Reviewed: August 22, 2007
Released: July 17, 2007
When I saw that the EA Sports Rugby ‘08 was rated “E for Everyone” I immediately thought something was terribly wrong. Because until I played this game I knew only one thing about the sport of rugby: it is ludicrously violent. Like “Viking warriors sacking a defenseless village” violent. Rugby has often been described as a series of organized muggings in which a ball sometimes gets in the way. Imagine all the brutality of football without any helmets, padding, or armor of any kind. That’s what I knew.
So you can understand how confused I was when I saw that “Rugby ‘08” was approved for everyone, even impressionable children. How could any game adequately portray rugby without a level of violence that would at least earn a 13-and-up rating? Turns out my misgivings were unjustified and were simply the product of my ignorance about the game. Now that I know how to play I realize there’s a whole lot more to appreciate about this odd sport than just the titillating prospect of a trip to the emergency room.
I’ve never been much of an athlete but I’ve always been a good gamer and a quick learner, so it hurts to admit this: this is the first game I’ve played where I had to do the tutorial twice. I found it necessary first to grasp the concept of the game and again to refresh myself on all the rules and master the complex controls. Despite that humbling admission, the game itself is really quite simple.
Here’s how it works: your goal is to carry the ball into your opposing team’s end zone (“score a try”). You can pass the ball to any of your teammates any number of times but only if they’re behind or to the side of you – no passing forward. Advancing up the field is accomplished one of two ways: running like hell or kicking the ball as far as possible toward the goal (while keeping it inbounds), at which point every man on the field will make a mad dash to scoop the ball back up. If you retain possession of the ball you can continue toward the goal. If your opponent snatches it up they can begin their own advance to the other side of the field, putting you on defense.
“Defense” is a nice term for bull charging into whoever has the ball and tackling him with the goal of shoving his spine out through his neck and trying to get it to land in the back row. You will do this a lot and it will be done to you…a LOT. Essentially, rugby is all about momentum. You want to stay as deep in your opponent’s territory as possible for as long as possible and never let that ball go, even if it means passing it from teammate to teammate like it was time bomb.
That’s basically it. I don’t want to get too deep into the mechanics and gritty details because it would require several more paragraphs without telling you anything about the game. So let’s talk about “Rugby ‘08”. Suffice to say: the folks at EA Sports pulled it off well enough that a total newbie like myself went from clueless to bloodthirsty in minutes.
The tutorial is thorough and excellent, detailing every move, rule, and corresponding button command. It takes time to get the hang of the controls – every button is used and has multiple functions – but after a few games it becomes natural and your responses will become instinctive. The essentials – running, passing and tackling – are handled with the left analog stick and the L1 and R1 buttons, making it easy to keep up with the basics. An additional practice mode allows you to drill in any of the game elements separately until you’ve mastered them all.
Once you’re ready to take the field prepare for chaos no matter how well-studied you are. Rugby is frantic and fast-paced with tackles and turn-overs almost constant. You will find yourself switching from offense to defense many times in just a couple of minutes (tackling to get the ball back is easy but holding onto it is MUCH harder – at least in this rugby game). To be honest, it’s thrilling. I can imagine that a poor or insipidly designed rugby sim would make the gameplay a chore, but the boys at EA Sports seem to have nailed it, putting enough autonomy in the game that the player doesn’t have to multitask too much but still giving him total control. A tap of the L2 button will automatically give you command of the player nearest the ball and unobtrusive in-game prompts give you instant awareness of your options, i.e. what kind of passes are available to you. It makes for a slick, seamless style of play that never lets up.
Not that there isn’t some brute force required, too. During the “scrum” -- a kind of violent huddle in which both teams lock arms and struggle for ball possession – you’re required to hammer the “X” button and the left analog stick simultaneously in an attempt to dislodge the ball and get it into your team’s hands. It’s all about the momentum. The longer you retain possession of the ball and keep driving at the goal, the better you do – you’re less likely to lose the ball if tackled and more successful in the scrums. It’s enough to work up a real life sweat.
Just about the only time the action slows down is during the penalty kicks, the only part of the game I found a bit too easy. The kicks work the same way as football – through a tall, narrow goal post. This is accomplished by aiming a red target lead through the center of the goal and directing your kick using a virtual force bar that controls speed and accuracy. Maybe it’s just my crazy rugby skills or something, but I never missed, even from a great distance. It took my head out of the action a bit…but at least it gave me a chance to breathe.
There are several modes of play, all of them quite challenging. The regular “Challenge” mode is great because you can hop in and start immediately with a selection of some 30 international teams to play as and play against. The look and feel of the teams varies greatly. Some emphasize offense, showcasing speed and teamwork, while others are monsters on defense, offering wall-like resistance.
