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Review: EASports Rugby 2001
Review: EASports Rugby 2001
(The best PC Rugby game yet!)
04 Sep 2000

Review copy supplied by

Well it's been quite a wait, but finally there is a new PC Rugby game available, EA Sports Rugby 2001.

This game was originally due for release this time (September) last year, in time for the '99 Rugby World Cup, but it obviously wasn't quite up to scratch at that stage and rather than release it anyway (and make a quick buck) EA decided to delay the release until this year in an effort to make it the best product they could.

Good on them for that, and as a result they have produced the most playable Rugby game yet, but given they had an extra year to develop it it is disappointing that the game still has that "rushed to market feel".

Installation and System Requirements
Minimum system requirements for the game are very modest by today's standards:
Pentium 200 MMX
Windows 95 (with Directx 7.0)
4x CDROM
32mb RAM
250mb Hard Drive space (Minimum Install)
4mb Graphics Card (3D Accelerator recommend but not required)

I am playing it on:
Pentium Celeron 433
Windows 98 (with Directx 7.0)
32x CDROM
128mb RAM
550mb Hard Drive space (Full Install)
32mb Matrox Millenium Graphics Card (Direct 3D compatible)

The installation process is your standard Windows install but with one innovative addition, rather than just getting to sit and watch the progress bar move slowly across the screen as it copies the 550mb of files onto you hard-drive you are treated to an audio conversation between the games commentators, Bill Maclaren and Jamie Salmon, talking about the history of the game. It's quite entertaining and kept me listening right through to the end even though the game had finished installing! A good start I thought.

Once you start the game you are treated to a slick little rugby montage featuring players from most of the World Cup Rugby nations and set to some suitably inspiring music, a standard feature on most of EA Sports titles but an entertaining one none-the-less. No Haka footage in there unfortunately but there were some great shots of Jonah and Goldie to satisfy the All Black fans.

It's also worth mentioning that while the game was developed in England (by Creative Assembly) it has been released to all the major rugby markets with localised packaging. The NZ version features Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Josh Kronfeld. I thought this was a nice touch also. (you can see all 7 different boxes at the official EA Rugby site)

Options
Competitions
The game features a comprehensive list of International Rugby fixtures. In addition to scheduling a friendly match between any two of the 20 International sides who competed at the 1999 World cup (at any of 23 stadiums) you can play a full World Cup, the 6 Nations, the Tri-Nations, the Bledisloe Cup (NZ vs Australia) and the Calcutta Cup (England vs Scotland).

Teams and Players
I was a little disappointed that you could only play with international teams (given the huge success of the Super 12) but as it is they game includes 600 players so I guess we can forgive Creative Assembly for not including the other 200+ players that would be required to cover the Super 12 as well (not to mention European club rugby). Let's hope they put that in next time though! After all our friends across the ditch deserve an opportunity to win the Super 12, even if it is a virtual victory!

One highly important feature that is missing is the opportunity to be able to edit the players in the game, and create your own custom players. This feature is standard in all the other EA Sports games and is a huge part of their success. The opportunity to be able to solve the All Blacks mid-field woes by slotting myself in there was sorely missed! Hopefully some bright spark will work out how to hack the team files so we can make some changes anyway but it shouldn't have to work like that.

On that note I have already seen a couple of team jersey hacks for the game, allowing you to change the All Blacks strip to the Hurricanes or Crusaders and have heard rumours that someone has cracked the player data team format so a player patch could be in the pipeline. Check out some of the links in the Resources section for more details.

The Squads available are an interesting mix in themselves. They have been updated somewhat to reflect the 2000 teams but given the original release date was for the '99 RWC the full team squads have a definite last-century feel to them. Here is the full default New Zealand squad for example:

First 15:
Hoeft, Oliver, Meeuws, Blackadder, Willis, Thorne, Kronfeld, Randell, Marshall, Mehrtens, Lomu, Gibson, Ieremia, Wilson, Cullen

Reserves:
Umaga, Maxwell, Mika, Kelleher, Spencer, Dowd, Hammett

Extra Squad members:
I. Jones, R. Brooke, Blowers, Brown, Alatini, Feek, Osborne, Duggan, Robertson, Reihana, J. Stanley, I. Maka, X. Rush, F. Tiatia, Cashmore, Flavell, Reichelman, Mayerholfer, Clarke, Innes, N. Hewitt, O. Ai'i

Any All Black fan is bound to notice a few odd-ball names in that lot! For instance Blackadder never made the WC squad let alone the starting lineup, Orene Ai'i has never made the squad (not yet at least!) and quite a few of the extra squad members are unlikely to play for the Blacks again (Jones, Brooke, Blowers, Osborne, Duggan, Stanley, Maka, Rush, Reichelman, Mayerhofler, Clarke, Innes, and Hewitt).

At the start of each match you get to select your starting team and reserve bench so you have quite a bit of flexibility but it would have been nice if some of the new All Blacks were in the game, especially Ron Cribb, Greg Somerville and Doug Howlett.

I haven't had a close look at the other international squads, but I presume they will be in a similar state.

