Much has been made in the media of the particular kind of rugby that wins knockout competitions like the Rugby World Cup. While New Zealand's style - running rugby and an emphasis on tries - might be easy on the eye, we fear that the All Blacks lack the ability to 'win ugly'.
The first time I played Sidhe's All Blacks Rugby Challenge, a couple of weeks back, it felt like New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park this year: big game atmosphere, attacking flair, exciting battles all around the park... and afterwards it looked like there was daylight between this kiwi outfit and the competition. Coming back to the finished game, though, I'd had time to digest things a little more, and I wanted to look beyond the flash and pomp and hype. Is everything really as immaculate as it seems, or does the first play through airbrush over some imperfections? Does the flashy experience hold up game after game? And does Rugby Challenge's wealth of features really deliver what rugby fans will be anxious for?
For the first few games, it's all upside. As expected, given the series of sliders employed to control team tactics and dynamics, different teams play differently. It's not something you're likely to notice too much when the Hurricanes take on the Blues, but playing South Africa and then the Wallabies... wow! After grinding out a kick-fest against some carefully renamed Boks (contrary to earlier reports, Sidhe have used fictionalised versions of real players - although the fake names at least sound plausible), Quade Cooper and Co. completely tore my All Black defense apart with some lightning-quick passes and offloads that even had Sonny Bill Williams impressed. Australian glee at scoring and the dismayed body language of the defenders were captured brilliantly. I'm happy to say that 'Normal' difficulty still poses plenty of challenge - so hopefully the two harder levels will prove satisfying even over a longer period of time.
Even working together in co-op, we were struggling with the pace at times. But that's not to impugn Rugby Challenge's two-player experience - indeed, this is one area where I think it clearly rises above many rugby games of the past. Whether competitive or cooperative, the feel of multiplayer is great, and maybe of the game's little touches really come into their own when there are mates around to get into the spirit of things. While in single-player, the pretty lens flares will go unnoticed, and the Haka will probably get skipped after the first time, these peripheral things definitely add a touch of spice to a real in-the-room rivalry. The TMO is particularly cool in these circumstances, giving you moments of real tension in close matches (and it seems to be invoked at sensible times, which is a pleasant surprise).
Under the crisp surface, though, after the flash of such things starts to wear off, I can start to see the game's issues breaking through the defensive line. It started with the graphical glitches: the occasional ball bouncing weirdly and then popping to where it should be - nothing that seems to seriously affect the game, but enough to make you go 'huh?'. Then it's the defender bouncing off a try-scorer's diving animation, or a rampaging scrum that looks like it might actually be on wheels... The next thing you know, the opposing James O'Connor has literally walked right through one of your defenders on his way to the try-line.
And, as with O'Connor in the past week, the cracks start to appear off-field, too. The squad management interface is really clunky to use, with options available inconsistently depending on if you are accessing it during a match or not. Headshots of your players update very slowly, too (so if you put Thomson in at Blindside, he'll sit there looking like Jerome Kaino for a few seconds before the screen updates). Other little things grate as well. The ITM Cup announces that it has two divisions, even though it's actually the 2010 model of the competition that Sidhe have implemented. Despite having selected only one human-controlled team in a competition, your controller will inexplicably default to the opposition just because they are the home team. And for all the head-distorting options you can bring to bear in player creation, there's a sadly small selection of hair-styles to choose from.
As for the commentary team... well, it's commentary in a sports video game. It doesn't matter how appropriate their comments are to the state of the game (pretty accurate for the most part, actually - except for a few howlers about the possibility of a drop goal being on the cards when the wrong team has the ball), you're always going to be able to tell where the team or player name has been uncomfortably tacked onto the end of a classic rugby cliché. At least the music is good.
As these disappointments sink in, Rugby Challenge starts to feel less like the stunning Eden Park performance and more like the recent back-up brigade's trip to Port Elizabeth: some brilliant moments, but marred by a few too many errors.
But is this too harsh? Maybe everything isn't perfect underneath the slick exterior, but that doesn't mean Rugby Challenge doesn't play well overall. The running rugby is free-flowing, and even when passing breaks down, it is usually in a fairly realistic way. Kicking benefits greatly from the slow-motion feature, allowing the player that little extra bit of time needed to effectively aim. Not that this makes kicking too easy - there's still a lot of challenge even just in kicking for territory. But it does mean that there's room to move the slider towards 'ugly' rugby rather than flashy backline moves. And ironically, given the effort that has clearly gone into the surface appeal of the game, I think it may be ugliness that gives Rugby Challenge its edge.
While career mode has its own disappointments (particularly in the international arena, where some players seem to have bizarre eligibility for foreign teams), at least there actually is a career mode. Sure FIFA is miles ahead in this department, but what use is that to us fans of the oval ball? For long-term single-player enjoyment, I don't think I can overstate the importance of the different competitions and modes available here. Rugby Challenge is not just here for the World Cup, it's in it for the long haul, offering tournaments at various levels from around the globe, even our own ITM Cup.
The lack of licenses for International sides and the South African Super Rugby franchises is unfortunate. But the game's customisation possibilities mean that if you're willing to put in the hard yards - by renaming teams and sourcing real players from the licensed clubs - you can pretty much overcome these drawbacks. Even the flag-based faux national kits can be exchanged for an array of custom outfits that are close enough to the real thing (though obviously unbranded).
Rugby Challenge is not without its problems. But there is depth behind its flashy veneer. Perhaps most importantly, there doesn't seem to be anything that ruins the game by overbalancing it. It embraces different playing styles, and rewards learning the skills associated with each. As I hope the All Blacks will in the coming weeks, Rugby Challenge plays with passion and does its best to impress with slick moves - but it also isn't afraid to 'win ugly'.
All Blacks Rugby Challenge
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3