhere, players will first see the Jonah Lomu All-Stars – a team of global legends hand-picked by Lomu himself – running amok. The player can also set the team that plays behind menus – even player-created teams can be selected.

Laying down the challenge

The Australian and New Zealand rugby unions, then, are clearly onboard. So too is the Tri-Nations and Quad-Nations (Argentina joins the southern hemisphere’s premier international competition in 2012), the Super 15 competition, New Zealand’s provincial tournament, the ITM Cup, and a spate of European leagues including the Aviva Premiership, the TOP 14 Orange, and the RaboDirect Pro12.

But arguably the most important license, the IRB Rugby World Cup, has not been secured. Additionally, the official team colours and likenesses for most international rugby teams are not licensed. These, along with a handful of other important licenses such as the European Six Nations tournament, have been licensed to HB Studios and 505 Games for their competing title, Rugby World Cup 2011.

There can be no doubt it’s problematic for Rugby Challenge, but it’s also not insurmountable. In addition to having stand-ins for each missing license (Euro Nations, Rugby World Championship), Rugby Challenge’s unmatched customisation options mean that interested parties will almost certainly be able to download “official” teams created by the community within days of release.

As to the licenses Sidhe does have access to, the Rugby World Cup stadiums in New Zealand have been recreated with careful attention to detail. Black-blooded Kiwis will be happy to hear that the All Blacks license also means “Ka Mate”, the haka, is in the game. Percy explains that the All Blacks performed several takes of “Ka Mate” on motion capture. Depending on the player’s selection and availability, Piri Weepu or Hosea Gear lead the haka. The numerous takes mean performances show variation throughout. Those around the world who love to hate the haka can skip the formalities or rest assured that when performed internationally it is met with a din of discontent.

For local audiences, the dulcet tones of Grant Nisbett and the enthusing of Justin Marshall lend authenticity to the commentary. But while sometimes-dubious “Nisbett-isms” will be familiar to Kiwis, it’s possible international audiences won’t find much to their taste in the broadcasting department. It appears that the irreverent stylings of Bill Beaumont and Bill McLaren in Codemasters’ Jonah Lomu Rugby are not to be revisited. The game’s commentary also suffers from the occasional jarring sound bite construction: the recordings of “the fly-half” and “poor handling skills by” can sound unnatural when played next to one another.

Open play

Paramount to the on-field experience is team and player personality. How teams respond to situations is determined by AI characteristics. The forwards and the backs each have preset play-styles based on their position on the field: home 22, opposition 22 and midfield. The play-style also takes into account the score and the time on the clock. That means audacious teams such as the All Blacks are more likely to run from their own half, whereas England and South Africa will likely consider a drop-kick when in the opposition half. As with everything in Rugby Challenge, these play-styles can be tweaked from the menu.

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