Sidhe’s 2011 offering Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge was a mixed bag. Blending a Fifa-esque gameplay model tailored to rugby union rules, it offered a fast-paced kickabout which was hampered by limited licensing, poor character models and an AI that was too easy to exploit. Rugby Challenge 2: The Lions Tour Edition is a timely sequel aiming to cash-in on the current Lions Tour, but one which adds little to its predecessor other than a few tweaks, and which suffers from the same faults.
The good news is that the gameplay is genuinely fun. A lot of complex elements of the game have been included and mostly work well. Newbies will appreciate both the introduction to the rules of the game and the various tutorials on offer, although the ease of completing the latter will have you thinking that you can master the basics in a ten minute period. On the field against actual opposition, it’s a completely different matter. Passing utilises the bumper buttons, with the face buttons mapped to various kicks. Scrums, line-outs, mauls and rucks are all catered for, each with different tactical options available which are clearly mapped on-screen to buttons. There are a huge variety of tactical choices to make on the fly, but by and large these become more instinctive the longer you play. Scrums are handled via a reaction meter and the time sensitivity can be brutal. Alongside the button-jabbing line-outs, they sap some of the arcade-style urgency from the game. Conversely, the conversion and drop-kicks are far too easy to score from. It’s as if Sidhe were trying to appease both casual gamers and staunch rugby tacticians and opted for the centre line, resulting in a jarring and unsatisfying mixture.
Graphically, the game is average at best. Despite having two years to improve the look and feel, not much has been changed. Sidhe have obviously tried to make the most of what appears to be a meagre budget by including flashy segues and various replays but they seem to be unending, with each play requiring you to skip through two or more separate cutscenes. This soon becomes tiring and whilst it emulates the actual sport you’ll find yourself wishing for the game to pick up the pace and allow you to get back to actually playing.
Whilst the title screen music is a jittery loop which sounds like something knocked together on a Casio keyboard, the menu beats are pleasant enough and a big improvement over the first title. In-game effects are limited to shouts, grunts, and referee calls which all feel oddly out of place, at times sounding unintentionally hilarious. Commentary is as flat as in the original, lines being delivered with all of the excitement of a funeral reading, especially on the post-match wrap up. There are also some odd comments thrown in, such as a remark about being more than seven points ahead when the scoreboard was 42-3. Such specificity may work on tighter games, but when such an obvious whitewash is underway it simply feels strange. The commentary is part of a bigger problem when it comes to the atmosphere. Despite a constant crowd rumble, it really doesn’t feel like you’re playing in a global sporting event. The electricity of a big match is absent and even the inclusion of the New Zealand haka fails to make an impact, mainly due to the tired and jerky animations.
New additions include quick taps for penalties, quick line-outs for catching a ball that’s been kicked into touch, and the ability to create a maul from a line-out. These additions are welcome but don’t really advance the game as far as one would hope. Where the game does score heavily over Rugby Challenge is in its game modes. Along with the titular Lions Tour, there is an impressive Career mode which, whilst not on the level of its footballing counterparts, offers a good range of options and extends the game’s length considerably, as well as online multiplayer catering for up to four players.
The biggest problem with the game - which impacted its predecessor in the same way - is Rugby Challenge 2’s licensing. For instance, none of the Springboks are included and the Barbarians don’t have a single player from the actual team on the roster, even though the kit and logo are present. Customisations are possible to a point, but even these are locked down to prevent circumvention of licensing in certain competitions and modes. When you have top players being ousted ratings-wise by an unknown winger with a made-up name, your involvement in the leagues feels superficial, especially when sponsored competitions are replaced by fictional alternatives. It’s a shame, as the Career mode is clearly where the bulk of the improvements have been added. The game mode includes salaries, transfers and contracts, all of which show that the developer has listened to what the fans want more of from the original and delivered it, but have been hampered by the lack of licensing needed to deliver a truly authentic feel to the game.
If you can get past the rough visuals, repetitive (but skippable) cutscenes, untidy commentary and a lack of real-world authenticity from some areas, you’ll find a fair bit to enjoy in Rugby Challenge 2. It’s accessible, fast-moving and probably the best rugby game available on the current consoles; with a bit of extra care and investment though, it could have been so much better.