There's a big sporting event starting at the end of this week - the Rugby World Cup. And if you're completely oblivious to what's happening in the sporting world, then allow us to inform you that it's being held across the water in New Zealand. So, you know what that means! Two games to be released alongside it. One of them is called Wallabies Rugby Challenge (or it could be All Blacks Rugby Challenge or it could be Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge depending on where you live), but here in good ol' Australia, it's being named after a midget kangaroo. Because that's how this country rolls.
Wallabies Rugby Challenge is the unofficial alternative to Rugby World Cup 2011, it's not a bad one either, but it does have several problems. The most noticeable of these is the lack of authenticity. The vast majority of international teams don't have the proper licenses - that means fake kits and fake players. Thankfully, the game has the exclusive licenses for Australia and New Zealand, but you're still missing out on some of the biggest teams in the world. The lack of realism is glaringly obvious when you see Japanese names on the Irish team, and vice versa. The generic character models don't help either. You can, of course, change everything through the customisation menu but it's an extremely time consuming process. There's still a more than satisfactory amount of licensed club teams from around the globe to play as, so the complaint will affect purists more than anyone else.
Speaking of character models, Wallabies Rugby Challenge isn't exactly an ugly game, but it certainly isn't pretty. It's adequate and nothing more. For the licensed teams, player likenesses are reasonably good without ever coming close to FIFA levels of accuracy. Up close, the detail is impressive; zoomed out during gameplay... not so much. The animation, while not the smoothest, is decent enough for the majority of players. You're not going to get distracted by rough graphics, just don't purchase this game expecting the most realistic rugby game ever made. Some of the official stadiums (including Melbourne's new AAMI Park) try to compensate for the inadequacies elsewhere, but for whatever unexplained reason, almost every crowd waves the Australian national flag even if they're not playing. It's quite strange.
Seeing as these opening paragraphs appear to be taking on a very negative tone, we may as well get the majority of the problems out of the way before discussing the gameplay (which is surprisingly solid). Another area severely lacking in polish is presentation, and Wallabies Rugby Challenge doesn't do itself any favours with long loading times and some of the most robotic commentary since NHL 2003. The comparison is intentional because NHL 2003 was one of the early adopters of 'stitching' technology. Back in the day, putting names and lines of action together had never been done so well. Sadly, Wallabies Rugby Challenge hasn't evolved. Your commentary team is comprised of Grant Nisbett and Justin Marshall, who provide accurate calls most of the time. But when you hear a fake name, followed by a clear pause and a subsequent line of detail, it really does detract from the immersion. Especially when you see how FIFA and even the woeful audio in Pro Evolution Soccer have improved over the years, there's no excuse for such banal commentary. It's not that difficult to get it right. Damn, even a step up from eight years ago would have been an improvement.
Wallabies Rugby Challenge does however, play a good game of rugby when it's running freely. The controls are tight and never feel overly complex (largely helped by the hugely beneficial tutorials at the beginning of the game), so if you're new to the sport in general, Wallabies Rugby Challenge offers a sports game that's forgiving enough to starters, and punishing for those of us on the opposite end of the spectrum. There really is a nicely balanced learning curve here and you're never forced into playing with a certain tactic in mind. If you hate kicking for touch or slowly progressing up along the pitch, then you have other tactical options that can let you play from more of an 'arcade' point of view instead of a simulation one. You don't have the same depth of tactics seen is something like Madden, but then again rugby isn't a sport made up of players showing off their cribs and their 'bling.' The lesser of two evils, we think.
There are a couple of little tips and tricks to help you rip the defence apart, including an effective dummy pass, side-steps, and more or less every other technical move or kick that rugby is known for. It's all in here. The gameplay does suffer in places, especially during the ruck (where players must challenge for the ball when a player is grounded). You're forced into tapping A (quick support) or B (heavy support) like a maniac in order to win the contest. The mechanic goes beyond the point of being stupidly brutal to your poor thumb and it's truly punishing to your skin at times. Maybe we're being too enthusiastic with our button pressing, but it's a frustratingly repetitive part of every single match. To be fair, almost everything else is handled well (if a bit too simplistically). Scrums are particularly fun and closely contested, requiring you to push the analogue sticks forward at a certain time. But there were also moments of inconsistency, where players would make moronic decisions when it came to passing the ball; or in the case of the opposition, throwing the ball backwards despite being clear through to score. Bizarre.
Fiddly bits and bobs really don't affect the gameplay too much, because your time spent with Wallabies Rugby Challenge is generally very satisfying and rewarding. There's plenty to get through with a lengthy career mode divided between club and international levels of play, a range of different official competitions/tournaments (unfortunately the World Cup and Six Nations aren't licensed), and online multiplayer where up to eight people can play co-operatively (four versus four). The online component works well too; little or no lag and relatively quick matchmaking, although it remains to be seen just how long players will remain committed to the title. It's likely that post-World Cup blues will take a lot of players out of their homes and into the pubs.
As a complete package, Wallabies Rugby Challenge doesn't quite deliver. The lack of licenses, poor presentation and occasionally erratic gameplay moments highlight the problems caused as a result of strict funds and limited time. Those seeking an accessible sporting companion for all things rugby could do far worse; what it does provide is a solid rugby experience, and we haven't had one of those in far too long. It seems to be the forgotten sport of video games so it's great to see it returning and not flopping. It's easily the best rugby game on the market too (which isn't saying a whole lot), but let's see where the franchise goes from here, because there's plenty of room for improvement.