Rugby union and video games traditionally do not get along well. For years, fans have been demanding a decent — even half-decent — game to come out, but are constantly disappointed. With only a handful of titles out there, egg chasers have had the option of either like it or lump it. Just when you thought this console generation was a scoreless affair, off the bench comes none other than Jonah Lomu, hurtling down the wing, demolishing the defences of the official Rugby World Cup 2011 game and sparking life into a previously dull match. The question is, does Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge do enough to cross the line?
The first thing that has to be said about the game is this: it looks amazing. In part, this might be due to the fact its rival looks shockingly bad, but don’t let that distract from the efforts Sidhe went through to polish this title. The positive first impressions aren’t just limited to the visuals either, with a wealth of leagues on offer: Aviva Premiership (English), RabboDirectPro 12 (Irish, Welsh, Scottish), ITM Cup (New Zealand), Top 14 (French), Super 15s tournament (Australian and New Zealand teams are licensed, South African aren’t), the World Championship (World Cup, unlicensed), Tri Nations, Quad Nations and Euro Nations (6 Nations, unlicensed), Rugby Challenge packs down with considerable weight behind it.
Looking beyond the muscle exerted by the visuals and quantity of content, though, reveals a couple of blind spots. The core mechanics are all very solid — if initially taxing on those expecting to pass when not in the exact correct position — and the immersive third-person camera angle works an absolute charm, flipping behind the team in possession. Yet, in other areas, there are distinct weaknesses: in tactical play, line-outs are practically the only set play with detailed control. In most other tactical facets, the game lacks imagination: you can’t shift the backline about for the next phase of attack, nor can you set up loop-arounds, dummy runs and other set plays, there’s a distinct lack of penalties conceded and there’s no quick line-out option. These elements are the bread and butter of rugby union, and without them the experience feels more arcade-like than simulation. Given a bit of experience, you can force a decent semblance of tactical play, but it just doesn’t flow as well as you want it to. There are also issues with non-tries being given the five points, the wrong team awarded restarts after knock-ons, the initially ridiculous offload settings (configurable, thankfully) and the odd teleporting ball that detract a bit from the experience.
That said, for each downside there are several more upsides: passing, kicking (grubber, chip, high-ball, punt, drop goals), rucking, mauling and even tackles to make Brian Lima seem timid are all present in the game, and all work well. Scrums are great fun, with players needing to push up the analogue sticks at the right time in order to get the nudge on the opposition; kicking enters you into a slow-mo mode, with arrows on the floor representing the wind, where you can aim your kick before getting thumped; tackling caters for strong or normal; you can side-step, fend-off or dummy pass; and you even have options to quick- or fast-bind players (get the backs in the ruck, or let the forwards plod into the fray) to secure possession at the breakdown. As mentioned before, it’s also a fairly unforgiving game: passes won’t meet their recipient if they're thrown wildly without the receiver in position, sloppy kicks get ruthlessly exploited and knock-ons happen at the worst moments. Just like the real game, then.
On top of individual, one-off matches, you can play in all of the previously mentioned tournaments for one season or in Career Mode, although only having one save slot for each is a major drawback. Career mode is essentially 13 back-to-back seasons with the same club, dealing with retirements and long-term club sustainability. There’s no detailed, FIFA-like team management here, but it’s a step in the right direction that Sidhe can hopefully build upon. An area that isn’t a step in the right direction, though, is the commentary: Grant Nesbitt and Justin Marshall recorded extensive quips, comments and catechisms, but they’ve been glued together in a haphazardness, slightly dire fashion, with. A rather... disrupted. Flow. Silence may be a better option.
While it might not have hit the nail on the head with everything, Sidhe has certainly done so with teaching those new to the game (and rugby itself). There's a video explaining the basic laws of rugby, and a very good tutorial mode that covers the core gameplay, along with four levels of difficulty that should present something for everyone to get along with, from novice to broken-boned veteran. The relative ease of getting to grips with the game, combined with four-player co-op (a bit of a messy experience), online modes, player creation/editing, (much needed) scalable levels for offload/tackle/handling success and the ability to unlock an entire team of Jonah Lomus makes this an easy game to get hooked on.
With a vast range of tournaments to play from, good graphics and gameplay that makes you feel at the heart of the action, Rugby Challenge provides rugby union fans with what they’ve sought for a long time. It’s not the finished article in many areas — mostly due to a few glitches, the omission of several tactical elements and the ropey commentary — but, for every negative, there are several positives. There’s a slight more-arcade, less-simulation feel to the game that will disappoint some fans, but most will find it decent fun, whether on their own, with mates or online. A solid first effort from a developer that obviously cares about making a quality title, Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge scores the points but doesn’t take home the grand slam.