It is getting on towards a year now since New Zealand finally conquered its Rugby World Cup demons. We won, we celebrated, we moved on — some to this year’s Super Rugby, some back to ignoring the oval ball for the most part. But All Blacks (aka Jonah Lomu) Rugby Challenge, originally released in time for last year’s global tournament, has not moved on with us.
We’ve just recently seen the release of the PlayStation Vita version of Rugby Challenge and, for the most part, Rugby Challenge looks, feels, and plays exactly the same on the Vita as it did on the full-sized consoles.
The graphics are the same (except, of course, that everything is smaller — and I’ll get back to that). The game itself is still enjoyable, blending fast-paced running rugby with tough and exciting (but rather unrealistic) scrum battles and an array of kicking options made more useful by the game speed slowing to let you aim.
It also still tends towards way too many offloads, as if every man on your team is Sonny Bill Williams. The features and modes are likewise unchanged: Rugby World Cup, Super Rugby, and New Zealand’s own ITM Cup, plus all the major European competitions. Not all of the competitions are licensed, but the club teams all are (except for the South Africans) and so are several national sides (including the All Blacks and Wallabies.) The music is still good, although it could do with some more variety. And, unsurprisingly, Justin Marshall and Grant Nisbett are still as repetitive and annoying as any self-respecting videogame sports commentary team.
It is difficult to fault the game on all of this, however. After all, despite the length of time that has passed, this is a port, not a sequel. The identical content, on the other hand, is somewhat galling. As far as I can tell, nothing has been updated in this regard. Now that most of the tournaments have finished, it is rather frustrating to still be playing with the season before last’s players. Particularly outrageous is the ITM Cup: still the old format competition and 2010 squads, even as the 2012 season is about to begin — and, to salt the wound, the in-game blurb about the tournament also still claims it is the two-tiered modern version! I don’t think anyone was expecting Sidhe to have licensed new teams, but the lack of any roster updates, even to fix some of the jersey number mistakes for bench players, has got to be a mark against this title.
So what has changed? Well, some effort has been made to utilise the Vita’s touch screen, at least. For place kicks, Rugby Challenge now switches to the style of the popular (and self-explanatory) Flick Kick series of games released by Sidhe’s Smartphone division, PikPok. It is a rather neat way of integrating the touch screen while maintaining the core of the game controls and generally feels pretty good — and rather more natural than timing-based penalty kick systems. Lineouts also use a similar touch method now, and, while they feel rather clunkier than the kicks, it still seems to add a little something to this aspect of the game.
The menus are also touch-ready... although only in a very superficial way. You can select menu items using the touch screen, but the interface has not been optimised to support this. This isn’t a problem on the title screen, but trying to scroll through lists of teams (at least with fat fingers like mine) just isn’t worth the hassle, and I found myself sticking to the regular controls, except for really easy stuff like skipping the match preamble. Designers: it is not enough simply to make your menu respond to touch; you have to design the menu for touch.
For all my complaints about the lack of progression from the other platform releases of Rugby Challenge, the biggest challenge for the title here may actually be the handheld platform. I talked in my original review about the big game intensity that Sidhe had brought to the title, and the enjoyment of the various different kinds of struggle, particularly going head-to-head with a friend. While the in-game factors that brought the experience to life are all still there, the end result is simply not as effective on the Vita. It isn’t social enough. A hand-held screen is not the ideal way to watch rugby and I don’t think it suits playing it, either.
Living room clashes with your friends notwithstanding, multiplayer is still important. So it is great to see how quick and easy it is to get online. The game can occasionally get choppier while during internet games, and graphical glitches are more common, but — aside from having to download an update — everything basically just works from the word go.
So the story is far from all bad. While it is disappointing to find no substantial changes apart from the touch screen kicking and lineouts, and outrageous how old some of its content is, Rugby Challenge is still the best rugby video game on offer. In fact, on the PlayStation Vita, it’s the only game in town. But on a handheld device, without the real excitement of the big game... it’s hard to recommend it on the Vita unless you don’t own anything else.