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Rugby World Cup 2011

Given its popularity in parts of the world, rugby has had surprisingly little representation in videogames in recent years. While the sport doesn’t garner the same level of attention as football, it says a lot that this is the first rugby game on the current generation of consoles.

It doesn’t act like it though. Rugby World Cup 2011 is a game that assumes you know too much, delivering an experience that is initially bewildering and tests your patience. Given their history of creating sports games, the developer – HB Studios – should know better.

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In any game, you need to learn the controls in order to play. With many, genre conventions mean that this may be more straightforward than usual; you don’t need to learn how to play FIFA each year and likewise, you can get to grips with many racing games by assuming that certain controls will be the same. With rugby, so much time has passed since the last game that this learned behaviour is spartan at best.

Given this context, it’s striking that the sole assistance RWC 2011 offers are loading screens and a menu option that illustrate the controls. Reading, memorising and then recalling such information is never the best way to learn anything and in games, this is a solved problem. Many begin with what is effectively a tutorial, introducing you to one button at a time, while sports games like FIFA provide a training environment in which to learn. In RWC 2011, you must muddle by with trial and error, trying to guess how everything works.

The consequences of this crop up endlessly throughout the first hours of play. When the play breaks down into a ruck, two bars pop up on the side of the screen, with one prompting you to press ‘A’. It looks you have to tap it as quickly as possible to fill up this meter, with the first to do so winning the contest. In fact, you’re not meant to fill it right up and doing so will often cause a foul. This isn’t explained anywhere.

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Splitting up

The game’s developer, HB Studios, have a decade of experience in creating sports games, primarily working for EA on tournament spinoffs and ports to less popular platforms. When it comes to rugby, they’ve been the sole and lead developer of EA’s series, which was last seen in 2007. Rugby World Cup 2011 is essentially a continuation of that series, but without the giant publisher’s backing.

The presumption seems to be that you’ll be motivated to invest enough time to figure out how RWC 2011 works. Those who do will find a challenging and satisfying rendition of the sport. Rugby is perfectly suited to videogames, with a pace that intersperses crushing tackles and frantic runs with set pieces that allow you to regroup and plan your next move. Once you’ve got to grips with it, RWC 2011 makes every game and point feel rewarding.

The inherent depth that rugby offers keeps matches interesting. Do you quickly restart play or opt for a more intricate set piece? Do you play a kicking game or try and gain territory to get in a position where you can score a try? There’s enough variation to suit many different approaches and styles.

Several issues persistent though. While in attack, it’s easy to dictate the action, but in defence it feels like it’s somewhat out of your control. Because of the team sizes, switching players is haphazard at best and sometimes the AI will tackle a player for you. Not switching to the nearest player to tackle an oncoming opponent is often the easiest option, since you never know if you’ll get there in time.

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Once an opponent breaks through, your full back is your last line of defence, but you frequently can’t see where they are until the last moment. If your selected player is off the screen, there’s no indicator showing in which direction they are. This is especially frustrating if you opt to have the camera behind your team, heading up the pitch.

The right hand side of the controller is also overloaded, as the bumper passes the ball right while the trigger is used to sprint. Often you need both of these, so you end up playing with your middle finger on the trigger, which isn’t ideal. It feels like there could have been a better button layout, especially since this is the only one.

These issues aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but together they show a lack of attention to detail. There are aspects of the game which you expect to work flawlessly that simply don’t. Selecting teams before each match is clumsy at best, forcing you to move your cursor around from one side to another, when a setup similar to FIFA’s equivalent would be much more straightforward.

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Once in a match, it’s easy enough to get engrossed in the action to the point where you won’t mind RWC 2011’s somewhat dated visuals. Compared to other sports games, there’s a distinct lack of polish in places, particularly the animation. The way players turn when running isn’t convincing and they’ll leap unrealistically far into some tackles as if they’re magnetically attracted.

As with any tournament-centric game, once you’ve taken your team through the main event, there’s quite a drop in its appeal. RWC 2011 also has individual friendlies, short warm-up tours and online multiplayer, but how enticing these will be after a few weeks is questionable.

At least there’s a rugby game at all. For fans of the sport, RWC 2011 is worth the price of admission, if not the wait. It’s a game full of promise, but lacks the polish to appeal to a wider audience. This feels like the first instalment of what could become a successful series, but one that needs time to mature.

6 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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