With just weeks to go before the Rugby World Cup kicks of in Auckland on September 9th, we've gone Rugby mad. Previously, we've only had a chance to have a look at Sidhe's upcoming All Blacks Rugby Challenge; this week, however, thanks to the demo for HB Studios' new game appearing on PSN and XBLA, we've had our first tiny glimpse at what Rugby World Cup 2011 has to offer.
Whatever the title and whoever the publisher, there is no question that this game is the successor to EA Sports Rugby 08. HB Studios have given their game a tune-up and a makeover for the current console generation, but, for better or worse, the game remains the same.
From the first kick-off and recovery of the ball, Rugby World Cup 2011 handles almost exactly like its predecessor. The controls are identical: running and manoeuvring, short and long passes, the various kicking options. It’s all the same as in Rugby 08, and series veterans can expect to jump straight into play with no training and no confusion. But, controls aside, there are some changes in how the match unfolds on-screen. First of all, the game as a whole feels slower — players seem more laboured running with the ball (and I don’t think that’s just because the demo features South Africa vs England). At first, this looks like a drawback, as if less speed will equate to less fun (after all, this is New Zealand, and we like fast, action-packed rugby with lots of running and lots of tries). I think on balance, however, the shift of pace is a good one. The main contributing factors to the change appear to be the physical restrictions on players in terms of acceleration and changing direction. In Rugby 08, players got up to speed much faster, and they did not lose speed when changing direction (players could run at full steam in a figure of eight if you wanted them to). Rugby World Cup 2011 has players accelerating much more naturally, and losing speed when they make tight turns.
Moreover, the slower gameplay allows more more control, and more time for tactics. This is nowhere more apparent than at the breakdown. Like the IRB itself in recent years, HB Studios have clearly been concentrating on the rules of the breakdown, and there are concrete changes to the way the game is played as a result. Rugby 08 tended towards a ruck lottery, where each player mashed the ‘A’ button to commit as many forwards as possible, and turnovers largely depended on a fairly opaque concept of each team’s momentum — or a failure to recycle the ball fast enough. Rugby World Cup 2011, while using roughly the same controls, adds a degree of finesse. Pressing 'A' will increase rucking intensity, binding additional players, but also pushing closer to the 'Richie McCaw zone' (that grey area where being the world's greatest open-side on the planet meets cheating at the breakdown). You need to add players on your own ball or risk conceding a turnover, and defensively you can rush in and monster the opposition rucks if you commit enough players, but simply mashing 'A' will often result in penalties (for killing the ball, hands in the ruck, etc).
Positioning of the team also makes a great deal of difference here. Getting isolated (sensibly) leads to turnovers. In addition, rucks do not magically form without players being committed. In the absence of a ruck, a single player on his feet can run in, pick up the ball and charge forward. My favourite change to the breakdown area, however, is that you no longer get pinged by the referee for taking a little time to organise the troops. If you have committed enough men to the breakdown, a lock symbol will show to indicate that the ball is safe. You know at this point that you have time to organise a set-play (something I never managed to use effectively in Rugby 08, as the ball would so often get arbitrarily turned over before I got a move going).
Scrums and lineouts, however, have not had the same overhaul. It isn’t clear whether the full game will offer an option for more complicated lineout or scrum control, as previous versions have, but in the simple versions the controls are identical to Rugby 08 — although in the case of lineouts, the balance has been pushed back in favour of the team throwing in.
A number of other quirks of the previous instalment have been addressed, too. The grubber kick, while still useful, is no longer the same disaster for defensive players that it has been. And it’s much, much harder for a defender to rush right in and wallop the player taking a kick. Nor does it seem to be such a mess trying to regather the ball from an up-and-under kick.
Of course, the graphics are one area where improvement was an absolute necessity. Somehow, while representing a massive leap forward here, Rugby World Cup still remains something of a disappointment. Four years on, and running on an advanced platform... it looks good, but it is far from cutting edge. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by FIFA. More concerning is that fact the so much of the game still looks the same as Rugby 08. Although the player models and textures are much better, much of the movement is still the same — like the gameplay, the graphics haven’t really moved on from four years ago.
With the loss of EA as publisher, licensing may also be an area of disappointment for some fans. Obviously, this is the official game of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and that carries a certain aura. England and the Springboks, the sides appearing in the demo, are both fully licensed (although England’s infamous all-black alternative strip is not yet in evidence), but it is not clear what will happen with other teams not currently in the bag. The All Blacks and the Wallabies are of particular concern in this department, since their rights went to Sidhe for their competing title: Rugby Challenge. It may be Mitch Ruckaw and Can Darter that lead New Zealand to cup glory... (At least we get the real Sean Fitzpatrick in one of several different much-improved commentating teams.)
The firm focus on international rugby also threatens to limit replay value. Although the game does boast RWC warm-up games, test matches, and tours, the lack of domestic competitions (and don’t even both bringing up career mode) may frustrate the bigger rugby appetites looking for season after season of play. Clearly the intent has been to rely on core gameplay rather than an extended features list. The conservative approach taken to gameplay changes means that ongoing enjoyment shouldn’t be a problem. With some serious competition on the way from Rugby Challenge, lack of flash and features could be a problem. Will the staid approach, and the experience of HB Studios, be enough to get Rugby World Cup 2011 over the line?