Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge

The Big Man Returns

Let's face it, it's not quite FIFA versus Pro Evolution, but rugby has never been too bothered about being less grandiose than its rounded, prima-donna sibling so there is something poetic about the low key rivalry between 505's Rugby World Cup 2011 and Sidhe's Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge. The former, like FIFA, is the license-heavy as the official representative with exclusive licenses confirmed for most of the major international sides. Rugby Challenge, however, has nabbed the New Zealand and Australian licenses, a great coup for the Wellington-based developer. Of course, that also means Rugby Challenge has the All Blacks' Haka.

Watching the Haka realized lovingly, the opposition players looking on with grim respect as the All Blacks slap their thighs and burst their vocal chords, it becomes apparent there is more authenticity to this unofficial game than one might expect. The game will feature 93 teams including licensed club sides from the Aviva Premiership, 31 stadiums including the 14 New Zealand stadiums that will feature in this year's world cup, 1500 players from the 2010/11 roster, and of course it will have one Jonah Lomu. That is, unless, you unlock Team Lomu and make every player from 1-15 the imperious Kiwi, a touch that nods back to his classic PlayStation debut of 14 years ago.

If the balance of licensing places Rugby Challenge in the role of Pro Evo, then the Sidhe team is open about comparing their game's accessibility to the recent generation of FIFA games. For example, a wide selection of tutorial videos covers the basics of the game for rugby union noobs, while the more advanced ones has tactics for getting ahead in the scrum, with kicks, and so on. There's even a practice area to run around and hone skills in with three AI players while matches load up.

When out on the field, there's something poetic again about how the game looks. It's not the most defined or attractive of games, but if there is a roughness to its looks then it seems to suit it, or at least remind of stepping out onto a muddy pitch on a dark and cold Sunday morning. If that comes across as a poor compliment then some clearer praise must be lavished on the animations which do stand out. Sidhe were able to use the same mo-cap studio that was used in the Lord of the Rings films, a resource that comes through when seeing the players tackle, run, and slide realistically.

More significantly, the emphasis on attracting new players to Rugby Challenge through the tutorials translates into simplicity when picking the game up for the first time. Passing the balls is mapped to the shoulder buttons, while winning rucks is reduced to mashing a face button, with a marked circle around the ruck indicating the power struggle; as one team wins the ruck, getting more of its players involved, its colour dominates the circle, pushing out the other colour until the ruck is won. These neat, simple ways of reducing the more complicated facets of the play through simple controls and visual aids seems to run through Rugby Challenge, something that should make the game less daunting to players new to rugby union games or indeed new to rugby union itself.

Whether or not this translates into a game that is easy to pick up but difficult to master is another matter, but Rugby Challenge doesn't consider itself a mere arcade sport sim experience. There's a career mode that covers 13 seasons across club and international management, and online play with ranked matches and leaderboards. Talking about online play, not only can four players enjoy a local game but they can take on four others in what should be some frenetic rugger.

While 505 Games' title may boast the official tagline, in Jonah Lomu their game has what appears to be a sturdy rival, and one certainly with more gaming heritage behind it. So Rugby Challenge has the credentials, but we'll know whether or not it has the quality to go with it when it releases in just over a month's time for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.

E3 Trailer