When Acclaim went bankrupt, it had just shipped a brand new Rugby game by the guys who did Jonah Lomu Rugby, which is still regarded as the finest rugby simulator to date. Obviously with their financial problems Acclaim was not able to market this title as much as it probably deserved. Swordfish have made a few games since then, but have recently returned to their roots and having teamed up with Ubisoft, have a real chance of bringing their Rugby style back to a new generation of gamers. In many ways this is a crucial game for both publisher and developer, Ubisoft's first foray into a mainstream sports title and probably Swordfish's last chance to get it right. Fortunately for both it turned out quite good, but unfortunately it's not the best Rugby game we've seen.
Rugby Challenge seems to be a mix of arcade and realistic football. If you're expecting Pro Evolution: Rugby Edition you will be sorely disappointed as it appears Ubisoft and Swordfish made a conscious decision to target the mainstream market, while keeping the purist Rugby fans happy. There are a number of modes to choose from such as Exhibition, Season and many licensed and unlicensed tournaments as you would expect, and there are a number of things which will keep you playing for quite some time, the first of which is the management mode.
Since Rugby Challenge shipped a few years back, Swordfish have been hard at work maintaining the game while adding a huge new option for budding managers. While not as popular as football management, rugby management does offer a similar style and if you like games such as Football Manager, you will probably find the management features of Rugby Challenge a nice sideline to the main game. It also helps with the frustration factor that you can actually control the players in a three dimensional environment.
The game and animations play relatively well but we can't help but comment that it feels a mix of serious rugby with a dash of NFL Blitz style gameplay thrown in. Some of the hits in the game are not only unrealistic but would probably get players banned for numerous matches if performed in real life. However it all does add up to make the game very pick up and play and will appeal to the mainstream market. Ubisoft have also managed to provide fast flowing football in a way which does not rely on passing left and right to the backs then sprinting up the sideline, a common problem associated with EA's powerhouse franchise.
Controls are quite well done but as with most Rugby games they have a few problems. First being that the rucks just turn into a massive button mash fest, with the team who gets the most amount of players in quickly (via X) most likely to win the ball just like real life, but the button mashing is what kills it. However with scrums and drives, Swordfish have had used a bit more imagination. A disc appears on screen with a small ball revolving around, as you place the ball in the correct zone, the players will charge forward, whereas a mistake will cause them to slip. It's fairly basic but at least it's more imaginative than just a straight button mash.
The license situation is an interesting one. While our friends in Europe will be pleased with what's on offer, again EA's dominance of licenses comes to its head with the Australian players having false names and appearances. For those who care however, you can play the Heineken Cup, Six Nations, Unofficial World Championships, Zurich Premiership and the Celtic League which is probably the most we've seen in a Rugby game yet. Also most international teams are licensed but unfortunately as mentioned before, the Wallabies remain the "Fakeabies". For those with time no their hands, a team and player editor has been included to update the game. The licensing also extends to stadiums with the Home of Rugby, Twickenham featured as well as Murrayfield and other European stadiums. Again this does not extend to venues such as Aussie Stadium or Ballymore etc.
One thing which is impressive is the visuals of the game. The players, despite being unlicensed, look just like typical rugby players with strapping, headbands, headgear etc and the animations are well done. You can tell just from looking at the way they move the difference between the front row forwards and the lightning fast backline players. The tackle animations are quite well done, if not a little over the top with some of the big hits. The commentary is quite well done but to be honest you don't really notice it which is either a bonus or detriment to the game depending on your viewpoint.
While Rugby Challenge is updated and far more polished, it still remains too similiar to Acclaim's previous Rugby title to the extent it is hard to recommend for owners of the Acclaim game. However Swordfish are making leaps and bounds in realism, and if they get another shot, and a few more licenses, EA may just have to start looking to its left, as a young dasher may be just about to cut them down to size.