With the rugby World Cup set to kick off in France in September this year, it was only a matter of time before EA Sports put on the headgear and pumped out another game in its Rugby series. Sure enough, Rugby 08 has landed on the PlayStation 2 just in time to take advantage of the upcoming World Cup hype, but fans looking for a significant leap forward from the last game--Rugby 06--may be a little disappointed. While Rugby 08 does introduce some new elements, the game is a little too close to the 06 offering for comfort.
What Rugby 08 does well--as did its predecessor Rugby 06--is distill the complex parts of the sport into a gameplay experience that ramps up nicely in difficulty once you're past the novice stage. At its core are simple-to-handle controls: The left stick is used to move a player, while the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons are used to pass left or right of the current ball handler. Tackling is handled automatically; all you need to do to take down an opponent is steer your chosen player into the opponent's path, and presto--a bone-jarring tackle is applied. When you add the X button to power up and release a kick, as well as the L2 button to dash, newbies are armed with all they need to know to start playing the game. A simple-to-follow tutorial also helps out greatly, although it doesn't offer much in the way of illumination when it comes to the more complex rules of rugby.
These basics will be enough to get players cruising in the game's club level of difficulty, but the step up to the pro or elite levels will require more tactical thought and a lot of patience--just like a real-life rugby encounter. Rugby 08's artificial intelligence stiffens in both attack and defence at the harder difficulties. While the easy club level will tutor beginners in most aspects of the game, there's still a lot that's left unexplained. This obviously won't bother more hardcore fans of rugby, although it would have been nice to have some of the more oblique rules explained. In addition to tougher opponents, higher difficulty levels bring more player-management issues to handle. For example, injuries seem to happen at a much higher frequency at even the midrange pro level. Because the game features somewhat strict AI when it comes to substitutions, putting a player into a position that he doesn't specialise in will result in basic errors and a greater chance of injury. This means that losing a key position player can often make the difference between winning and losing a match.
Rugby 08 contains many of the same offensive and defensive special moves found in 06. These include the shoulder charge for plowing through wannabe tacklers, the sidestep for extra evasion, and the hand-off to fend away opposition players. All of these moves are performed with the right analog stick. For example, shoulder charges are performed by pushing the right stick in the same direction as the left stick. These special moves become a valuable tool in Rugby 08, although their effectiveness is somewhat limited by the amount of time that passes between performing the required right-stick move and the onscreen player's response.
General passing also seems to suffer delayed responses. For example, a half-second will pass from the time you press one of the shoulder buttons to when the player actually makes the pass. However, it's no deal-breaker because it's easy enough to compensate for once you get used to it. Passing, at any rate, becomes only one part of a successful strategy in Rugby 08. As in a real rugby game, smart kicking is vital both for better field position and to score points. In this aspect, Rugby 08 once again features game mechanics that are simple to learn yet hard to master. It's easy enough to kick for touch, using the X button to set power and the left analog stick to aim, but it's more difficult when it comes to setting more precise distances or bouncing a ball infield beforehand. Kicking for goal also becomes harder the farther a player is from the posts.
Rugby 08 has an abundance of game modes on offer, and the centerpiece is the upcoming World Cup to be held in France. All of the national sides competing at the World Cup are represented with nearly up-to-date rosters (though there are some exceptions, such as George Gregan still being the Wallabies captain), as are the French stadiums playing host to the tournament. Players can also take part in other real-world national and club competitions, such as the Tri-Nations, RBS Six Nations, Super 14, Guinness Premiership, or European Trophy. Rugby 06's world league mode also makes a comeback. World league is as close to a management mode as Rugby 08 gets; in this mode, players have to take charge of a Division 3 club side and play their way to the big leagues. In addition to playing the matches, players will need to manage player purchases and transfers from season to season.
New to the franchise is the challenge mode, with 30 scenarios from previous World Cup tournaments that present the player with the task of either emulating or changing history. Each challenge has three objectives that need to be completed, with a fourth opening up once the first three are successfully done. Some of the objectives are straightforward. Examples include winning by 30 points, keeping the opposition to a certain score, and completing a set play. But many objectives are, frankly, pointless busywork and seem like a cheap ploy by the developers to extend the life of the game. Some of the stranger ones include having to run around for eight seconds in the goal area before scoring a try, gaining 52 meters with consecutive soccer kicks, or having to perform two consecutive shoulder charges with any player before scoring.
One area Rugby 08 is severely lacking in is multiplayer; the extent of the multiplayer offering comes in the form of the person sitting next to you on the couch. Yes, it's late in the PS2's lifespan, but that's not an excuse for getting lazy and leaving online multiplayer out of the package altogether.
Visually, the game looks crisp, with the players featuring quality likenesses when compared to their real-life counterparts. However, the player models aren't super detailed, which won't matter for the most part because most gamers will probably find themselves using camera angles farther away from the action to gain a better overall view of the field. Rugby 08's soundtrack contains 12 songs from up-and-coming artists, which you'll hear ad nauseam by the time you're a few hours into the game. The same goes for the commentary; it's passable at the start, but it only takes a few games to hear the same phrases repeated over and over again.
Rugby 08 is another decent stab by EA Sports at rugby, which will please both newcomers and long-time fans of the sport. On the downside, it doesn't offer anything radically different to fans who may already have the previous entry in the franchise. The game is also hampered by its lack of online play, which is practically a standard in today's sports games. Here's hoping a possible leap to next-generation platforms for the next game in the Rugby series will bring with it some more major improvements.