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Way back in 1997 Swordfish studios published a little rugby game for the PlayStation (and later the PC) called Jonah Lomu rugby. As well as making a masterful call in the licensing stakes by signing big Jonah (who was hotter than Beckham at the time) they also managed to put together a good game.
By focusing on making an arcade-style game based on rugby rather than a rugby simulation Swordfish managed to do what no other game developer had managed to do, or arguably has managed to do since, they made a rugby game that almost universally rugby fans really enjoyed playing.
From my experience playing World Championship Rugby over the last week I think Swordfish have done it again.
(This review is of the PC version of the game, but I feel that 99% of it is relevant to the Xbox and PS2 versions as well, and in fact sitting on the couch playing it on a TV with a few mates is likely to just improve the experience.)
Packaging and Licensing
In the UK (and I presume the rest of the world) the game is marketed as World Championship Rugby, or WCR, and has the England rugby team plastered all over the packaging, along with the tag line "THE OFFICIAL GAME OF THE ENGLAND RUGBY TEAM".
Now while it's not hard to see why the England rugby connection isn't going to endear the title to most of the rugby fans in the world it's not like you can only play as England.
In any case for some reason the game is marketed in New Zealand as Zinzan's WCR. Yes Zinzan, you know that great All Black number eight who retired about the same time as Jonah Lomu hit his peak, in 1997. Not exactly a no-brainer licensing deal I would say. I heard that Doug Howlett was going to be the man for the job but a last minute endorsement hiccup (due to his NZRU contract) meant that Zinny got the call up. Personally they may as well not have bothered.
Who knows, maybe there are a few people that will buy the game because of the Zinzan endorsement, but I'm not one of them. Particularly when it's so skin deep. The "Zinzan's Rugby" name is only used on the flimsy box that the CD jewel case (DVD style) is packaged in. On the front of the jewel case is the original WCR packaging and none of the documentation or in game graphics even mention Zinzan.
The biggest disappointment in the licensing stakes is the fact that the England team the Welsh team and a few northern hemisphere stadiums are the only things that are official. That means that all the other teams are listed by their country name (no All Blacks or Wallabies, just New Zealand and Australia) and none of the player names on the other teams are correct either. For instance starting for Australia at half-back is none other than....Bryan Dowling!?!
Ok, so it's not quite as bad as it sounds. The Swordfish team have put a lot of effort into making the players look like the real mccoy even though they can't give them their real names, so with a little effort invested in in-game team editor you can give everyone their real names and save it like that for good.The editor (like rest of the menu system in the user interface) does suffer from being designed to work on a console (ie: without a mouse or keyboard) but it does work, and thankfully you can use the mouse and keyboard. I'm sure some bright spark will come up with a way to edit the teams and players from outside the game and save everyone (with the PC version at least) from having to edit every team. (I might even have a go at that myself if I can find the time, if someone else does work it out, or has a save game with all the teams fixed then let us know and we'll put the file up on Rugbyheads for all to share).
Installation, System Requirements and Performance
The game comes on two CDs, disk 1 is the Install disk, disk 2 is the Play disk. They aren't actually labelled as such but you work it out pretty quick when you try and start the game and it asks for disk 2.
The game installed without a hitch, although I did have a few problems getting it started due to my dual-screen config on windows XP. Changing to a single screen configuration fixed the problem.
The official minimum recommended requirements are:
* Windows XP/ME/2000/98
* 733MHz Intel Pentium III processor
* 128MB RAM
* 16 x CD/DVD-ROM
* 1.7GB Hard Disk space plus space for saved games
* A 32MB Direct3D capable Video Card with DirectX 9.0 compatible driver
* A DirectX 9.0 compatible Sound Card
* Keyboard and Mouse
For the record the system I played it on is:
* Windows XP Professional
* 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium 4 processor
* 512MB RAM
* NVIDIA GeForce FX 5600 (128mb) Video Card
* A DirectX 9.0 compatible Sound Card
* Keyboard, Mouse and PowerShock III game controller (a cheap Playstation clone controller)
I have only had this PC for about a year so am still pretty accustomed to cranking any games up to the maximum resolution and just expecting them to run fine (and look damn purty).
Therefore I was quite surprised to find that running the game at the maximum resolution of 1280x1024 (32 bit colour) was too much for my box, resulting in very sluggish cursor movement in the menus, noticable shuddering in the actual game and some muttering and whinging from me. Fortunately cranking the resolution back a notch to 1024x768 (still 32bit) made a huge difference. I suspect that if your PC is nearer the minumum specs then you can expect to be playing the game at 800x600 (16bit) or even 640x480. I tried it at 800x600 and it still looked ok so don't be put off by that, just be warned.
