Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge Hands-On Preview

Jonah Lomu lends his name and motion-capture skills to Sidhe's upcoming Rugby Challenge.

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A wise man once said that "patience and fortitude conquer all things." If you've been waiting for a decent rugby game to launch on a high-def console, then you've had to be very, very patient, particularly if you were a fan of the classic Jonah Lomu Rugby game on the original PlayStation. But, like our wise man says, patience conquers all. Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge is coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year, featuring overhauled visuals, new online modes, and an in-depth customisation system that allows you to tweak everything from player attributes to tournaments and trophies.

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Before you get tweak-happy, though, Rugby Challenge presents you with a number of training tools that let you get to grips with the finer points of rugby. If you're a complete newbie, there's a video that runs you through the basic rules of the game, including rucks, scrums, and lineouts. Once you've laid the groundwork, you can move on to the tutorials, which teach you the controls and gameplay mechanisms. The basic tutorial features simple challenges such as scoring a try, passing, and tackling, while the advanced and professional levels teach you different styles of play and techniques. You're awarded with a medal for each challenge--gold, silver, or bronze--depending on how quickly you complete it.

With the tutorial out of the way, you can move on to playing some matches. If you're eager to sample the sights and sounds of the world cup tournament, though, you have to look to 505's upcoming Rugby World Cup, which holds the official licence. Instead, Rugby Challenge features the "World Rugby Championship," as well as a mishmash of other tournaments, including the Tri Nations, Aviva Premiership Rugby, and France's Rugby Top 14. Official teams such as Saracens, Gloucester, and Bath feature too, as well as the New Zealand All Blacks, but you have to make do with unofficial kits for the likes of England.

Any of the preset tournaments can be customised, letting you change logos, trophies, teams, and points. You can tweak their format too, including the type of pool, how teams advance, and where the final takes place. Customisation also extends to individual teams and players. You can tweak physical characteristics such as a player's face and body, his clothes, and his skills and attributes. In theory, you can create the perfect player, pushing each of the attributes to 100 percent. This is limited to offline games only, though, in an effort to keep online matches fair.

Most of your time will likely be spent in Career mode, in which you can create your own player and compete in tournaments of your choice. Your player starts off young, visibly aging as you progress--a realistic if somewhat depressing addition. Still, unlike in real life, once you reach retirement age you can simply start again with a new player, competing in different tournaments ad infinitum. There's online play for up to four players too, with leaderboards keeping track of your performance. A neat addition is a "did not finish" column, which lets you know how many matches your potential opponent quit before the end. Not only does this let you avoid potential rage quitters, but the DNF percentage affects a player's position on the leaderboad, actively discouraging the practice.

So, lots of features then, but how does Rugby Challenge play? We jumped into a quick exhibition match playing as England, with New Zealand as our opponents. Before the match started, the All Blacks performed their famous Haka war dance, with the team's actions looking lifelike thanks to some deft motion capture. Kicking off, we got to grips with the control system. There are a lot of different actions to perform in rugby, but thankfully the controls aren't overly complex. The left analog stick moves your player, while the right performs sidesteps, dummy passes, and defensive moves when you're in control of the ball. Passing is assigned to the left and right bumpers, while punts, grubbers, chips, and drop kicks are executed using the face buttons.

When we were running up the pitch, passing felt fluid, and we were able to move the ball up the pitch with ease. Eventually, we were tackled, where we entered a ruck. An onscreen indicator showed us which team was in control of the bind, with some quick hammering on the A button allowing us to push it in our favour and gain control of the ball. After stealing the ball from the All Blacks, the camera panned around, letting us see up the pitch to our opponent's touch line, switching back again when we lost it. Scrums were won differently, requiring us to push the analogue sticks in sync with a moving circle that surrounded the players.

Lineouts and conversions both used a familiar-looking half-circle, on which a line moved back and forth. Stopping the line in the sweet spot ensured the kick or throw was taken accurately, while any deviations risked the ball veering to the left or right. After a few minutes we were passing, kicking, and winning rucks like a pro, a testament to the simplicity of the controls. With Jonah Lomu behind the motion capture for the game, the player animation looked good too, even if mundane visuals weren't as impressive.

With Jonah Lomu on hand player animations look remarkably realistic.
With Jonah Lomu on hand player animations look remarkably realistic.

Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge is out later this year on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Look out for more coverage on GameSpot soon.

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