All sports players wants to feel the electricity in the air as they walk out into a packed stadium, the deafening cheers from supporters drowning out their own thoughts. Unfortunately, not everyone can compete at the top levels, and luckily for those of us who aren't part of the select top-tier group, video games give us a chance to be the hero and live out the fantasy lifestyle from the comfort of our couches.
Rugby World Cup 2011 is one such game, giving players the chance to don the colors of their national team and, in the process, help skipper the side to victory. We recently strapped our ears and picked up the controller to take the game for a spin around the park.
This isn't the only football game to launch that coincides with this global quadrennial event. Its maker, HB Studios, has a development pedigree that includes previous rugby games for EA, including the lackluster Rugby 2004 and the more positively reviewed Rugby 2005. Sidhe Interactive's Rugby Challenge is also joining the footie fray, although neither includes complete licensing for all of the teams taking part in the tournament. Rugby World Cup 2011 features the player names and likenesses, uniforms, and venues for all but the Australian and New Zealand sides, while Rugby Challenge has Australia and our friends across the Tasman--but none of the other world teams. Luckily for those willing to dedicate the time and effort, at least in the case of Rugby World Cup 2011, players will be able to rename players in their sides manually.
Those looking for a faithful re-creation of the official pools will be able to play them as they stand, while there's also the option to randomize the teams that appear in each round. Though not a team-management game, there's a sim option that will generate full-time scores with your selected squad. To ensure that the game has some legs once the Cup is done and dusted, there's also a one-off International Test mode, where you can pit two sides against each other, choosing your preferred team, stadium, weather conditions, and rival difficulty.
As we so aptly pointed out when we first saw the game this year, the game has a bit of a FIFA feel to it, and in doing so, it does a great job at bringing the intensity and speed of the sport to the console. If you can do it on the pitch, you seem to be able to do it here. Play short to reclaim possession from the kickoff, kick for touch, and take your chances on a line-out to move your way up the field. Rucks and mauls require strategy to assign players and stack weight without leaving gaping holes in your defensive line.
Controls change, depending on whether you're playing on the offensive or defensive team. When attacking, the face buttons map quick kicks for grubbers, field goals, and downfield punts. Passes are fired off using the left and right shoulder buttons, while the left trigger acts as a modifier button of sorts, allowing you to throw cut-out and dummy passes. The right stick switches the handedness that the ball is held in, and when recovering the ball from the ruck, assigns set play moves, color coding players who are in line to receive the ball.
Rucks also have their own minigame, forcing you to tap a button to either secure your possession or turn the player to grant access to the ball. It's a fastest-finger-first type of deal but does play advantage to the team already in control of the ball. Tapping too hard and going into the red puts you in the firing line of the referee, and early in our demo, our overzealousness to strip him of ownership didn't work in our favor.
The game will ship with support for four players in a mix of local and online configurations, but unlike its FIFA counterparts, it won't allow for full sides to go head-to-head with each other. We only took on the AI in our session, but if you're coming from other football codes and sports games, our recommendation is that you may want to tone down the difficulty until you've come to grips with the control system, lest you face a walloping. Because there's no tackle count to monitor, with the exceptions of turning an opponent in the ruck or throwing the dice on a line-out, it's easy to go long stretches of time chasing the other team members as they inch their way up the field. If you do manage to plant it under the sticks, you'll be rewarded with telecast-style video replays, including a media player allowing you to rewind and bask in your glory, followed by a chance at converting your try. It's all pretty standard fare, and you'll need to juggle the wind and a golf-swing-style power meter. We're hoping that the AI is still in the tuning phase, as teammates aren't always useful, standing around watching rather than lending a hand as the other team crashed over the line to score, or bunching up around the ruck, leaving gaping holes in the line.
Player likenesses are reasonable, the licensed venues appear authentic, and smooth animations help to give players a sense of realism as they charge headlong into bone-crunching tackles, run to join their buddies in the maul, or hoist a teammate in a line-out.
It is feast or famine for fans of rugby games, with several years between drinks, and now you have the pick of two titles based on the tournament. From what we've seen of Rugby World Cup 2011, it appears to capture the spirit, pace, and fluidity of the sport, and more importantly, it's a lot of fun to play. The game will be tackling the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in late August. Keep an eye out for our full review soon.