Rugby 08 Review
Rugby is one of the most brutal and punishing sports on earth - it's very much like football only without the padding - so the concept seems perfect for a video game. From scrums to diving tackles to all-out hectic team running, there's always something happening; hence, the action rarely falters. The last EA installment on the PS2 (Rugby 06) was well done and appeared to be a mostly faithful recreation of this high-impact sport, so we were hoping for another solid title in Rugby 08. And while EA once again delivers a fun and surprisingly deep experience, providing fans with the foundation necessary for ultimate enjoyment, it's basically just 06 with a few minor enhancements. That may be enough for fans of the sport, but U.S. gamers are more likely to wait for Madden NFL 08 next week.
The game looks great for a PS2 title, especially when it comes to the cinematic roving of the camera around the stadium, the players, and the green of the field reflected in the bright lights during a night game. The detailing isn't where it should be, though, and there's some definite blurriness and jaggies here and there, primarily when you use one of the several all-encompassing views during gameplay. It's difficult to pick out any details at all during actual matches - you're further away from the action than you might think - but the overall presentation is much better than average. It's your typical EA graphical palette, commonly found in last-generation sports titles, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The color is sharp, they capture the likeness of the players nicely, and most fans will be satisfied with what they see on screen. It may be lacking in some areas, but then again, we have to admit to being used to next-gen sports games...already.
The sound isn't quite as accomplished, with a set of about a dozen music tracks repeated over and over throughout every sort of gameplay mode. The announcers are better, but you'll have heard everything they ever plan to say after an hour of playing, and that puts a serious crimp in the experience. The quality of both the soundtrack and voices is quite high, but they're not anywhere near diverse enough, and this same analysis proves true for the effects. Rugby is a hard-hitting sport, and we never really get those great impact sounds we were expecting. Furthermore, the boot of the ball, grunts of the players, and general gameplay all comes across as a little muted and generic. Why EA Canada would want to downplay the sound in a game like this is beyond us, but the fact remains- it's just not as impressive as it should be. Good quality the whole way Ďround, but it rarely has any real impact.
If you're not familiar with the sport, you'll probably want to sample the tutorial and advanced tutorials as you play, and here's the good news- even if you're a novice, you can still pick up and play within a few minutes. You use the left analog stick to move (duh), the X button to deliver a diving tackle, the L2 button to utilize a burst of speed, and the R1 and L1 buttons to pass to the right and left respectively. It's not difficult, and just about anyone can learn the basics without any problem. However, as you progress and attempt to learn more about it, even the advanced tips don't really tell you much about the intricacies of the sport. That might annoy you a bit, but it's not necessary to understand every tiny aspect of rugby to have fun with Rugby 08. You'll be running, passing, and tackling very effectively within maybe a half-hour of play time, and only once you ramp up the difficulty will things change...and it's a pretty drastic change, too.
You won't even notice this drawback until you're prepared for the Pro (or God forbid, the Elite) level, but notice it you will. Yeah, you've been faring pretty well for a while, getting the hang of the straightforward controls and figuring out a few rudimentary tactics for scoring a "try" or "touch-down" (two very different things, people). But once you hit Pro, the challenge stiffens considerably. The AI gets more efficient and clever, and you're forced to "player manage" a whole lot more. Injuries mount up, fatigue is an immediate issue, and if you don't understand how to substitute players into the correct position, the errors will become a serious problem. This is outrageously frustrating for those who don't know the exact methodology of the sport, and the fact that they don't really educate you very well beyond the basics...well, that just adds to the problem. It's fun for at least an hour or two, but then you had best hunker down and learn, or you're just plain screwed.
In addition, there is a glaring flaw with the control. While the analog sticks work fine for movement and special moves, there is a definite delay when using the face or shoulder buttons to tackle or pass. The response time is often as slow as a full second, which, if you really think about it, is way too long. You often find yourself pressing the same button two or three times before the action is executed, and at first, you'll wonder if you're even pressing the correct button. But you are, and the delay is painfully obvious. On the flip side, and as we mentioned before, these controls do remain both accessible and straightforward. And once you get used to it, you can abide the lack of response time and still have yourself a blast. Besides, when the special moves are all done with the right analog stick - and those go off without a hitch - you're not always battling delayed controls during gameplay. On top of this, you've got a serious amount of game modes, and that includes the awesome World Cup mode.
You've got the following to choose from- real-world national and club competitions (Tri-Nations, RBS Six Nations, Super 14, European Trophy, and Guinness Premiership), world league, and of course, all the player managing, customization and trading that goes along with it. But one of the brand new modes is the Challenge Mode, with 30 total scenarios from previous World Cup tournaments. Your goal is to either emulate or change the outcome of a particular event by participating in very specific challenges. Each one has three objectives that must be completed at first, and when you pass those, a fourth arises for you to conquer. Some objectives are pretty standard (score a certain number of points, hold your opponent to a certain number of points, etc.), but others are just plain weird...what exactly do we prove by running around like a spaz trying to get two successful shoulder charges in a row before scoring? What does that have to do with rugby?
Even so, the Challenge Mode adds a great dimension to the standard gameplay modes, and offers new twists on the sport. The gameplay itself holds up strong throughout any mode, despite the delayed controls and sudden difficulty spike, and playing with a friend is usually good fun. In the end, though, we had hoped to see a little more in Rugby 08 that would distinguish it from 06; something concrete that goes beyond cosmetic upgrades. There is no online play, and we never really felt as if we were playing a new entry in the series. It has a fresh coat of paint and a nice, streamlined way of approaching the gameplay, but beyond that, there's nothing very eye-opening here. It's a solid production; it just lacks any newfound personality.
8/9/2007 Ben Dutka