It is sadly myth that William Webb Ellis invented the sport of rugby by picking up a football and running with it. Facts should never get in the way of a good story, and a small matter such as truth hasn’t stopped the man being heralded as father of the sport and having its premiere trophy named in his honour. While you won’t be playing for said World Cup trophy thanks to the messy licensing issues that pervade rugby union games in 2016, you will get to honour the act of mythmaking in Rugby Challenge 3 by pretending it is a new, modern video game.
The Rugby Challenge series started in the hands of Sidhe, best known for the Rugby League series, Gripshift and Shatter. Rugby Challenge 2 was released in 2013 for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC and was a decent game that suffered serious performance issues on console and the superior PC version was sadly removed from sale only one year after release. Now Wicked Witch Software has been called in to bring the game to this generation of consoles, delivering Rugby Challenge 3 a full (and I mean full — it sells for $102.45 AUD on the Xbox One marketplace) priced game that bears striking similarities to its predecessor.
We’re not just talking cosmetics here. Rugby Challenge 3 brings menus, fonts, controls, modes and gameplay over wholesale from Rugby Challenge 2, adding only token extras and spicing up the graphics to fit a current generation release. Not that Rugby Challenge 3 looks great; to compare it to Madden or FIFA is embarrassing, particularly in details like stadiums, weather effects and clothing. Unlike Rugby Challenge 2, it runs silky smooth and isn’t ugly by any stretch.
Most effort clearly went into the new coat of paint but putting a cow into a rugby jersey does not a Jonah Lomu make. Rugby Challenge 3 is hardly a prize heifer but the milk is far from sour, the basics of rugby union are fun enough here. While there are some unfortunate bugs in passing it feels great when you do get a backline movement flowing and despite relying on canned animations stepping, fending or dummying past defenders is satisfying. Just about every compliment for Rugby Challenge 3 has to be qualified but for many hours I enjoyed playing through a Super Rugby season and rarely encountered controller throwing frustration which is an achievement for modern games of either rugby code.
Sadly these flaws are exposed in continued play, especially as you attempt to ramp up the difficulty settings. Most are caused by terrible AI positioning and the use of canned animations. You will often run an angle and pass only to find the ball dribbles along the ground and over the sideline, your winger apparently not able to keep up with play. You will attempt to run what feel like natural draw and pass or through the hands play only to be stifled by a runner not appearing where he should or the pass inexplicably going behind its target. The result is you play within yourself, on the cusp of thrilling, running rugby but not able to truly experience it.
The canned animations come into play primarily around the tackle, where runners have no qualms with running over the sideline from five metres out in order to complete a “stumble out of tackle” animation and the old “can’t catch a ball next to the sideline without running out” trope is in play too. Attacking the line both you and the AI opponent will find joy in simply running the ball until a particular tackle animation is triggered to drag the defender into the in goal, while momentum is better accounted here than in Rugby League Live 3 it can still be ruthlessly exploited, house rules will be necessary in multiplayer though getting online opponents to agree to them will prove challenging.
Your AI teammates treat marking up in defense as optional requiring micromanagement of both the players themselves and the tactics options attached to the D-pad to keep your line. Worse is when control of your defensive player is taken away from you briefly, usually when the AI throws a dummy but also inexplicably sometimes in key situations when you are marking up one on one, particularly egregious in the sevens mode. Players have a habit of hustling away from the ruck to get back into the defensive line before you can call them to join the ruck, making it difficult to turn the ball over.
That isn’t the only mess in the ruck. While you can contest the ball for fast turnovers it often confuses your forwards to the point that in the next tackle you turn it straight back over as they dawdle around the breakdown. Often you’ll spend time waiting for the scrum half to toddle over to the ruck before you can clear the ball. Tackles take place in slow motion and there is no easy way to recycle the ball quickly, backs in particular seem to be averse to joining a ruck even when they are the only player near the breakdown.
Most of these issues can be worked around or tolerated, at least on normal difficulty mode where I could enjoy passing the ball around and playing free flowing rugby with minimal frustration once I knew what situations would result in throwing the ball away and timed my challenges at the breakdown. It is when on harder modes or in more evenly matched contests that these issues become game-breakers.
In a fight for field position it is too easy to lose the ball in frustrating circumstances and too hard to win it back, most AI tries on higher difficulty came from relentless pressure on my line until either a tackle dragged a runner into the in goal for a try or my AI defence left a 3 on 1 overlap out wide. If I did manage to win the ball back a good clearing kick was near impossible thanks to how slow the kicking arrow is to move around the field, hoofing the ball downfield is fine but adding any finesse is impossible before the defenders swarm. Most seriously the AI controlled fullback had moments of deciding that tackling was simply too difficult, they can’t be relied upon to make any defensive plays. Their nasty habit of running in a shuffle step sideways rather than a straight line also cost me several chances to catch a ball on the full for a mark.
Set pieces are lacklustre. Kicking for goal is trivial thanks to a slow, generous series of “three click” metres, lineouts are a mess and in scrums there are moments when I am convinced timing the push metre has no impact on the scrum whatsoever. The advantage rule is questionably implemented; sometimes only one or two passes are required for advantage to be taken while other times play is called back just as you break through the line or pass to an open man. When kicking the reticle for possible landing points is huge even for well regarded kickers, when contesting a kickoff this is fine but when it results in kicks to touch at a right angle just to make sure there is no risk of the ball staying in play it is an issue. Funnily enough dropkicks do not have this issue, both in general play and as conversions in the sevens dropkicks are laughably easy.
Sevens is one of only two new ways to play the game but it never progressed beyond novelty for me. It simply highlights many of the AI and engine failings while replacing the fun of long backline sweeps with offloads and running around defenders. It also highlights how ugly the kick catching animations are, in some games half the tries scored come from either team catching a contested kickoff and running straight through. The other new mode is a now standard “Be A Pro” career, but rugby union may be the only sport more ill-suited to this style of play than rugby league.
All other modes have come across wholesale from Rugby Challenge 2, from career to tournaments and a knockoff World Championship to make up for a lack of official World Cup licensing. Licenses for Super Rugby and provincial Oceanic rugby competitions are all here as well as the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks, but some international teams and most European competitions are unlicensed. All rosters are 12 months out of date but theoretically the Fan Hub will allow all these issues to be fixed by fan creations, at the time of writing, this feature seemed to be broken for Xbox One or nobody in the week since release has uploaded a team or player.
The in-game commentary needs to be called out as some of the worst a sports game has seen. Aside from regular inaccuracies and constant repetition it sounds like it was recorded over Skype such is the poor audio quality. It is one of many presentation missteps: cutscenes and interstitials are best turned off immediately lest you want to watch three scenes of players aggressively drinking water or standing hands on hips at every break in play. The “glory camera” that sees fit to bring the view down over the shoulder of a man making a break removes all ability for you to find support players or see chasers and should also be disabled at first chance.
I have been harsh on Rugby Challenge 3 but while I had some fun with it I can’t let such a minimal effort port come to market free from criticism. It is lightyears ahead of HB Studios Rugby 15 and the horrendously cynical Rugby World Cup 2015 and at its best I had more fun with it than Rugby League Live 3, but it still has too many faults to warrant long term commitment. It certainly has too many faults and is too similar to previous games to justify the full price they are charging, even if they do include a physical manual in the box. Rugby Challenge 3 is at best a casual fling, those looking for “the one” in rugby union games had best remain chaste.
Rugby Challenge 3 was reviewed using a retail disc on Xbox One, purchased by the reviewer.
Review: Rugby Challenge 3