For those who have never sat down to a telecast (or even better, live game) of rugby, please do me a favor. Find your nearest pub (you'd be surprised how many carry the broadcasts), or tune to your local international sports channel and do yourself a service. Rugby is one of the most dynamic, heart-wrenching, and brutal sports on the planet -- and if you give it half a chance, you'll be hooked.
Of course, billions around the globe already are, making the sport one of the globe's top-watched. Until a few years ago, rugby was only a word one heard on college campuses, but it is ever-so-slowly creeping into the mainstream. Helping it do so is EA, who has now fully committed to offering its Rugby series in North America
which is good news for fans of the sport. It's also good news for fans of the video game. Last year's Rugby 2004 was rudimentary and ultimately flawed, and was only available on PS2. Rugby 2005, also released on the Xbox, improves on almost every key area, making this a must-have for any American rugby fan.
Before you're able to delve into the generous helping of tournaments Rugby 2005 has to offer, you'll have to go through a little mandatory training. It doesn't take long, and does a good job of explaining the basic ideas of the sport (although advanced strategy is left for you to discover, so knowledge of the sport helps greatly). For those who are new to the most basic concepts of rugby, it is essentially American football without forward passes. Like soccer, it is a continuous motion sport with very few of the pauses that make "gridiron" unwatchable to much of the world audience.
Even if you are new to the sport, once you grasp a few rules, video game rugby is as engaging as anything on a console. When you string a bunch of passes together, bust through a crease in the defense, or launch an impossible kick through the uprights, it will have you hooked. The offense and defense has been balanced well in this year's effort, allowing for more turnovers than in 2004, which is a welcome change and one of the reasons that the game flows a lot better.
The button layout on the Xbox is a little less intuitive than its PS2 counterpart. On Sony's console, the toss buttons are on the shoulders. Here, the tosses are on face buttons, which can make for some difficulty learning in the early going. Drop kicks are also hard to execute, and both problems can essentially be attributed to the camera, which looks at everything from a side angle. This is the default, and it is helpful for general play. But a camera that changes view for a kick would improve this problem considerably.
Generally, the gameplay has been made a little more basic, without a lot of the complex dynamics that made rucks difficult before. The result is a more slick and fluid rugby engine with few of the screeching halts and brutal stack-ups that plagued the last two console rugby efforts. Of course, this is partially due to the newer fast-paced philosophy that world rugby has enjoyed in recent times, but we Yanks aren't complaining.
The Practice mode will hone your skills if the introductory tutoring doesn't do the trick, but beyond that, there is much to do. There are tons of tournaments to choose from, including:
- World Championship
- Six Nations
- Ten Nations
- Super 12
- European Trophy
- World League
- Lions Tour
In addition to the standard Nations matches, and of course the World Championship, the Super 12 is a very fun mode. Using twelve Rugby Union teamsfrom the Brumbies to the Highlanders-- you play through twelve weeks of fixtures to come up with a winner. The rugby is a little sloppier and wide-open than international play, which may be a good place to start for beginners. Also included this year is the inclusion of the British Lions team, which is making a tour of the Tri Nations in 2005. More modes means more value, making this the best rugby game ever released.
In terms of graphics, Rugby 2005 rises close to the level of other EA franchises on the console. Its closest cousin is FIFA, and the player models and stadiums in Rugby look very similar to that franchise. It's always difficult to show buckets of detail when a couple dozen players need to be shown operating at once, but the game does a good job of showing off its new flair in replays and cut scenes.
The animations also look excellent, and are quite varied. The tackles are especially well-done, and they range from a basic tackle to a straight-up stick and body slam. The action flows smoothly from free play to the rucks, without a lot of the awkward queuing we saw in earlier iterations of the series.
There is a bit of flickering and there are some frame rate hiccups in some big pileups, and once in awhile a player will appear to teleport a short distance, a similar effect to watching someone who is playing with a laggy connection online. This happens less on the Xbox than it does on the PS2. In fact, just as you'd expect, the Xbox graphics far outshine their PS2 counterparts.
In sports games, the most important audio is the commentary, and Rugby 2005 is no exception. The track keeps up with the action splendidly, and doesn't get annoying or repetitive. In fact, it's a lot like sitting back and watching a match on television. Augmenting the on-field experience is the constant banter of the officials, who tell tacklers to roll off, and direct players what to do to avoid penalties. The referee-speak adds a level of authenticity, and at the same time is actually helpful while playing.
In addition to great commentary and helpful officials, the game's ambient sounds, especially the crowd sounds, are excellent. Layered into the cascading cheers are specific team chants, an idea that has been well-implemented in the aforementioned FIFA. Add to that the sound of grunts and hits and you have a richly-layered audio experience.
Complementing the in-game audio is a decent stable of EA Trax, including the work of The Libertines, the Futureheads, and Powderfinger. There is a definite alt rock slant to the selections, which play mostly during the menus. Although there aren't any real standout tracks, the songs never get annoying and provide good background menu-hopping tunes.
In short, the game includes all the modes that rugby fans would want, with a ready-to-play engine that improves on everything that has previously been available in a rugby video game. The graphics have made a quantum leap, the soundtrack is fun, and the commentary is excellent. If you haven't dabbled in EA's rugby games before, this is the best year yet to begin.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved