Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge preview

As the 2011 Rugby World Cup rages in New Zealand over the next two months – the championship match takes place on October 23 – a similar battle is taking place on consoles. Two games are vying for your time and money, attempting to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of rugby union competition. While it’s not the “Officially Licensed Game” of the tournament, Johah Lomu Rugby Challenge is arguably the more compelling of the two. Sporting more licensed teams, leagues, and tournaments – and, oh yeah, one of the greatest players ever – it’s got fans buzzing. Naturally, we jumped at the chance for a hands-on preview.

A few things caught our eye. First was a nifty set of tutorials that took us through the basics of the game; we appreciated the chance to learn the mechanics as well as get some in-game cash to use for some extra swag later on. After plowing through those, we fired up a match as the New Zealand All Blacks (one of the favorites to win the Cup) against the Team USA Eagles (not, um, exactly a contender) and had a go. The results were delightfully ugly.

Granted, the difficulty was Easy, so we expected to have our way with the hapless Americans. And we did. Before the start, the New Zealanders went through their traditional Haka dance as the Eagles watched in stone silence. Then, from the opening kick, the All Blacks zipped around the pitch with relative ease. Even with the full 15-on-15 teams smashing into each other at full speed, our match ran smoothly as we passed, rucked, kicked, mauled, and scrummed our way to a dominating victory. One of the more interesting aspects was the presentation: while long stretches of the game took place from a faraway camera angle giving us ample view of the pitch (which is crucial to planning your next move), a “roadie cam” would happen when we were sprinting towards the goal for a try. This was a nifty touch, adding to the intensity of the match even if it obscured our vision of would-be tacklers. Overall, the pace was quick, the stadium was rocking, and we were left wanting more. That’s always a good sign.

Rugby Challenge has several modes to interest casual and hardcore fans alike. An interesting take on a career mode lets you take the reins of both a club team and international squad at the same time (or just pursue them separately) over the course of 13 seasons. Customization options abound as well, as you can make significant adjustments to individual player attributes and likenesses, modify tournament and league setups, as well as your team’s kits. It certainly appears to be a tinkerer’s playground.

There’s also online play, and we’ve already lined up some matches with a friend in Australia so he can destroy us as badly as we crushed Team USA. We may have to bust loose with the Jonah Lomu Legends team to have much of a shot, and it will be interesting to see how well (or not) the game runs crossing the globe. Unfortunately, the online options are limited to one-off matches and leaderboards and don’t support full leagues.

As mentioned, there’s a solid array of officially licensed club and international teams (the most important being powerhouses New Zealand and Australia), tournaments (such as the Tri Nations), and stadiums. Due to the existence of the officially licensed World Cup game, though, many of the international squads lack their real kits and player likenesses, but the customization option may mitigate those issues for dedicated players.

We’re pumped up to dive a lot deeper into the Rugby Challenge, especially as it coincides with the World Cup. Rugby’s a crazy sport, and Jonah Lomu’s game looks like it’s going to be a serious contender on the PS3 and 360 international sports game scene this fall. Check in with us in a couple of weeks for a full review.

Sep 15, 2011