A bit ugly and a bit austere, but a heck of a lot of fun anyway
Rugby World Cup 2011Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: HB Studios
Release date: 2011-09
There is little doubt that sporting games are all about the presentation these days. While Madden 12 blessedly did away with the elaborate halftime reports of its predecessors, there is still an awful lot of fanfare that goes into playing a regular season, with animations set to make it seem just like you are watching the game on television (which has always been a little strange to me as I, at least, do not tend to play sporting games in order to pretend that I am on television). There is something delightfully refreshing, therefore, about a sporting game that has no frills to speak of, so that the whole interface and presentation could be generously called spartan if not downright ascetic. Rugby World Cup 2011 is just such a game, and it is a better game for it.
I was actually surprised to see that rugby even gets its own game -- while I myself do have fond memories of a couple of aborted attempts to play for a rugby club back in high school (the first attempt ended when my football coach came to me and begged me not to play rugby in the offseason, the second attempt ended when I realized that I was sick to the teeth of organized sports). Additionally, I certainly watched the Six Nations tournament during my stay in Wales (and generally try to watch it on the rare opportunities that I get when the games are actually broadcast on television here in the US), but despite my own enjoyment of the game, I certainly did not think that there was a market large enough for an actual, licensed rugby game. I was also very curious as to how the game would handle things like scrumming, and more importantly, rucking -- the sort of (for lack of a better descriptor) mini-scrums that form after tackling. Reducing them to just button mashing to fight for possession would seem the best idea, but then what of penalties which generally end a series of play?
The answer that Rugby 2011 gives is to add something of an element of chance into the mix. Depending on how disciplined your squad is and how high you set the power meter, your team has good odds of winning out on a ruck. Generally if you manage to complete several passes before being tackled, your team will hold the game's momentum. Having momentum on your side makes it easier to win rucks and scrums, but if your roster is statistically small, they'll find themselves getting dominated in scrums. There are other options as well. You can attempt to steal the ball in a ruck, which can result in a penalty (but if you get away with it there's nothing sweeter), and if a scrum isn't going your way you can elect to just collapse the thing and hope to get the ball back some other way. I myself had a lot of trouble driving the scrum properly as I was never quite sure which way I was supposed to be pushing on the left stick. It also doesn't help that with my loyalties to the Welsh squad, I seem to forget that apparently they are not quite as burly as some of the other nations and domination in scrums is their lot in life. Having the rucks in part appear to be randomized hurts the game a little, making it a little frustrating at times to deal with, but there really doesn't seem to have been any better way to accurately portray the ruck without slowing the game down.
Okay so the graphics are not anything to write home about, but who cares if the game's good?
The animations are surprisingly fluid considering the fact that the interface suggests a low budget title. Gameplay itself moves about as rapidly as actual rugby, which can lead to some exciting matches. The default half length is set to five minutes, which means that you can play through a complete match in a little over ten minutes -- the way the clock works in rugby is that when you reach the end of a half, the match doesn't actually stop until the ball goes out of bounds, someone scores, or play ends with a scrum. This makes watching the clock even more important if you happen to be only down a few points, as you can try to stretch the clock as much as you possibly can. There's always a chance to come back, either through scoring a try, or if you can manage to line the shot up quickly enough, kicking a drop goal (something which, once you get the hang of setting them up, can be invaluable).
This is actually what your view will generally look like.
Rightly so, the game assumes that whomever is playing has some familiarity with the sport, and what's more it does not even provide a tutorial for the controls beyond displaying them while the game loads. Unlike other sporting games, there is no practice mode beyond just playing matches, and if you don't want to play international friendlies, you can always play in the cup tournament, which is (apart from online multiplayer and a place kicking competition) the only other mode of play available. There is no create-a-player, or create-a-team, or indeed, a bizarre collectable-card-game-slash-video-game-moneymaking-scheme a la the new EA sporting offerings this year. If you bought Rugby World Cup 2011, HB Studios says, you bought it to play rugby and all the other crap that sports games have in them these days can go take a running leap.
What the game does have that other games also have is locked content that can only be unlocked by using a one-time activation code. In this case, such unlockables include the ability to use the online functionality of the game, along with the official 2011 World Cup uniforms. These elements are locked up unless you provide the proper code (the official jerseys do, in fact, look a lot nicer than the default ones that you are forced to play with otherwise, and I am not lying when I say that I am severely tempted to buy a Welsh away jersey one of these days as they look marvelous). The online play is there and is functional enough for those who have a mind to play opponents who aren't sitting on the couch next to them (I did not spend a lot of time with the online component as I am not fond of playing strangers, nor do I know anyone else with this game, although I would recommend very much that they pick it up). Where Rugby World Cup 2011 really shines is in its speed, as it takes no time at all to get in and start playing immediately, it loads quickly, and the game's default ten minute length is perfect for something to do with a group of friends. It's a game that has gotten an awful lot of play whenever my friends and I get together, and even more surprising for a sporting game, I have found myself unable to stop playing even though the game has no modes beyond "play the tournament" and "have a place kick shootout."
There's a refreshing simplicity to this sort of presentation, a reassurance that really all the time went into making the rugby-playing part of the game as good as it could possibly be without farting about with create-a-player modes or anything like that, and the game's the better for it. The price might be a sticking point for some. Consumers are accustomed to a lot more from sports games than Rugby World Cup 2011 is willing to offer, but the plain fact of the matter is that the game plays smoothly and gives a solid virtual representation of the sport.