In addition to just changing the colour-depth and resolution there are a few other little tweaks and settings to the visuals so I'd be surprised if you can't get it to work, assuming your video card is DirectX 9 compatible.
Despite not having the official license for any competitions or teams (apart from England and Wales) WCR still sports a wealth of play modes.
As well as just jumping into a Friendly match between any of the XX?? national sides in the game there are also 6 different competition modes to keep you interested. While they don't have the official competition names they are close enough that any rugby fan will recognise.
The most familar ones include the World Championship (Rugby World Cup), the Euro Nations (6 Nations) and the 3 Nations (Tri-Nations) and in addition to that you can take your favourite team on tour of a continent, or set up a custom league or custom cup competition.
If someone can sort out a hack to edit the team names and uniforms then the custom league option would make it pretty easy to set up a Super 12 competition.
As well as these fairly traditional modes of play you can also play one of 3 challenge modes.
First of these is classic matches, offering 9 classic test matches to play. Only one of these is unlocked at a time, with some requiring you to win some other competitions before they can be unlocked. The second challenge mode is called Beat All-Stars Challenge, where you have to beat an Allstar team with each of the 20 normal teams in the game. The final challenge mode is called Survival challenge, which requires you to see how many games in a row you can win, with a twist that any points scored against you are carried forward to your next opposition.
Difficulty and Learning Curve
Like every other rugby video game I have ever played there is something of a learning curve. Unfortunately there isn't a tutorial mode or any sort of practice mode (without opposition). This was one feature that I thought the EA Sports Rugby 2001 did really well. Even just letting you run around on the paddock with one player and a ball practising the kicking, fending and faking would have been useful, and not very hard to implement.
Not a big deal though, jumping straight into a friendly match, playing as one of the top sides against one of the minnows, is a good way to get the hang of it. For my money New Zealand vs Georgia fit the bill just nicely thanks!
The most important advantage of playing a one-sided matchup is that you should be able to hold onto your possession more often than not, allowing you a lot of opportunities to suss out the controls.
The manual divides the instructions for the controls into three sections, Basic, Advanced and Expert. This proves to be pretty sensible and you can do enough with just the basic controls to have fun game, and with the addition of a sprint button from the Advanced controsl you pretty much have all the options you need. If you've played any rugby video games you will know is is no mean feat.
For general play you can get away with 6 buttons, two to pass (left or right) or change player on defense, a sprint button and 3 main action buttons which allow you to do a normal tackle or go for a big hit on defense, and punt the ball when you have posession.
Buttons 1 and 2 also allow you to commit and remove players from ruck and maul situations. Along with scrums, doing well in all these parts of the game basically comes down to frantic button pressing, either to commit guys to a ruck and maul as quickly as possible or to get your guys to push like madmen in a scrum. This can get a bit frustrating particularly against computer opponents (where it seems damn near impossible to win a maul and nearly as difficult to get a ruck) but it does add to the frantic pace of the game, especially in a multiplayer game.
I like the way they have implemented linouts. When the ball goes out the team throwing in gets to select the number of potential players in the lineout (3,5 or 7) and then both players get to select one of 3 target players (by pressing 1 of 3 buttons). In both cases this is the player that will jump. The player throwing in then holds down button one and an arrow stretches up and down the line, with the aim being to release the button when the arrow is over the targetted player. If the opposition didn't pick the same target then the attacking team wins the lineout, if they did pick the same target (so they have a 1 in 3 chance) then they win it. If you get the length of the throw wrong altogether then the ball goes to ground and it's basically first to it.
The expert controls include:
- the ability to do a side-step or spin move, which manuever the player does depends on the location of the defenders it appears but they both have the desired affect of beating the defender.
- the ability to fend off a player (seems far more effective with a forward and requires the tackler to be to your side, not directly in front)
- a variety of kicks in play (grubber, bomb, drop goal)
- the ability to attempt to charge down a kick
- performing a skip pass, by double or triple tapping the pass button when in possession
All of these options work pretty well, although getting to the point of being able to perform them just when you want to takes a lot of practise (more than I have put in at least!).
I found that in general I tend to play it this way (against the computer opponents at least).
On attack I Look to draw and pass to get the ball wide to the wings as quickly as possible, making a point of passing just before I am about to get tackled. I changed the button config so I could hold down turbo constantly (you can't actually use it constantly but you can use it for about a 3 second burst before the little turbo meter runs out and you have to wait for it to replenish) as with this tactic of trying to spread the ball wide most players don't hold the ball more than that anyway.
Once I get it out wide with a bit of space to move I will look to try a fend or side-step to beat my man and then use turbo to get by the cover defence, if I'm not going to beat the cover then I'll feed it back in field and look to continue the play. Generally I don't kick it out, although in tough matches I will kick for touch when in my own 22, especially if I'm up on the score board.
