AU Review--Rugby League fans have been waving their flags and calling chants from the stands for years in hopes of seeing a new game based on their beloved sport. Developer Sidhe Interactive has heeded the call, bringing the series it made famous on the PlayStation 2 to the Wii for the first time. But while the addition of more teams, eight-player multiplayer, and a new formation tactics system gets things off on the right foot, outdated player rosters out of the box and an unresponsive control scheme cause the game to trip over its own feet.
Rugby League 3 expands its predecessor's 50-team roster to 80 and includes sides from the 2009 Australian, English, Welsh, French, and New Zealand domestic leagues; the Australasian and UK national sides; the Toyota Cup Under 20s; and annual Aussie mainstay clashes like State of Origin and Country vs. City. Each team includes fully licensed rosters, player likenesses, and club kits, though considering that the game is launching at the beginning of the 2010 season, it's disappointing to see changes like Lote Tuqiri's move to the West Tigers and Hazem El Masri's retirement at the end of the 2009 season not reflected. While these are glaring omissions, the inclusion of custom team and player creation tools gives those with the time and inclination the chance to shuffle players, modify skills and stats, and build their own dream teams.
Gameplay is split into two categories: match play, and playing and coaching. If you like being on the grass and tossing around the ball, then the Instant Action, Single Play, and Competition modes give you the chance to play quick matches with randomly selected teams, pit two chosen sides against each other, or attempt to steer one club to victory over the course of a season. Playing and coaching puts you in the shoes of the team manager as you watch from the sidelines, or captain the side to glory.
Controls are Rugby League 3's biggest issue. The simplest scheme sees you holding the Wii Remote sideways and guiding your characters around the field with the D pad. Shaking the controller left or right passes the ball, while upward thrusts barrel your player through tackles. Plugging in a nunchuk shifts player movement to the analog stick and uses the same wrist flicks to trigger dummy and real passes. The concept of using waggle to get the ball to teammates on either side of you makes perfect sense, but with the controller in your hand, the gestures required to perform the movement are slow to register and lack precision. This makes it hard to pass to a specific player, and at times even the correct side of the field, and makes the wrist snapping required to string together fast plays that keep the ball moving nigh on impossible. Nunchuk play makes player control easier, but it suffers at the hands of the same imprecise passing mechanics. The third and most responsive control option is playing on a GameCube controller. The triggers negate the need for motion gestures and give you the control to throw short or cut-out passes with ease by using half or full button presses. Wii Classic Controller play would have been an ideal replacement for remote and nunchuk operation but is unfortunately unsupported.
At the lowest AI difficulty, straight runs, barges through waves of defenders, and wide passes to run the wing will work just fine, but as you crank up the difficulty, the game adapts to use all the tools at its disposal. First-grade-level AI players ditch straight runs for advanced crossovers and fast, short passes--and the element of surprise. The CPU will wait until the fifth and final tackle before punting the ball downfield, but it's just as likely to run on the last tackle and chip over your defence mid set and chase it down, or snap a cheeky field goal to secure the lead going into halftime. It's these changeups that make each match challenging, but thankfully it doesn't ever feel like you can't be competitive because the AI is using cheap tactics or skills unavailable in your own repertoire.
Rugby League 3's best feature is its strategy presets menu. At the tap of a button you have access to five preset offensive or defensive team formations depending on whether or not you're in possession of the ball. Defend Kick pushes your fullbacks and wingers back to wait for deep kicks, while Full Line creates an even defensive spread but leaves you vulnerable to those who manage to bust through. Cover Defence shifts wingers to prevent chip kicks, and Aggressive charges down kickers to try to force errors. If you don't want to mess with formations between plays, then Automatic mode works well by dynamically adjusting your team placements on the fly. The strategy system marks a welcome addition to the series and turns what is an otherwise basic run-and-pass game into a slightly more analytical experience with the chance to plan advanced plays and exploit weaknesses in your competition's defensive line.
If you're more interested in the science of football, then Franchise mode lets you get your knees grassy and practice your cheque writing at the same time as you buy and fire players, train your squad, and juggle contract negotiations. Careful budgeting of your salary cap is essential to ensure you have enough players to field a team as you face injuries, judiciary appearances, and your star players being offered guernseys for local and international tours.
You can toggle whether or not you want your players to be given the chance to play for their state and country at selection, but selfish coaches can also manually edit players out of the squad to keep their top talent on the field during the season. Multiyear contracts are supported, and watching your best and brightest climb the Dally M Award newsletter as a result of your coaching is rewarding. Rugby League 3 has something of an identity crisis though, in that it seems unsure whether it's a team management simulation or a traditional sports game. Whether you're playing Competition or Franchise mode, each match gives you the option to simulate the game. Skipping matches keeps your head in the stats, but choosing to pass on playing introduces the risk of receiving automatic injuries and carry-over penalties you may not have incurred if you had played the match yourself. The game is a competent League sim title, but if you're after a well-featured, dedicated simulator rather than a game that spends half its time playing on the field, you would do better to look elsewhere.
Andrew Voss reprises his spot in the commentary box and spits out player names during play. Banter alternates between natural informal chatter and wooden ad-lib as short audio snippets like team names and locations are mashed together on the fly. Occasionally, the commentary doesn't match the onscreen action either. Crowd cheers are canned rumbles triggered at set intervals during matches even if nothing interesting is happening on the field, and the game's looping guitar rock theme gets stale fast. Football players celebrate silently on the field at the completion of matches, but team songs are missing, and the game passes on the chance to include any of the licensed music used to promote the sport on television.
Character animations look decent as players swan-dive over the line to score, and teammates celebrate prematurely before a player is held up in goal. Tackles have enough force behind them to look suitably jarring, but physics seem to go out the window when even beefy front rowers are rolled back five or 10 metres like rag dolls during tackles. Subtle touches, such as legs thrashing as held players try to wriggle out of the tackle and play the ball, help give the characters a living feel. The players are for the most part recognisable as their real-world counterparts, and video referee decisions and highlight replays do a good job emulating the camera angles of football broadcasts.
Multiplayer is one of Rugby League 3's most enjoyable components, and it lets you and up to seven friends battle it out on the same console. Unfortunately, since the Wii supports only four GameCube controllers, the four unlucky remaining participants will be forced to play with either a Wii Remote or a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination. AI characters fill in the remaining team gaps, but coordination with the team players in the room is essential as everyone flails their way around the field. The experience is frenetic, but you quickly establish a rhythm as one player feeds the ball to another to take a run, and the ability to cycle between players means you won't ever be stuck defending the wing or holding out for the chance to kick the ball at the end of the tackle count with nothing to do in the meantime.
With no signs that an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game based on the sport is in the works, rugby fans don't have the luxury of an abundance of competing League games to choose from. Though Rugby League 3 includes a nifty new play-making strategy system, competent multiplayer, and a healthy range of creation and customisation options for tinkerers, out-of-date player data, unconvincing audio commentary, and shoehorned Wii controls make it hard to recommend to all but the most devoted of football fans who are willing to look past its flaws.