What is this?!?! It can’t possibly be a rugby game that I enjoyed. Actually, it is, and one that I enjoyed immensely. Johah Lomu Rugby Challenge is more than just my first introduction to the sport of rugby but also one of the best sport games that I have played in a long, long time. Even if you aren’t a fan of the rugged sport, you would be doing yourself a favor to check out this game because it may make a fan out of you. I definitely has me.
If you are like me, then you will be coming into this game completely devoid of any knowledge of the sport of rugby whatsoever. Don’t worry, developer Sidhe has you covered with a plethora of tutorials and videos detailing the rules and procedures of the game. I was hesitant going on simply due to the complete lack of knowledge regarding the actual game of rugby. It didn’t take more the 15-20 minutes of quick tutorials and hands on instructions before I grasped the concept of what was happening on the field and what I needed to do to “better” my game. Now I can officially say that I know what a ruck, scrum, and maul is, as well as the various other terms that are required to comprehend the sport itself.
This is one of the areas where I feel Rugby Challenge truly succeeds: taking non-fans by the hand and integrating them into the world of rugby. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that rugby isn’t as popular in the U.S as it is in other parts of the world. It also doesn’t shy away from quickly showing you just how intense the sport actually is as the wastes no time in getting you into the action. Once you get the hang of things in terms of the actual sport, or at least a loose grasp on them, Rugby Challenge gives you a variety of ways to get into the game.
Aside from the basic quick matches players can get involved including a vast list of real-world competitions and tournaments as well as a full career mode. The career, or franchise, mode gives you chance to live out a career that spans several years (13). The selectable competitions on the other hand place you in the midst of tournaments and events such as the ITM Cup, Bledsoe Cup Series, World Rugby Championship, and even the Euro Nations tournament(s).
Fans of the real-life sport will be happy to know that there are quite a few licensed teams and stadiums used for the game. Not everything in the game is licensed though thanks to the Rugby World Cup video game. That title has the licensing rights to some specific leagues and teams which weren’t able to be used in this game. In order to help compensate for their official absence, Rugby Challenge features a wide variety of customization options that lets you alter to names and appearances of nearly every team, player, and event in the game. With a little bit of effort on the player’s behalf, everything in the game can be true to life in no time. This is something that I truly appreciated even though I couldn’t tell you the difference between a licensed team and a fictional one in the game thanks to my knowledge (or lack thereof) of the sport. It is nice to see a developer recognize a potential shortcoming and offer the player a means of circumventing ths issue.
The control scheme of the game is incredibly well designed. Rugby is a fast paced sport, very similar to American football although the action is usually steadier and features less pauses and breaks. Players can unload the ball to their left or right with a simple press of either shoulder bumper and can institute some fancy footwork with a simple flick of the right analog stick. It really feels natural during gameplay and just “makes sense”.
Rugby also features a variety of kicking in the gameplay and Sidhe has gone to great lengths to implement effective and natural gameplay mechanics for the various kicking situations into the game. Both drop goals and general kicks (passing) are initiated with a simple touch of the button. For drop goals in particular (think field goals that can be attempted at any time) the game institutes a interesting mechanic that slows down time momentarily to allow you to adjust your aim and power for the kick. It may sound as if this would interrupt the fast action of the sport but it really doesn’t and the “flow” of the game continues without a hitch.
All of these gameplay elements come together in an incredibly polished and slick package. The character models look great both on and off the field, arguably among the best I have seen in a sports game. There aren’t any “zombie-eyed” players here as you have come to know (and love?) in the Madden series. All of these players are incredibly lifelike and filled to the brim with personality. The polished presentation doesn’t stop there either as it extends to both the incredibly detailed game stadiums and well done commentary that narrates the game. Rugby Challenge has tapped the talents of Sky Sports’ Justin Marshall and Grant Nisbett to add an ever deeper sense of realism for true rugby fans. As with every sports game, the commentary can get a bit repetitive and tiresome after extended play, but that is expected. All of the phrasing sounds natural and legitimate during the game and it is hard to believe that it is really just pieced together sound bites.
If playing alone isn’t quite your thing, there are a variety of multiplayer options for you to enjoy. You can play both competitively and cooperatively with friends, including a 4 versus 4 online mode on every platform (I played the Xbox 360 version). The online gameplay plays nearly as solid as the offline with little noticeable lag. You may have difficulty finding other players online though. Hopefully the world of mouth regarding the quality of the game will get around and the online population will continue to grow.
Any and all complaints that I have with the game stem simply from my unfamiliarity with the actual sport. Although I feel that I have a decent grasp on the concept of rugby, there are still moments during gameplay when I am dumbfounded at a penalty call or method I see used by the computer AI. The lack of general knowledge about the sport is the only thing that this game has going against it. If gamers can put their preconceptions aside and give it a chance, they may find out that it is actually a thoroughly enjoyable sport and one hell of a game. I know that I did.
I really, really enjoy playing Rugby Challenge. The game has opened my eyes to the sport and does a great job of immersing me into the action as well as any other sport game has. Die hard rugby fans are sure to take some umbrage with the lack of licensing for a lot of the teams but is really nothing more than a minor complaint when you evaluate the entire package. Rugby fans will be happy to know that there is finally a great rugby game on the consoles and sport fans in general may be surprised as how enjoyable of a learning experience Rugby Challenge proves to be.