Review: Rugby World Cup 2011 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Rugby World Cup 2011
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Sports Simulation
Release Date: 09/06/2011

America certainly loves its football, but, unlike any other territory, it is also quite stubborn in which football it diverts its attention to. This probably explains the lame stats rating the United States has in this new sports title honoring the Australian rules version of the game.

It’s been a handful of years since the U.S. has seen a proper console rugby release and in recognition of the 2011 world cup held in New Zealand, 505 Games has stepped in to publish this newest effort. I’m drawn to the less mainstream sporting titles, so I just had to give this ball a go. After some quality time with the title, I must say that while Rugby World Cup 2011 has some distance to cover in order to win a championship, it still comes across as an interesting diversion and succeeds in being a small step above what HB Studios was able to deliver on the Playstation 2 for EA in 2008.

For those actually following the sport, the title echoes this year’s world cup, sporting a number of international teams and themes that truly produce a diverse atmosphere in the title. This is evident from the get-go as the title gives players the option to have the menus and commentary delivered in English (with two commentary toggles to feature British or Australian telecasters), French or Italian. The game also tries to spread out the diversity among its international teams, which is refreshing for a U.S. sports title. If you do follow rugby, though, the omission of domestic teams, a few of the international teams participating in the cup and the lack of some of the player likenesses will likely strike a nerve.

Of course, if you don’t follow this eastern hemisphere sport, all of that won’t mean a whole lot. Still, there are a bunch of customization options that allow the player to mix things up so knowledge of the current world cup isn’t as crucial. Players can manage team rosters, randomize the world cup pools and more so they can just jump into the title without the need to reflect the actual event.

On that note, though, Rugby World Cup 2011 won’t deliver beyond the expected in terms of modes. You have your exhibition-style mode, a mode where players run through a line-up of opponents, the actual World Cup series of games and an online mode for players to connect with others. Perhaps the only mode (outside the customization) that delivers beyond what would be expected is in the simple shootout mode where players can go toe-to-toe in the series of field goal-style kicks that is carried out in the event of a tie.

The most boggling omission, though, is some sort of tutorial or at least a reference guide to the sport being played. While I personally find interest in sports such as these (I constantly have to explain how curling works every single time the winter Olympics come around), most everyone I know has no idea how to play rugby outside of tackling whoever has the ball. While the instruction booklet is fairly in-depth, there is little guidance in the game itself. There is a page in the booklet that is reflected in a loading menu, which pretty much lays out the most basic controls necessary to play the game, but once a player is in the game, they are left to his or her own devices to figure out the rules, pacing, scoring and strategy of the sport.

Because of this, it appears the title was more of an effort to please the countries clamoring for the first rugby console release since EA dropped the sport in 2008 and, much like the U.S. would respond to a game based on American football, these territories already understand the ins and outs of rugby. I understand this is a niche game targeting a very specific U.S. segment, but if a fan of rugby tried to get his or her friends in on the action, there is certainly a barrier to overcome in this regard.

In all, while you do get a decent amount of modes and content, nothing goes above and beyond what a player expects out of a sports game in 2011. In essence, this mantra also carries over into the presentation of the title, as well.

While the graphics aren’t an eyesore by any stretch of the imagination, they hardly push the power of the Xbox 360. The meat of the gameplay has the camera zoomed out quite a bit and when this is the case, the visuals are serviceable – the player has a clear view of the field to see oncoming defenders and it is usually very easy to tell where the ball is currently located. The view doesn’t aid some of the animations; however, and I have even encountered frame skips, which, thankfully, seemed to only occur while a ball was being kicked and it was high in the air. When the view zooms in, though, there is a large lack of detail on many of the players and this most certainly true for the crowd in attendance.

In regard to the audio, the commentary is certainly the highlight here, although, this can be mostly attributed to the language options available in the game. Unless you understand French or Italian, these features will go by largely ignored, and the overall lack of excitement provided by the commentators will find the lines eventually drowned out in the action. Still, the commentators largely stay on top of the action and are bolstered by the range of crowd cheers (although these don’t always appropriately reflect the situation) and the soft effects heard from the field. While the menus, the music merely serves as soft backdrop, providing an “Olympic-style” feel.

Overall, the presentation of Rugby World Cup 2011 just doesn’t measure up to the other mainstream sports titles the U.S. is accustomed to. It has a lot of neat ideas in commentary that cater to other territories, but is largely ineffective here. The graphics and sound are certainly serviceable to what is being executed here, but players shouldn’t expect them to go much further beyond that point.

This brings us to the actual meat of the game – the gameplay – and I do have to say this is where the title shines the most, even among some of its technical and mechanical snags.

Most sports gamers should be familiar with the most basic of mechanics, as running the field and making tackles should feel natural. Place kicking even reflects many of the mechanics we’ve seen in numerous sports titles, with a slider dictating the accuracy and power of the kicks. Players already accustomed to these mechanics will at least be able to hang with the computer on the easier difficulties and, actually, the difficulty selection serves as the only mechanic that could be considered a tool in smashing the aforementioned sport barrier.

