HB Studios is no stranger to rugby union, having created EA’s last-generation rugby titles, although these were merely decent at best. After a four-year hiatus the studio's returned to the field with its latest offering, the officially-licensed Rugby World Cup 2011. Given its previous experience with the previous console generation, there was plenty of room for this to be the game rugby fans have sought for years. Unfortunately, it seems there may also have been plenty of room to make quick cash from the RWC license.

It says something when the host nation sells the rights to its home team to another game — one without the RWC license. So, set in New Zealand, the official game of the tournament doesn’t have the rights to host team the All-Blacks; a hospital pass if ever there was one. Australia has also given its licence to Sidhe's Rugby Challenge; however, minus the top two teams in the world (and Georgia), all the countries from the 2011 World Cup are licensed. From the warm-up tours, through the pool stages and knockout rounds and right up to the final, you can choose any country that you want to achieve rugby’s highest accolade with — if you can stand the game long enough, that is.

It’s hard to find the right words to describe just how disappointing playing Rugby Word Cup 2011 is. Walking onto a pitch of what seems to be melted green plastic, with hideously-modelled players sporting abysmal likenesses, you’re left wondering just what HB Studios did with its development time. It feels like it took the Rugby 08 engine for PS2, gave it a small lick of paint, repackaged the title and threw it out for sale. What’s worse is that you know HB Studios is aware of just how shoddy its work was: to counter the poor player likenesses, most are viewed either from behind or in profile. Shoddy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Under the lid, RWC 2011 plays out as if you’re watching it on TV, with a side-on camera to the pitch that can be zoomed to different degrees. Bar the camera and the match commentary, there are no other aspects here that feel realistic; the awful visuals stifle any true reflection of an actual game, and the gameplay is average at a push. The blocky players run around on the pitch, in response to the daunting amount of controls required: with differing controls for both on and off the ball, it takes a while to get used to the game — a situation not aided by the lack of any tutorial mode and worsened by overly-complex set plays. You have access to all the standard kicks (chip, grubber, punt, drop goal), passes (short, cut-out, offload), moves (dummys, fend-offs, tackles, side-steps) and even the option to cheat. The fundamental mechanics are all there, even set plays but, like the visuals, there’s nothing impressive about them.

If we go by the aspects the game covers, you could be fooled into thinking this is solid rugby title — the laws of the sport are kept to (even if there's no referee on the pitch) and it doesn’t leave much out — but many things on paper don’t work in practice. Everything simply fails to come together cohesively: forwards pick up the ball at the breakdown, only to hit invisible walls; passing is unrealistically accurate; rolling mauls are deemed unplayable after the ball is clearly out; grubber and up-and-under kicks are hard to put to use; line-breaks lack decent, realistic support running and there’s an unnaturally long pause before players join the breakdown. Despite following all the laws of the sport, Rugby Word Cup 2011 never feels like a rugby match.

Tipping RWC 2011 truly into the realms of rubbish is the AI. Setting the difficulty to easy, medium or hard merely determines the opposition's tackle/fend-off rate and the percentage of ball they win at the breakdown or set piece, with no improvement in how they play. Witnessing the AI (on ‘hard’) squander a four-on-one overlap by throwing an early cut-out pass to the winger, with no attempts to draw the defenders in sums up the AI's pool quality. From time to time it exhibits intelligent play, but all too often it shows easy to exploit blindspots. Once the AI’s been sussed, the only challenge you will find is in either the local or online multiplayer matches, and there’s not really much encouraging you to do this.

Conclusion

Rugby World Cup 2011 is a poorly rebranded version of EA/HB Studios' 2007 title, Rugby 08. The graphics are a generation too old, there’s no feeling of realism in how it plays and the AI isn’t very intelligent. There is some small fun to be had here if you have a few mates who like rugby, but it’s no better than dusting down your PS2 and playing Rugby 08. If you’re looking for a rugby union game, get Rugby Challenge as there's a vast difference in quality to these titles. The lack of effort placed into improving the series is embarrassing; it’s a copy-and-paste job, adding no value to a title that was average four years ago, Rugby World Cup 2011 fails to qualify for the tournament, let alone make it past the pool stages.