Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge is pretty much the best rugby game ever made – it’s simply that damn good. Featuring a nice amount of international teams, Rugby Challenge doesn’t go light on the content front as the modes are engaging and the game is just filled with detail and sheer enjoyment due to how the smooth it plays. There isn’t a steep learning curve to Rugby Challenge since the basics are easy to get a hold of and developer Sidhe has managed to faithfully recreate the key aspects of rugby without any compromise.
+ Controls are responsive and don’t take too long to master.
+ The graphics and animations do an excellent job of conveying a sense of realism to the game.
+ Having licensed teams such as the New Zealand All Blacks is a terrific addition.
+ Presentation is top notch and getting replays on key moments is greatly appreciated.
- A.I. for the opposing team can be a bit too easy to manhandle.
- Online offerings are a bit meager. Where’s the online league or tournament support?
Last month I shared with you all one thing about me that you may have never known: I’m a rugby freak. Despite being born and raised in the U.S., I’m a huge fan of rugby thanks to catching a match on TV five years ago and now I simply need to get a rugby fix whenever possible. Hell, if I could I would play rugby for a local team in Chicago but alas I can’t due to a nasty concussion I received a few years back. So when I played Rugby World Cup 2011 for the Xbox 360 last month my heart sank in a way due to how bad the game was. As a sports video game there was definitely things in the title that were lacking, but the main problem was how fragmented the fundamentals of rugby were and how the game wasn’t even that much fun to play. Playing Rugby World Cup 2011 I felt the same sorrow I feel when my beloved New Zealand All Blacks lose a key match – I was simply downtrodden. But now I can finally raise my head and stop crying as a rugby fan since Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge pretty much gives a rugby fan everything they would want in a rugby video game plus a little something extra.
Rugby Challenge is one of those rare sports video games that right from the moment you pick the controller up and spend a few minutes in a match you already know that it’s an immediate winner. Like I said in my review of Rugby World Cup 2011 it can be hard to do a rugby video game and translate all the things that make the sport entertaining into a digital environment without it feeling too stagnant to a degree. But translating rugby to a digital medium wasn't difficult at all for developer Sidhe. Not only does Rugby Challenge offer a thrilling depiction of rugby that has all the elements that make the sport so deep, but the game also manages to make a mere virtual stadium and players come alive due to how brilliantly designed it is.
Ok, so developer Sidhe haven’t done too many things to change up the core rugby formula or gone in such a direction that the game has a more arcade feeling in order to be accessible. Rugby Challenge is a straight sim and it showed as I had to be mindful of every pass I made since lobbing the ball doesn’t always guarantee a try (score) will be made or that my teammate will even catch the ball. Despite being a sim, Sidhe hasn’t really saddled Rugby Challenge with controls that need a five page booklet to be explained or are so difficult that performing one maneuver requires at least six button presses. There are definitely aspects in Rugby Challenge that lean more on the advanced side of things, but with a wonderful tutorial learning the finer aspects of the game like doing a dummy pass or side step are easy to get a hold of and in no time will turn anyone into a rugby pro.
Taking the basic and advanced techniques of Rugby Challenge into action I was surprised at how much fun is to be had in the game. I wasn’t expecting Rugby Challenge to be a complete dud given the talent Sidhe has, but at the same time I wasn’t expecting the game to be as engaging as it is. Normally upon playing a sports video game for the first time I can be a bit lost due to needing to get my footing and get a grasp of everything but for some reason everything flowed naturally in Rugby Challenge and I was just generally psyched to play the game. After seeing the standard presentation elements, I was treated to something that almost cemented the awesome factor for the game: the New Zealand All Black’s did their traditional pre-match Haka. A staple of the All Blacks (which if you couldn’t tell are my favorite team), the Haka is a native Maori war dance that pretty much is supposed to scare the living crap out of the other team.
So with the Haka over and done with I went on fully motivated to win my 1st match and I must say that such a thing became a reality. Part of my debut victory laid in how easy Rugby Challenge is to get into and how some of the mechanics are almost brilliant in their execution. Doing simple things like passing is handled by pressing either the LB or RB buttons to throw left or right and doing a quick kick is handled by pressing the Y button which actually makes the game enter slow-motion for a while so gamers can get a slightly accurate kick position. So having the basics be simple enough and the controls feel snappy and responsive, it’s rather easy to get a basic rhythm down in order to string together passes, do a quick swerve to avoid an oncoming defender or simply use some brute force to drive whilst in a tackle in order to inch ever so closer to score a try.
Some 2nd half action from a match between New Zealand and England.
At this point I may be making Rugby Challenge to sound like it’s an overly easy game when it isn’t in some cases. Like I already said, passing isn’t always a guaranteed success since if you merely tap the button the result may be a quick and sometimes sloppy pass which may result in a turnover. But putting a bit of thought and skill into Rugby Challenge doesn’t require the player to be a student of the game as one simply needs to use some common sense and decide when the best time is to pass the ball or go for a quick kick to gain some field advantage. Rugby Challenge does have a few minor quirks here and there control wise but the game never really feels like it’s dumb as some sports games do through poor A.I. or controls that feel as if they’re doing everything except what you want them to do. Even the A.I., which is always a touchy subject for any sports game, manages to hold up well as my teammates were always in prime position to either advance or defend and even the opposing team had some wits about them. At times some of the A.I. teams can be pushovers as their tactics aren’t tremendously varied and some of their routines can be a tad predictable. That’s not to say I always found myself with a complete blowout score of 36-0 since the A.I. did put together some good runs which led to them scoring. The slight problem with the A.I. is that it’s simply too easy to completely tear them apart if you’re playing as a near godly team, such as the All Blacks, or have an adept understanding of the game.
