Rugby World Cup 2011 revives the franchise with online play, enhanced speed, and new gameplay mechanics.
Football. Soccer. The beautiful game. Wherever you are (with the possible exception of the USA), there's no escaping its vicelike grip on the sporting world, which is backed by legions of fans and huge video game franchises like FIFA and Pro Evo. Rugby enjoys no such love--at least when it comes to video games. Big Ant Studio's Rugby League Live wasn't worth the disk it was pressed on, while EA's Rugby series has been languishing in gaming limbo since 2007. Thankfully, that's all set to change later this year with the release of Rugby World Cup 2011 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. There's plenty for rugby fans to get excited about, with HB Studios--the team behind the EA Rugby series--on board; a focus on fluid, speedy gameplay; and the official world cup license in tow.
There's nothing like the majestic orchestral sounds of "World in Union" to get you in the rugby spirit, with the official theme song played over every menu. Though much of World Cup 2011 is based upon its predecessor, a conscious effort is being made to make the game faster, introduce new mechanics and rules, and ultimately make it more fun to play. Our first taste of this newfound speed came in the International Test mode, which is essentially a quick match with teams of your choice.
Playing as South Africa, we faced off against England, with an animated walkout showcasing player likenesses and a heaving crowd inside Twickenham Stadium. Kicking off, we got to grips with the controls, which will feel immediately familiar to anyone that's played one of EA's Rugby games. You pass the ball left or right using the relevant shoulder button; make your player sprint with the right trigger; and perform different types of kick, such as drops and chips, with the face buttons. Passing the ball was fast, with fluid animations helping to keep the game moving.
Eventually, we were tackled and faced with a ruck, along with a new quick-time event. By hammering the A or X button, you can control the outcome of the ruck; that is, which team ends up with control of the ball. A small bar fills up the more you hammer the button, and the team with the highest bar wins the ball. If you go too crazy with your button mashing, though, you could overfill the bar and risk a penalty. This risk-versus-reward mechanic made the ruck we encountered much faster to play though and more exciting.
Other speed enhancements we encountered included quick lines outs, where we could throw the ball back into play immediately after it went out, and quick taps, which let us play the ball quickly from penalties and free kicks. All of this meant we could spend more time with the ball on the pitch attempting tries. Scoring those tries was tricky, but a number of new set play options made it a little easier. You can select a set play before a ruck or scrum using the right analog stick. Once you've got the ball, players relevant to the set play are highlighted and correspond to each of the face buttons. This allows you to control the flow of a set play, rather than simply sit back and watch it happen.
If you're not happy with the default set plays, you can customize them in the squad management screen. You can also perform substitutions, change the captain, change who takes kicks, and change the primary, secondary, or alternate positions of you players, depending on their strength in given areas. If you find a player is weak in a particular area, you can give him a boost by assigning a limited number of special skills, which we found particularly useful for increasing kicking strength.
Aside from International Test mode, there's a Full Tournament mode, which follows the rules of the world cup, albeit with randomized pools of teams, as well as a Warm Up Tour mode that lets you play a small tournament in the hemisphere of your choice. There's also a place-kick shoot-out for kicking practice and a brand new online mode for two-player head-to-head. Regardless of mode, World Cup 2011 felt like a significant step up from its predecessors, which it should, given the five-year wait. The fast gameplay and fluid animation made it feel like the Rugby equivalent of FIFA, even if the soft visuals don't quite live up to the same standard.