There is perhaps a reason why no rugby union game has been released since 2008…
The stirring theme of Holst’s Jupiter bursts into life as Rugby World Cup 2011 first loads. It is music that, like rugby, inspires passion, strength and purpose. Translating that and the blood, sweat and pressure onto the computer screen piles almost impossible pressure onto developers, further compounded by tight budgets and strict deadlines. Inevitably anyone tackling this task would always be faced with an Everest of an uphill battle.The menu screen that confronts you upon loading is so bare that you already feel a little on edge even before getting around to playing. Your choices are restricted to playing the World Cup 2011 (with, if you choose, the authentic schedule), an international test, a warm-up tour, a penalty kick-off and an Xbox Live match. Bearing in mind that if you are playing single-player there is very little reason for doing a single test, or a warm-up tour (the place kicking is an obvious desperate last minute addition) in the end you will find yourself entering the cup competition.The stadiums just feel a little under developed and flat.Games can be played in one of fourteen stadiums and strangely the stadium dictates the conditions, for example it is always sunny and dry in Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium and it is always night in Paris.Licensing is an issue for Rugby World Cup 2011. Despite getting the license for the actual cup, only a handful of the stadium are licensed and given names (Paris, for example, is not the Stade de France). Far worse however is when you pick from one of a pitiful twenty teams you realise that only ten of these are licensed and have the correct player names. Perhaps, with so few rugby games hitting the market, there is inexperience and a lack of understanding between the sport and the gaming scene. It feels like you are being thrown back into the football games of the early nineties where only a handful of the names are realistic and the rest are meaningless. While there is not space here to go into depth about which teams have made the cut, I recommend you check this out before purchasing if it may bother you.When you march out onto the pitch, the first thing that hits you is just how ugly everything looks. The incredibly low texture and polygon count of the models, the flat cardboard cut-out stadiums and the way the crowds cheer in perfect synchronicity all combine to make you feel you have fallen back 10 years. It is almost retro, in that ‘I thought we had grown out of this’ kind of way. At least some masochistic pleasure can be found viewing your favourite players’ in game likeness because they all, even the self-styled pretty boys of the game, look like thugs.The second wave of disappointment that hits you is the awful drivel of the commentators (Stuart Barnes and Miles Harrison of Sky Sports are the UK team). More evidence of tight funding is obvious with the constant repetition of lines and often completely inaccurate statements. I actually found switching to the Australian commentary team, who seem to have more witty banter and less obvious repetition, more entertaining.The line-out system is a bit like advanced Rock, Paper, Scissors. But the computer can read your mind.Getting over the graphics and the irritating commentary is difficult, but pressing onto the gameplay there is at least some fun to be had.When the ball is in play there are three phases: Attacking, Rucking and Defending.While attacking, with the ball in hand, passing in either direction is triggered by the left or right shoulder buttons. Three types of kicks are also available, spiral punt, an up and under or a grubber kick, however often the best solution is to fling the ball out wide, running into space and try to make a break through the defence. Attempts at kicking, except to clear the line, are usually harshly ruined by long animation sequences which see your player taken out before he has even got around to dropping the ball to his feet. Keeping the ball in hand is far more favourable as passes are reliable and the ball is easily recycled from the tackle.In a bizarre oversight, tackles will always without fail result in rucks. Mauls have been demoted to the sole purpose of catching under kicks and line-outs. During a ruck hammering A will increase your ‘pressure’ which increases your chances of winning the ball. However, too many presses drives your players to foul and, while you may win the ball, often a penalty against you will be called. It is a game of risk and reward, but it is rather simplistic compared to the intense reality.Upon winning a ruck, set plays can be initiated by pushing the right stick in a chosen direction. While in theory it is a great idea to include clever moves such as switches, miss passes and dummies in actuality this system is almost a complete failure for several reasons. After waiting an irritatingly long time for the players to get in position, you pass the ball to the fly half and press one of the face buttons to complete the move. Unfortunately the reflexes required to actually perform these feats are exceptionally difficult and worse some moves unexpectedly result in opposition easily stealing the ball off you. Advanced players may be able to remember exactly the combination they desire, but this system is certainly off limits to new players.An example of the ‘pressure’ system used for rucks and the set-piece play that occurs after.Defence is perhaps the most excruciatingly painful part of the experience. Tackling is done by simply running into the opposing player with the ball, while hitting A performs a desperate diving tackle. The whole process is made particularly difficult because of the awkward camera angles which often see you diving past the player you are attempting to tackle. The age old trick of leaving the computer to tackle for you is viable but, like traitorous usurpers, sometimes they will stare glumly at the charging attacker and simply step out of their way.One area of the game which is surprisingly fleshed out is the squad editor. Here you can pick your squad from a large selection of reserves, each with detailed statistics for every area of the game. Also you can view and edit your set plays (since only four are available while playing) to get the exact style you want your team to play. The ability to tediously edit the names of the players may also restore some pleasure to those who are upset by the lack of licensing for certain countries.Interestingly the statistics actually matter as low scores will result in being overpowered in the ruck and dropping the ball in the tackle. It is a good, if a little over exaggerated, game balancer for new versus experienced players. For example playing as Canada versus New Zealand will mean you will constantly fail to recycle the ball and never steal the ball yourself without causing a penalty. Any players versed in the real world version of the game will constantly be screaming at the screen because of the blatant disregard of professional tactics by the teams. Defensive lines are often non-existent as, like rabid school kids, they all chase the ball and bunch in one place. Perhaps worse are the failures to abide by standard laws of rugby. I’ve had examples of balls kicked from within one’s own 22 yard line going out on the full and having to then defend a line-out from back where it was kicked. It is beyond belief that basic errors such as these have made it into the game. Often it feels like the developers, HB Studios, have created this game without any contact with actual players, coaches or reality itself.There is a functional replay facility available at all times, but often it fails to rewind as far as you would like.Amazingly despite all these flaws and perhaps to the developers’ credit, the game play can at times hit the heady heights of what could be construed as fun. It may take some time (especially considering the complete lack of a tutorial or instructions) but once you have broken the initial shackles of difficulty, and understood all of the games’ inherent flaws, there is definitely some degree of pleasure to be had. Actually, when you manage to sit down with your friends (up to 4 at once, with 2 per side), the game can certainly be entertaining and amusing, though often the amusement is found in laughing at the total failure to recreate the game of rugby.In the end, I almost feel sorry for the developers. Rugby is a niche sport. While it holds a strong audience in Britain and some other commonwealth countries, focusing a game on this sport precludes the major markets of the US and Japan. Rugby World Cup 2011 is never going to be a big money spinner and this game stinks of under investment and cheap development shortcuts. It feels like a budget arcade game shoved into a shiny full-priced release and an officially licensed sticker stuck on top. Still, as the back of the box helpfully reminds you, this is “the ONLY Rugby World Cup 11 Game”, but that is a bit like walking into your local sports bar desperate for a drink and discovering the ONLY thing on tap is Carling.
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