Each player has an overall rating and various specific ratings, Speed, Ball Handling, Stamina, Fitness, Passing, Kicking (and for the forwards, Strength). This is all very well but some of the individual ratings are a bit odd and there seems to be a bit of a bias towards the starting players. This creates problems when you want to bring a guy like Tana Umaga into your starting squad, only to find that he is only rated 90 in speed whereas someone like Carlos Spencer (who's quick but not nearly as quick as Tana) has a speed rating of 94.

Training
I especially like the training mode. It is an excellent place to start, and takes you through each of the skills and controls involved in the game. The drills are well-focused but free-form enough that you can play around with the skills a bit too. The only skill that doesn't get enough attention in the training is rucks and mauls. This is a shame as these are the trickiest bits of the game to master.

Difficulty
One of the best features of the game is the option to be able to modify the difficulty of the game by changing the skill of the opposition. You can modify the relative ability of the two teams in a friendly match or, in a tournament, you can select the overall difficulty (or ability) of all the opposition sides.

This works really well and allows you to play the game a number of different ways. If you feel like a having a friendly try-fest with your team against your favourite adversary (say NZ vs Australia) you can set your teams ability to normal (or better) and the oppositions to poor (or worse!) and then set sail to run in some record scores. My best effort so far is 103-0 by a 70% All Blacks against a 30% Australian team, great fun!

This also offers a great way to get to grips with the subtleties of the game, by dumbing down your opposition you allow yourself a bit more time to make tackles, clear the ball and sort out those tricky rucks and mauls.

The other area where this really improves the playability of the game is when playing against another human opponent. If the two players are of highly differing abilities you can make it fairer for the beginner and more challenging for the pro by adjusting their teams ability regardless of what team they choose.

The normal difficulty (50%) is just about right for me at this stage (I have played about a dozen or so games, with 10 minute halves).

I managed to win the World Cup on this setting, playing as the All Blacks, but it wasn't a cake walk, and I had to replay my Quarter final against Wales twice before I got through! (thankfully the tournaments feature a save game option between matches)

My results were:

Pool Match vs Tonga 19-7
Pool Match vs England 45-7
Pool Match vs Italy 31-7
Quarter final vs Wales 35-10
Semi final vs Australia 29-17 (this was after extra time!)
Final vs South Africa 21-17

Controls
As you can imagine Rugby is a tricky game to implement well as a computer game. There are a huge number of rules in the real game and with 30 players smashing into each other for 80 minutes it can be pretty chaotic at times.

I must admit that I was never great at playing Jonah Lomu rugby (the previous best Rugby game available). A big part of my problem with the game was that the controls just didn't do it for me, and it didn't take too many games in a row before my hand was starting to lock up from repetitive button pressing from contesting ruck after ruck. Thankfully Creative Assembly have managed to do a great job of implementing all the important elements of rugby without have to resort to any button thrashing or violent game-controller-threatening maneuvers, and for me it's far more playable than Jonah Lomu.

You can use pretty much any type of game controller with at least four buttons, or the keyboard. My recommendation is an 8 button gamepad. I personally prefer the Gravis range of controllers, and have successfully played the game with a Gravis Gamepad Pro (a Playstation controller clone) and the Gravis Xterminator (a Microsoft Sidewinder clone). I think the cheaper Gamepad Pro is actually better suited to the game but both controllers work well.

I won't go into explaining the controls here (that's what the manual is for!) but they are very intuitive and anyone who has played a sports game before should pick them up pretty quickly. Check out the tips section at the end of the review for some more details.

Multiplayer
For me the real attraction of sports games is to be able to play them against your mates. It is so much more satisfying to beat up on your mate than it is to beat the computer!

Rugby 2001 offers the opportunity for up to four players at a time, on one computer. You can play any combination you like, 4 against the CPU, 2-2, or 3-1. I haven't tried playing as team mates with another person but I have had a great session playing 1 on 1 which was excellent fun. I imagine the teammate option would be pretty tricky to co-ordinate things, but it's bound to be fun once you get the hang of it though!

Unfortunately there is no network or Internet play. This is a feature that is common in the other games EA Sports range and it's a shame it never made it into Rugby, oh well maybe next year.

Graphics
Compared to the life-like graphics in some of the more recent versions of the EA Sports franchaise games (NBA Live Basketball, NHL Hockey and Fifa Soccer) the graphics in Rugby 2001 can only really be described as adequate. While the players have different body shapes, head styles (hair, bald, ear-tape) and skin tones they don't really have any detail in their faces or individual features or characteristics.

Once you start to play the game though you quickly forget about these details and what really matters is how convincingly the players move, and in this area Creative Assembly have done a great job. The player animation is great, with players performing diving passes, one-handed pickups, big tackles, despairing ankle taps, defensive stumbles, monster fends and diving tries in most convincing fashion. A few signature moves would have been a nice addition, like maybe the Hurricane salute between Tana and Christian after a try, but these aren't necessary.