But far and away the most rewarding mode of play is the tournament mode, which puts you neck deep in all the gritty details of team management. Among other things is the allocating of special player skills (such as speed and tackling) and the positioning of those players in your rotation for maximum effect. Team chemistry is also a factor. Players that share particular skills can form “team chemistry combinations” that improve their ability to work together, improving, for example, passing speed. It’s a dizzying and intimidating level of involvement but it is unquestioningly authentic and it makes you feel great when your decisions turn out to be the right ones.
Man, the details! Player injuries must be monitored as the season wears on and even morale is a factor – lose too much, accrue too many injuries, infractions, or suspensions and you team will suffer, losing their ability to perform at their peak. And, like in any sport, everyone is for sale. You can spring for new talent and trade away the dead weight, an especially cool option if you want to hone your team with emphasis on particular skills. The options are nearly limitless and it’s sure to delight Type A micromanagers.
The EA Sports series has always strived to capture the action as authentically as possible and “Rugby ‘08” continues the streak. It looks great. I was perturbed at first by the single, wide overhead camera angle used during gameplay. It was a view you might have if you were sitting in a VIP box in the stadium. At first I was disappointed that there weren’t more angles to toggle back and forth – nice in-your-face views from over the player’s shoulders and such – but as I played I came to realize that the hectic and…well, war-like nature of rugby just wouldn’t work with super-cool camera angles and a mess of flashy zoom-ins and pretty effects. It’s a game that is so fast-paced it demands clarity and an unobstructed view, which is exactly what you get.
Though there is plenty else to look at when the clock isn’t running. Goals, scrums, tackles and other highlights are showcased in all their slow-motion glory with replays worthy of ESPN Sports Center, and the maneuvers and signature moves of the players have been captured in life-like detail. The uniforms, which are some of the most imaginative I’ve seen (making great use of the national flag designs and colors) are recreated with needlepoint precision. Kudos to EA for some of the more visually satisfying moments outside the game: play against the fantastically skilled New Zealand team, for example, and you’re treated to a pre-match Maori war chant. Gulp.
Skin and cloth textures are smooth and consistent throughout and the lighting effects capture that wonderful chrome-ish glare of the floodlights bathing the stadiums during frequent night play. And the action on the field was obviously designed with completely real physics in mind. Every thump and tackle looks real and painful rather than a wire-fighting move from a bad kung fu flick. It’s nice to see the PS2 can still get the job done. A few adverse weather conditions to make play more interesting would’ve been appreciated…but I don’t want to sound greedy.
In a word, dynamite. As with their golf and football games, EA has created a big reservoir of vocal tracks from real rugby insiders to replicate authentic play-by-play commentary. The announcer (who also does the tutorial) calls every shot as it happens in a charming Scottish accent. The effect of this is fantastic – it keeps you glued to the controller while making you feel every bit as much like a spectator as a player. It’s two kinds of fun for the price of one.
The effects are also terrific, although a bit too muted and not so noticeable over the vocal commentary. Every kick, collision and grunt is sufficiently loud and sounds like it really hurts. The effects continue to fortify that sensation that you’re right there in the stadium for the good times (the roar of the crowd with a distinctly European level of nuttiness) and the scary times (Maori war chant. Double gulp.)
Finally the music, which is non-existent during play but very big everyplace else. Your menu navigation and highlight reels are punctuated with rockin’ tracks from the international head banging scene. Most seem to invoke the best of the British punk era, full of screechy guitars and F-you lyrics. Appropriate since the most likely place you’d hear a lot of these songs outside of this game would be at a riot. In other words, it gets your blood pumping.
Whether you’re a rugby fiend or can’t tell the difference between a scrum and a maul, “Rugby ‘08” offers just about the closest thing to a total package I’ve seen. First of all, if you’re a rookie, you WON’T be after the tutorial and a few practice games. Then you’ll be out for blood, and there are so many ways to get it with this title. Multiple modes of play, from the quick-fix challenge mode to the super-involved tournament mode will keep even expert players occupied for months. The variety is nearly endless with the trades, swaps, and other career moves you can make, to say nothing of the chess-like precision you’ll need to allocate player skills and form unbeatable team dynamics.
There is a vault of unlockable content, including more teams and alternate garb. Probably the best treasures, though, are the highlight reels. These are compilation videos of real rugby matches featuring the teams you play against – beat the team, get their reel. And they’re a BLAST to watch.
Combine that with the great 2 player mode and the multi-tap compatible 4 player option and you can build your own rugby rivalry with your best buds. In all, this would make an attractive package for any current rugby fan or anyone bored with all those overpaid wimps with their helmets and their pads. Try a sport with some REAL risk to life and limb!
I am officially a convert. It took some time and some seriously embarrassing trouncings from about half of Europe and those wacky Australians, but I now enjoy rugby. That’s probably the best way I can endorse this game, because I was as green as they get. And as I said in my intro, I can appreciate it now as more than just a blood sport. It’s a game of strategy and decision-making and, probably more than anything else, teamwork. EA Sports has pulled it off nicely and made a great game that that is both serious and fun at the same time. Very highly recommended.