However easy the A.I. may be at times the experience in Rugby Challenge isn’t ruined thanks to a simple online mode that actually made me step my game up in order to keep up with the competition that’s out there. There aren’t any deep options in the online mode like having eight players control a squad (4 player co-op is supported) or being able to set up a vast rugby league amongst your friends, but as a no-frills experience the online mode in Rugby Challenge gets the job done and it’s lag free for the most part. Being able to engage in a mass Tri Nations Cup tournament online would’ve been nice, especially if it was amongst friends but alas I guess such a thing will have to wait until the next Rugby Challenge title.
Rugby Challenge has the core fundamentals of rugby as a sport down in such an amazing degree that I honestly feel like other rugby titles should be ashamed. Not only do things like passing or the tackling have that perfect realistic look that makes the game wholly believable, but the game just nails certain aspects of the sport right on the head like doing a scrum or trying to retain/obtain ball possession from a tackle. Obtaining ball possession from a tackle is somewhat straightforward since I had to have my players go into a heavy bind which required me to furiously tap the B button. Doing such a basic mechanic may have felt a bit predictable, but in Rugby Challenge it simply lends a nice sense of power in a tug of war sort of way since it captured the intense feeling that is often in most rugby matches. Scrums are also handled in an equally simple yet engaging way as I had to press both the left and right analog sticks together when two lines met in order to push my squad forward and hopefully reclaim the ball. The thing about how Sidhe handles all the technical aspects of rugby like scrums, lineouts and even punt kicks is that not only are they simple but the UI is about as unobtrusive as you can get. With simple white circular rings appearing around scrums, Rugby Challenge has a very sleek look to it that for me managed to uphold a sense of realism in the game while still telling me everything I needed to know at the given time.
Besides just doing an excellent job of adapting and translating aspects of rugby, Rugby Challenge simply feels like an actual match at times due to how unpredictable it can be and how everything is presented. Unless the score is 35-0, a match in rugby is never quite over and I was able to mount a few comeback victories which actually gave me such a feeling that I felt as if I just saw an amazing surprise victory in an actual rugby match. Part of why Rugby Challenge managed to illicit such emotion from me is obviously because the game is fun, has good animations where it counts and because everything is presented like a real life match. Aside from featuring the standard commentators, which are good aside from a few odd glitches, Rugby Challenge offers a nice amount of replays which actually show all the action from multiple angles instead of just showing everything at a slower speed. But it isn’t just the replays that managed to get me going but the small things like how the camera will get closer to a player when they’ve broken off and are running for the try line that just show me how much care and consideration Sidhe has taken into the game.
Part of why Rugby Challenge is a success is that not only does the game play like how a rugby video game should play, but visually it does a perfect job at recreating the aura of rugby in a digital space. There isn’t an initial shock to be had upon playing Rugby Challenge since the game isn’t close to being a 1:1 match of real life through jaw dropping visuals, but all the arenas are modeled wonderfully and the players actually look like their real world counterparts. At times some of the stiff faces or somewhat questionable hair modeling may slightly break the immersion, but each player in the game looks like they’re a separate entity from their teammate instead of just having a different face slapped upon a commonly shared body.
Rugby Challenge just doesn’t play as a perfect simulation of rugby as the game does offer an outstanding amount of content. Aside from the regular Career Mode in which gamers can choose from one of the many international teams available, I was able to enter the Competitions Mode and make a run for the Tri Nations Cup or I could simply do a quick match to get my rugby fix immediately without anything being on the line. With fully licensed squads for the big three rugby teams (New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa) plus other teams from various regions, I was impressed by how deep the squads in general were but was surprised to see that I could create my own player and plop them on any team. Instead of just choosing a pre-set face, slapping my name on the back of the kit and calling it a day, I was able to fully customize my character’s face as best I could, dish out some stats (I kept things modest and didn’t do 90+ stats in every category) and then try to become a legend amongst the All Blacks squad. The create-a-player mode isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before and the lack of varied faces is disappointing, but nonetheless it’s nice to see such a thing in the game and in general it’s well executed.
I may sound a bit overzealous in how much I admire the work Side has done with Rugby Challenge but considering the meager offerings we get in the genre I can fully appreciate the work that was sunk into Rugby Challenge since it has paid off tremendously. Rugby Challenge is about as perfect a rugby game can be since the core controls are easy yet there’s an accessible level of depth via the more advanced maneuvers that can be pulled off. With a good amount of international teams from British, South Africa and Australian leagues, rugby fans should be pleased with what the game offers since it truly is the definitive rugby video game.
A review copy of the game was supplied by the publisher.