Here in North America, it doesn't matter how popular a given sporting pastime is across the rest of the globe. If we didn't originate it or refine it, we generally don't care about it or even recognize it. On a professional level, sports such as soccer, cricket, and rugby enjoy massive worldwide appeal but barely register here on our sheltered shores. And that may be just the reason EA Sports' latest athletically oriented game, Rugby 2004, seems so subpar--it just isn't important on EA's home turf. Graphically dated, poorly presented, and too darned tedious and repetitive in single-player mode, Rugby 2004 may gain some favor because of its uniqueness and perfectly timed release (coinciding with the real-life Rugby World Cup), but it is by no means authoritative, and it certainly won't convince newbies that the sport makes a worthy computer game.
Out of the chute, Rugby 2004 looks both bad and rushed. First-timers may want to sit through the lackluster opening--a banquet of none-too-stimulating animated video snippets culled from the minds of Canadian developer HB Studios--but they will undoubtedly opt out the next time. When you first arrive at the menu interfaces, you'll quickly realize this is not a distinct PC build. It's console all the way, from the roughly rendered background graphics to the blocky, ultralow resolution text and horrid control. You can't type your name in--you must instead select letters with your mouse. And you can't use the keyboard to navigate. Indeed, this inconvenient control setup continues even during a contest, where you're never really sure which device you should use to scroll the menus or make selections. Sometimes your mouse will do the trick, sometimes the keyboard, and sometimes your gamepad.
And then there are the options--or rather, the curious positioning of them. If you want to adjust the graphics, for instance, you'll do so even before you begin the game, from a separate launch-configuration utility. That's right, you must decide in advance such matters as resolution, shadowing, detail, weather (on/off), and antialiasing. To modify the audio settings, you must actually enter a contest and select from the in-game menu. Thankfully, you can decrease or switch off both the crowd volume and commentary volume. This is important, as the crowd tends to drone on and on, and the commentary is pitifully weak. In fact, the game's programming and trigger points virtually destroy any value real-world broadcasters John Inverdale and Gordon Bray may have otherwise brought. Sounding energized when there is no excitement, jumbled when the action heats up, and flat-out wrong or noticeably behind the play much of the time, Inverdale and Bray are most enjoyable when silenced.
Before you get under way, you'll want to decide on the structure of your gameplay. Rugby 2004 offers several alternatives, including a training pitch. Here, you'll practice several of the sport's finer points without the pressure of winning and losing. Sadly, the training pitch isn't nearly as informative or instructional as it could and should be. In fact, there is no instruction at all. Instead, you merely decide which part of the game you need to improve, then attempt to master your controller and run your plays against the artificially intelligent adversaries. You'd think that in the absence of any real tutoring, EA could have at least supplied an option whereby you could work on your game without any opposing players on the pitch. This would have been a great boon to newcomers, who would be able to get a better grasp on the basic elements. Alas, such an option is not available.
Once you're marginally familiar with the controls, you can select from two game types: a quickie one-off exhibition contest or a substantially more involving real-life tournament. In each, you'll choose your difficulty preferences--easy, normal, hard--and the half length. In tournament mode, you can also choose arcade or simulation play and a random or 2003 schedule. The Master League also allows you to trade players and customize and manage your team, though you can't build your own tournament from scratch with teams of your own choosing.
However, you can build your own players from scratch. For Rugby 2004, developer HB Studios has instituted a solid player-creation and editing tool that lets you design to your heart's content. Naturally, if you want to play fairly, you won't stock your team with oversized behemoths who can run at light speed and tackle with a mere flick of their massive forearm. In any case, you can choose a player's hair length, skin tone, girth, name, and even the sound byte associated with that player--it's all up to you.
On the pitch, the game doesn't get much better. From a purely visual standpoint, Rugby 2004 is leagues below other EA Sports endeavors, even those from two or three years ago. The camera work is particularly poor, often jumping about ad hoc to follow the path of the ball or strangely diverting to an inconspicuous corner of the pitch when a penalty is called. You'll eventually want to use one of the distant perspectives, as it takes in more of the field and doesn't feel quite so herky-jerky. But then you'll lose much of the animation intricacies.
No matter, really, because the players generally move in a simple fashion. There appear to be two or three running motions, a couple of tackling motions, and a couple of falling motions. When players slow down, they don't really run at a slower pace. Instead, they move their arms and legs at the same speed but somehow don't cover any ground--as if they were running on ice. When they make a transition--say, from sprinting to jogging or when turning from a diagonal to a horizontal orientation--they do so abruptly, instantaneously altering their direction and position in the blink of an eye.
That having been said, the game does a respectable job of modeling the features and attributes of rugby's star players. And there are plenty of them scattered among the 60 teams and 1,500 players HB Studios has incorporated within the game. Though the heads are generally too big for the bodies, the faces look quite good, and the statures are distinct.
Conversely, the peripheral scenery is only fair. The game purportedly replicates an impressive 65 real-world stadiums, and indeed you'll notice the architectural differences whenever you get a nice wide-angle shot of the environment. Some are monstrous high-tech affairs, others are classically designed, and some are just plain antiquated. The crowds look good from a distance, where they appear as a living, breathing mass brandishing club-specific flags and colors, but up close they look more like the blurry passengers from a ghost train.
The game also supports varying degrees of weather and both daytime and evening matches. However, all those little visual flairs so predominant in many top-of-the-line sports games are conspicuously absent. You won't find rain droplets, big muddy puddles, or dirty uniforms. There are no sun effects or lens flare, and a dry pitch really doesn't look much different from one that's soaked. The overlay graphics, though supposedly trying to duplicate the polished feel of a television broadcast, are not nearly up to the standards set in other EA Sports endeavors and are nowhere near real TV.
But all of the above could be somewhat forgiven if Rugby 2004 delivered strong, exciting gameplay. Unfortunately, it does not. In simple terms, the game is messy. For starters, the dizzying camera work and jumpy animations do not paint a clear picture of the proceedings. The control setup seems poorly defined, and players off the ball tend to run around ridiculously. Scrums look rather effective, but there seems to be some question as to what, exactly, you're supposed to do while it continues.
This brings us to a key point. There are simply too many times when the unfolding events could do just as well if you weren't there. Scrums are one such example, but even worse are those persistent and persistently annoying instances when the game really does fall out of your control. Over and over again, you are presented with set animations--say, a kick or a line out--where you are permitted no input yet can't fast-forward through them. This is monotonous to the extreme and not acceptable.
For the most part, carrying the ball is an exercise in frustration. Most confounding is the game's depiction of fatigue, where the ball carrier grows weary as he rumbles down the pitch but his pursuers do not. It would appear that HB Studios' rugby ball weighs just about the same as a medicine ball. There are a few ways around this, however, and once you discover some of the game's hot plays you will win your fair share of contests.
Two- or four-player human-versus-human affairs are a bit more appealing, if only because another real-life person will make mistakes the AI does not. You friends must be gathered around your computer, though, because the game does not support any form of remote play.
Bereft of the graphical bonanza found in such series as Madden, NHL, and Tiger Woods, Rugby 2004 will not appeal to eye-candy fanatics. Nor--with its poor instruction, disjointed sound, and questionable gameplay--will it grab the attention of rookies. True rugby fans may be able to see more clearly behind the confusion and low-grade presentation, but even they will eventually grow annoyed by the flaws. If you enjoy the sport and really have a strong desire to try your hand at its virtual facsimile, there are few other alternatives, but even then Rugby 2004 may not be worth the hassle.