For someone that has never played rugby before, I would actually recommend setting the game to “easy,” as the difficulty selection is the most satisfying implementation of balance the game against AI opponents. Not only does the selection water down the AI of the computer, but it also limits the selections the player has to make on the field. When a try is successfully scored, the ball is automatically set at an ideal distance based on the player going for the extra points. The referees also seemed to be more lenient on roughing penalties, wind is a nonexistent factor in place kicking and the distance for kick offs favor the player.

Once the player has adjusted to the basics, I can’t say the sport is too difficult to understand after a couple of minutes. When a player is tackled and a ruck is initiated for control of the ball, the player taps the A button in a rhythm to gain control of the ball. The defense has to work a little harder to get the ball back, but in order to discourage a game of whoever can mash the button the fastest, players who are too aggressive with the button presses are flagged with a roughing penalty.

It’s simple, but it works. The only flaw with the process is in utilizing the A button, which is mapped to an offensive player’s kick. If you’re too overzealous with the button pressing, you’ll just launch the ball away without it even being a drop kick that can potentially score three points if you are near the opponent’s goal line.

That is pretty much the brunt of the game, but the constant struggles create a nice game flow that reflects the sport fairly well. Slowly inching toward the goal is satisfying, defending against an opponent inching toward your goal is tense and breaking through the opponent’s line for a mad dash toward the goal is just as exciting as it is in American football. Outside of these main mechanics, the game does mix things up well with the aforementioned place kicking mechanic, a sort of rock-paper-scissors matchup for throw-ins, usage of the right stick to select set plays and a very simplistic kick-off mechanic.

While there is a lot to like in Rugby World Cup 2011‘s gameplay, it certainly isn’t without its snags. Most notably in that the game isn’t nearly as fun against the computer as it is against another player. Even stepping the game up to medium difficulty is hardly satisfying as the AI, on most accounts, fails to be aggressive.

If I had any space behind my line, it was too easy too utilize the tactics of the NES and SEGA Genesis era (more specifically, my time spent with Tecmo Bowl and NFL Prime Time Football) to completely burn the opposition. I could just change my direction behind the line and dive through a hole in the defending line. This put my player up against one last defender, which could easily be broken with a zig-zag or last-second change of direction.

When playing against a line of opponents in the game’s various modes, the difficulty did noticeably increase a tad, but nothing gave me competition until I placed the game on hard. It felt like easy prepared me for the default difficulty, but I can’t say the same for the move from medium to hard. The defenders move from being timid and shy to in-your-face, so it is certainly reserved for those that have spent quite some time with the game, but the pay-off is rewarding and I do have to say the achievement listing for the game adequately balances the pacing of progression between the difficulties and you have some interesting challenges in tackling the top teams and tournaments with lower-ranked teams.

As for the gameplay itself, what annoyed me the most was the reliance on canned tackling animations, which at times feel weird, mostly due to the fact I felt some of them came from shoddy hit detection. There were plenty of times where I felt I had plenty of room to break through the line, only to be jerked aside by a canned animation.

But this is all coming from a humble games writer located in the United States. Looking at a number of international reports based on the game, many are disappointed with the lack of offerings the title presents in its licensing (most specifically in the top two teams in the world, Australia and New Zealand, having fictitious players), modes and presentation, so huge fans of the sport will likely be more put off by the game than I was.

Going into the game and playing it as it was proved to be an enjoyable experience, but the lackluster AI, a few glaring mechanical issues, lack of options and merely serviceable presentation are hard to ignore, especially for someone looking at a full-priced retail title. For me, this title is an odd case where it is fun to play in bursts, but I find it hard to recommend it to many people at its full price. The title does shine in multiplayer, and this carries over to the online mode, but I found the need to use a code to activate the online gameplay to be quite unnecessary in such a niche title. I could see Rugby World Cup 2011 be fairly appealing as a curiosity title once the price drops a little, but with what is here (or, more importantly, what isn’t here), the title could have brought more value with a reduced price.

In the end, most of the replayability comes from randomizing the tournaments or changing the names of the players or going toe-to-toe with other players. There are a number of tools available to the player, but a few extra modes could have went a long way here. While we haven’t seen a rugby game in the past handful of years, this title could have been deemed more original had it been more of an evolution from the last title we saw.

As such, it is a tough pitch to someone that really loves rugby. Even though there is a solid game underneath the hood, the licensing omissions will likely be hard to overlook and make any fan’s blood boil. If you’re just looking for an offbeat sports title to pass some time with, though, give Rugby World Cup 2011 a try. It can certainly surprise you, but don’t expect it to be the hottest new thing in sports.

The Scores
Story/Modes: ENJOYABLE
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Control and Gameplay: VERY GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal Factor: DECENT
Miscellaneous: ENJOYABLE

Short Attention Span Summary

Rugby World Cup 2011 is an eclectic mix of good and bad, but at the end of the day, the good surpasses the bad … unless you are huge fan of the sport. For these fans, the lack of licenses may be impossible to overlook, especially considering the fact it is based off a current sporting event. If you have no idea what a ruck is, though, there is a solid and somewhat faithful game to be experienced. However, this will come at the cost of merely serviceable presentation, confusing computer AI and a few other balancing and gameplay issues and a real lack of expansive game modes (or a tutorial for the rugby uninitiated). If you’re a gamer that can forgive a pile of issues for some solid gameplay and entertaining multiplayer, you can find some fun in Rugby World Cup 2011, but, still, it’s a hard pitch at full price.



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