World Championship Rugby
Seemingly late to the party, Acclaim has arrived to celebrate England's World Cup victory with its take on the rough-and-tumble that is rugby.
To a large percentage of the world's population, rugby is a completely impenetrable sport featuring a bunch of guys with no necks beating and groping each other for an ovoid leather ball. Perhaps this is why there have only been a handful of console titles that provide a virtual realization of the game. The latest developer to enter the fray is UK-based Swordfish Studios, who follow up on the World Cup success of their countrymen with World Championship Rugby, an adequate title with some rather egregious flaws.
Sports games come in many flavours these days, and WCR manages to neatly straddle the line between sim and silly by giving a fairly accurate presentation of rugby. All the boxes have been checked in ensuring that the basic mechanics of the sport of in place, and they're generally well done. But there's an omnipresent sense of disappointment as potential is squandered through poor programming, insufficient budget, or just plain oversight.
Controls are very fiddly initially, relying on shoulder buttons to a large extent, and it'll take you a few matches before you'll feel completely at ease. The running game is a lot of fun, with good responsiveness, allowing you to make that last-second pass before you're pummelled by the opposing lock. Team AI is such that once you're handling the ball, your teammates will regroup and stagger alongside you so that you can get some legal passes in as you bolt for the goal line. It would have been nice to see some more effective offensive manoeuvres, like a good, solid arm block, but the ability to make dummy passes comes in very handy in scoring that try in the dying moments of a match. What's especially gratifying is the sense of individuality evident in your teammates. Big, hulking locks will run much slower than nimble fly-halfs, but they'll be able to steamroll over unwitting obstacles that much more easily too.
It's the slower parts of the game that manage to frustrate though. Loose rucks are a pain, relying on button mashing in the vain hope of overpowering a stronger opponent. Scrums on the other hand seem nigh on impossible to win consistently. You'll follow the manual and do as it commands, only to see the opposing scrum-half get hold of the ball time and time again. On the plus side, scrums aren't nearly as frequent as in reality.
There's a fair amount of cheapness to the game too. The computer seems able to force a turnover with considerably more ease than you, and try conversions, while quite challenging when you're the one spotting the ball, are guaranteed for your erstwhile opponent. The nature of the sport means that during the course of the game the referee is obliged to offer advantage to a team in light of an infraction by the opposing side. Those unfamiliar with the rules might find themselves yielding penalty after penalty, which is probably why Swordfish took the initiative to make the enforcement of penalties optional. Tackles off the ball are another big no-no, so you're forced to pay attention to who you're downing when.
One rather bemusing (and oftentimes useful) divergence from reality is the way WCR handles sprinting. As would be expected, holding down the sprint button gives you a temporary boost, after which you return to normal paced running. Carry on pressing the button though and you'll soon be tearing off again for another bout of the fast stuff. Needless to say, combining this "feature" with sidestepping and dummy passes makes for a lethal combination.
WCR offers three difficulty levels, which can come in handy when you're taking on the top-tier teams. Squads are given a star rating (with five being the best), but taking on weaker teams proves to be a non-challenge, as you're almost guaranteed to steamroll them into next week. Only twenty nations are represented in the game, and though this does include the big five (England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and France), most of the remaining teams serve as minor inconveniences between real matches. The game comes with the official endorsement of only the England and Wales teams, meaning that for the most part you won't be seeing accurate squad line-ups. The handy team editor does give you the option of going in to rename each and every player for the sake of accuracy, if you're so inclined.
There are a variety of modes on hand in WCR, though perhaps not as many as EA-faithful will be used to. There's a Friendly mode, where international teams battle in one-off games, Tournaments, such as the Tri-Nations and World Cup, and also Tour mode, where you choose a national squad and embark on a tour of one of the four regions available. You can save your progress after each match, meaning the less scrupulous will take advantage of the system to ensure perfect scores throughout all modes.
Outside of the regular play modes, Swordfish have included some more fun modes for when you just don't feel like the meat and potatoes. As you progress through the game, certain classic scenarios are unlocked, giving you the chance to reenact some of the golden moments in rugby's rich history. For instance, you might be plonked down late in the second half of the 2001 match with the British All-Stars during their tour of Australia and be faced with the prospect of gouging out a victory from the tie-game. There are only nine of these scenarios (three are immediately available) but they provide an interesting, challenging and (most of all) fun diversion from the core gameplay modes, and it's a shame that more aren't on offer. For the masochistic, there's Survival mode, which pits your team against a succession of randomly selected opponents until you eventually lose. Finally we have Beat All-Stars, in which, as the name suggests, you have to beat an All-Star team with each of the national squads. No mean feat by anyone's reckoning.
As you'd expect from a sports game in 2004, almost every aspect of match conditions is at your disposal, including time of day, weather, and location. In a gobsmacking oversight, you can also choose the length of a game, but only up to 15 minutes a side. Those of you looking to turn the reality up a notch are in for disappointment. While playing the game is pretty fun most of the time, getting the optimal angle for viewing the onscreen shenanigans isn't always so straightforward. There are various head-on and side-on views to choose from, none of which seems to perfectly capture the action. In the end, like me, you might just find yourself picking the one that looks best and just choosing to get used to it. As with the fidgety controls, after a few matches you won't even notice it anymore.
Outside of gameplay, there's a sense of mediocrity to the game that stretches from the bland menus to the uninspiring presentation and static crowds. There's full audio commentary, but the combination of the mediocre voice work and the lacklustre crowd noise makes for a rather dull aural package. Visuals are good, featuring smooth character animations, but you're probably not going to be pulling this one out to impress your mates. Character models aren't quite as detailed as they could be and the overuse of "spontaneous" victory animations gets old very quickly. That being said, there's no evidence of overreaching on the part of Swordfish, with the terrible triumvirate of slowdown, popup and clipping being virtually nonexistent.
Once the various modes have lost their initial appeal, you'll still be able to get some multiplayer fun out of the game. Multitap support means that up to you can invite up to three of your friends around for an afternoon of beer and rugby, and, provided you've all had a bit of time to brush up on the controls, a fun time is guaranteed for all.
The smaller size of the target audience means that rugby is never going to get the same amount of attention as football (American or otherwise). Keeping that in mind, World Championship Rugby provides a fun, if superficial, foray into largely uncharted territory. The gameplay is strong, and while it lacks some bells and whistles, it provides a satisfactory experience for those looking for something a little different. It's accessible enough that non-fans will be able to climb right in without too many problems, while still offering the die-hard something to sink their chipped teeth into.