A few of weeks back, I was asked to preview Sidhe's Rugby Challenge 2. This was a pleasant surprise for me, since I had no idea it was in the pipeline — although apparently Sidhe have basically been working on it since they stopped building its predecessor.
As a fan of both rugby and video games, there’s part of me that is simply thrilled that a new rugby game exists. As far as I’m concerned, Sidhe could put out the same game every year with updated team rosters and I would fork out a hundred bucks each time, no questions asked. That alone would pretty much keep me happy (and did for the most part under the reign of the EA Sports Rugby franchise...)
...And that’s pretty much what Rugby Challenge 2 delivers — at least in terms of the 80 minutes on the field. Besides some tweaks and bug-fixes, the core gameplay is unchanged from 2011’s Rugby Challenge. What has changed has done so for the better. Offloads have been toned down. There’s more nuance in the breakdown controls now — I love being able to spot a losing battle and pull players back out into the defensive line. Effective lineout mauls offer good protection against the jumper holding and getting very easily swamped by defenders. The music is new, but very much in the vein of the original soundtrack. Additional French commentary comes as a welcome relief from the same Justin Marshall / Grant Nisbett banter all over again.
But the guts of the game have remained constant. There’s no big change in how the game handles and no graphical overhaul. Instead, resources appear to have been focussed on the content of the various competitions. All the competitions are back from the previous title (although once again we have to put up with the previous season’s ITM Cup squads, since 2013’s have not been confirmed yet), along with the French Pro D2 (second division), and, most importantly, the Lions tour and a revamped Career Mode.
Rugbyheads should be thrilled that the Lions Tour is not just the three-game series against Australia, it’s the full tour, including warm up and midweek matches. There is no option to tour New Zealand or South Africa, but given the level of detail in the tour schedule, that’s pretty understandable. More disappointing is the lack of a fatigue mechanic that spans multiple games. Not needing to manage player fitness eliminates the need to rotate the squad from game to game, one of the defining strategic considerations in a tour that includes midweek matches.
Selecting the squad is not part of the tour mode (annoying, since the roster is already out of date, with Dylan Hartley’s suspension meaning he gets left behind.) You can customise team rosters, as in RC1, but Lions selection is hampered by the legal lockdown on players in the RaboDirect Pro 12 (the club competition for Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy) as well the Top 14 and Pro D2 (France’s first and second divisions, where an increasing number of players from the British Isles ply their trade.) You can trade players within teams in these leagues, but the game prevents you from moving players into other club or international sides — presumably so there’s no way to get around the Rugby Challenge’s limited licensing by stocking the unlicensed national teams with the real players.
For me, this is a pretty major gripe — although fortunately the restriction does not apply to the other competitions. Specifically in the context of the Lions Tour, it means there’s no way to reflect the current squad by swapping Hartley for Rory Best (Ulster) and also no way to bring in Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon), a contentious omission who many suspect will be called up in the event of an injury.
The lack of real-world players in the Barbarians is also a shame, as RC2 apparently has the rights to the name, logo, and kit - but not the actual squad. If you do edit the lineup to include real players — say, from Super Rugby — Barbarians traditions will be respected with regard to individual club colours on socks. In the absence of recognisable names, Sidhe have made the practical decision to fill the roster with names from the various unlicensed international sides. The situation with the Australia Combined Country team is similar, although due to lack of available information rather than legal complications. This side has been populated with (real) Super Rugby players from the Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs who aren’t in the frame for the Wallabies — so at least a few picks should be accurate.
Although the Lions Tour is nominally Rugby Challenge 2’s big marketing plank, the real meat of the game — and the place where the improvements are most obvious — is in Career Mode. In Rugby Challenge, the impressive thing about Career Mode was basically just that it existed (particularly when the competing rugby title at the time had basically shed every mode except the World Cup). But Sidhe have clearly received the message that this is where many serious sports game fans sink most of their playing time.
Now, obviously, Rugby Challenge 2 is no FIFA, and one cannot expect the same depth in the career mode (no promotion/relegation, for starters.) But I am nonetheless very pleased. The game is processing an entire global season of club and international rugby in the background, including new fictional competitions for the lesser national sides. I don’t know how much value this adds, but it looks impressive. Most importantly, there’s a monetary system and a real player market. Every player has a nominal value, an actual salary, and a period for which they are contracted. At the end of each season, you can make offers (x thousand dollars for y years) to any players coming off of contract. They can accept your offer or reject it — often giving you a ‘soft’ rejection, by asking for more money. It’s a pretty basic system, and it doesn’t really capture anything like the complexity of player movement in the real world. But the ‘every man has his price’ mechanic isn’t such a bad thing in terms of gameplay. In fact, there’s something very satisfying about actually being able to assemble a dream team by throwing money around — too much realism constrains the fun sometimes.
Some may find it frustrating to have to wait until the end of their first year at the helm to start recruiting new talent (it certainly made reviewing this feature more time-consuming), but some of the biggest pain points come (once again) with the licensing restrictions. You can’t recruit players from the French leagues or the Pro 12 unless you’re coaching a club inside the right competition. There’s also a lot of space taken up with the players from the unlicensed international teams — all free agents, since they don’t really exist at club level. It’s unfortunate that this sort of red tape takes the shine off of what is otherwise a pretty fantastic gaming experience.
Sidhe have also noticeably improved the user interface for squad management (it was very clunky in the first game), which is particularly helpful for the tour and career modes. Some off-field wrinkles still haven’t been ironed out, though. As in RC1, there’s a regular bout of lag during the free play while a match loads, but I find it hard to penalise the developers too hard for that — free play still beats watching a loading bar any day of the week. There also seems to be the same deficits of players in certain positions, which appears to stem from, for example, the majority of players who wear either 12 or 13 on their backs being classified (especially in the northern hemisphere) as ‘Outside Centres’; a similar issue affects props, locks and wingers. This doesn’t massively impact the game, and it is something that you can fix up yourself (if you have way too much time on your hands), but again it’s a small thing that just takes the shine off.
When the whistle finally blows, the result is ...somewhat unclear. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Rugby Challenge and I expect to get a lot of hours of play out of Rugby Challenge 2 as well. And, it is a step forward. More competitions. Better career mode. Fixes and improvements on and off the field. But is it enough? A year on and I would be stoked. But after almost two years, it feels like France’s current test series against NZ: a little under-strength ...but I still can’t tear myself away.