On defense I just tackle like a madman, generally conceeding rucks and mauls where I don't get early superiority in numbers and rely instead on a well timed big hit tackle to jolt the ball free. This is reasonably easy to do against the computer as they are pretty methodical at spreading it wide at any opportunity, so you can generally line up the next receiver just as he gets the ball. Of course you aren't guarenteed to get to the lose ball first but I have more luck there than in a ruck or maul situation!
However if you are playing with penalties turned on then relying on the big hit isn't so smart though. The chances of taking out a guy early or late are pretty high and you get pinged for that. Of course they do call knock-ons in that case too though so if you time one right you are more likely to get possession.
In the scrums I have only ever won a tight-head against a weak team so in a close matchup I don't generally bother pushing, just get set to defend. In the lineouts a always call a 3 man lineout, as it gives you more space between jumpers and therefore makes it easier to get the timing right.
Of course all this goes out the window when you are playing....
This is where computer sports games really come into their element. The option to be able to sit down with a few mates, in front of the same PC/Console, and re-inact some of your favourite rugby matchups is hard to beat.
Many of the things that can get annoying when playing against the computer (hardly ever being able to win rucks and mauls, the computer goal kicker hardly ever missing) go out the window when it's another human controlling the other side.
We haven't had a chance to play a major tournament in multiplayer mode but we have had a few great sessions of head-to-head clashes as well as playing on the same team and taking on a computer opposition.
This co-op mode is under-rated in my opinion. It's something that many sports games have but it often doesn't get much of a mention. In WCR you basically take turns at controlling players, so if I have the ball and pass it then the other player will get to control the receiver, and generally who gets to control a breakdown or set play alternates too. As does the goal kicking.
While it's quite a bit harder to co-ordinate defense with two people mashing buttons frantically attack takes on a whole new dimension as you can run support lines that the computer players don't often run, and (if you have offsides turned off) you can do the classic "one guy run down field" and "the other guy kicks it in his general direction" trick. Always good for a laugh.
Graphics and Camera Views
That graphics are the best I've seen in a rugby game, but that's not saying much. They certainly aren't up to the standards of the big EA Sports franchaises (Basketball, Baseball and American Football) but they are still very good.
Animations are smooth and lifelike, with enough exageration on the big hits to really make them satisfying and despite the game not having official licensing on the player likenesses all the big names look like they should.
The camera options are fairly limited, overhead, sideline or from one end, but the default sideline camera works just fine and I didn't ever feel the need to try another option. The only place the camera and video options could do with a tweak is when kicking goals and during replays. The replays in particular are a waste of time as they only show the last 5 seconds or so, and the angle of view you get when goal kicking is not at all helpful, although it does add to the satisfaction of getting a kick from out wide to go over.
Sound is never a big deal in a game like this but like the graphic it's fine. The on field and crowd noises are pretty good on the whole and the commentary (given they only know the names of the English and Welsh players) is ok. After a few games I tended to ignore it anyway, especially because for all the other teams they don't refer to the players by number or position they just describe the play (eg: "big hit", "spreads it wide", "kicks it deep").
Interpretation of the Rules of Rugby
Given the arcade focus of the game how well it interprets the rules doesn't really matter, but in general all the major rules are interpreted correctly. The important thing is that it feels like rugby, and for me this feels like rugby.
The true mark of getting the feel right is when you can equate situations in a game to those that you have either experienced in a real game yourself, or at least witnessed when watching a game of rugby. After a few games I knew the times when my man got isolated with the ball and therefore I was going to turn it over, I knew when I was I had beaten the defensive line and just had to draw and pass to beat the full back and I knew when I should be kicking for touch and not trying a Carlos Spencer from my own in goal. Of course I didn't always do the right or expected thing, as that's the beauty of a video game, but the right option of outcome was there if I let it play out that way.
This is the best rugby game ever. It's not perfect but it's great fun to play, and that's a lot more than you can say about some other attempts at bringing the game to the computer/console.
I heartily recommend it for any rugby fan who enjoys video games, especially in multiplayer mode.
Rumors are that there will be a followup, and hopefully if this version sells well they will be able to spend some more $$ on licensing official competitions, grounds, teams and players. Super 12 and Heinekin Cup modes would really add to the options.
Of course for the PC version at least you can guarentee that some smart cookies with too much time on their hands will come up with ways to hack together some of these options for this version, but as yet I haven't found any useful hacks. If you know of any, or are keen to work on some then let us know. Rugbyheads would be happy to host files for download or at least add some links to them.
In the meantime check out the Resources below for more details and info on the game.