The only area of animation we could have done without was the soccer style over-reaction after the team scores. I could have coped with this if it the celebration was appropriate to the context of the game, but it's not. Regardless of whether your team has just scored the match winning try or they have just slotted a meaningless penalty late in the game when they are 30 points down on the score board they dance around, punch the sky and even do cartwheels, entirely unrealistic!

Even the antics they get up to during their victory lap after winning the World Cup are OTT. I'm not sure any of the All Blacks could even do a round-off cartwheel, but even Craig Dowd did a pretty snazzy one after I won the World Cup!

The stadium and weather graphics work well too, and the game includes accurate models of 23 real stadiums from around the world. I especially like the light effects when playing at night, and the way players get dirty during wet games.

Sound
Sound effects aren't a big part of rugby, but they are important in giving a computer game that feeling of really being there. The sound effects in Rugby 2001 do a great job of this, with grunts and big hits at appropriate times during the match and excited crowds after scoring. I didn't notice any difference in the crowds reaction in relation to home team vs visiting team though which is a shame, and they don't seem to get very excited when a player makes a big break, only when you actually score but they do sound realistic.

One small feature I really liked was the ability to play a sample crowd, sound effect and commentary sound when you are adjusting the relative volume levels in the config screen, that works really well.

The key in game sound effects are the play-by-play commentary from "The Voice of Rugby" Bill McLaren and his side-kick (ex-All Black, they like mentioning that!) Jamie Salmon.

The quality of their comments is fine, and they seem to have a good variety of different sayings and pronounce all the players names pretty much right, but it is the matching of the comments to the actual in-game action that leaves a lot to be desired. I could list countless examples of in-appropriate comments that I have heard which don't fit the action at all. Now I'm used to listening to Murray Mexted and Grant Nisbett so I can handle the occasional brain-dead comment but they have nothing on the Bill and Jamie show!

Some examples:

At the start of the game, just before the kickoff, I decided I would sub one of my locks. Immediately upon receiving the kick I booted it out so my substitution could take place. Jamie pipes up and makes a comment along the lines of "It's about time the coach subbed him off, they could really use some fresh legs out there!"

They will often call a kick that goes into touch on the full from outside the '22 "a good touch finder".

Josh Kronfeld got injured early in the game and was replaced by Scott Robinson, but Bill continued to call him Kronfeld for the rest of the game!

In a game between Tonga and New Zealand I subbed Lomu for Umaga and Bill annouced it as "and Tonga bring on Umaga to replace Lomu"

While these indiscrepancies don't ruin the game they do take something away from the experience, and give it a rushed, beta-release feel. It would be great if they could address some of this with a patch, but I'm not holding my breath!

In-Game Options
At any point in the game you can hit ESC and bring up the in game options menu. From here you can exit the current match or the entire game, adjust your controls, make player substitutions, view a replay of recent action or change your camera view. Most of these are self-explanatory but some of them deserve a bit more attention.

Replays
The default setting plays an automatic slow-motion replay after every try, which is pretty cool. You can skip the replay at any time by hitting any button. In addition to this you can view and save a replay of the recent action at any time. When in the manual replay mode you can change the camera action using the mouse, zooming in and out and rotating around the play.

This is really cool, and allows you to relive the action for all angles. I wish that they added this capability during the auto replays after each try though.

Saved replays can be played back from the main menu in the game (but you do need the game to play them back), and the files are just stored in the data/replays directory on your system so you can send them to you mates. This gives great scope for a "Greatest Tries" archive somewhere on the net! It's just a shame you can't convert them to a more standard format so they could be played independently from the game but I guess they would be pretty big files so it's an unlikely addition.

Substitutions
You can make subs during the match, and if you have the injuries option turned on, often you are forced to. This screen works ok but there are a few silly limitations.

Firstly you can't sub a forward for a back (or vica versa). Sure this may be a dumb thing to do but why not leave that up to the player to decide? Personally I would love to slot Jonah in at No 8 (especially since there is no Ron Cribb!) but you can't. Interestingly I can play locks or loose forwards in the front row though, and I was even able to bring my reserve half-back on at prop when that was the only sub I had left after an injury. Very odd!

Secondly you can only make one sub at a time! This is really dumb, and another "feature" that needs patching. In modern Rugby it's quite common to make wholesale substitutions late in a game, especially when you are losing, but this limitation means you can't do that. The best you can do is one sub per break in play.

Thirdly there is an option to have fatigue turned on but nowhere can I find a fatigue indicator for the players. How you are supposed to judge who needs substituting I don't know! Sure each player has a fitness and stamina rating but this doesn't seem to change as the game progresses. If someone has worked that one out then please let me know!

Cameras
There are four in game camera angles to choose from, Open Play Free Cam, Sideline Cam, Isometric Cam and Isometric High Cam. The default is the Free Cam, and try as I might I haven't really been able to see any huge difference between this and the others. (I freely admit I haven't tried the other cameras much though).

In all cases the camera zooms in and out to reflect the action, and rotates around when the ball changes sides. In general it works very well, and is great for people watching the game but it can make it really difficult to follow a kick and put in a tackle on the receiver when the camera rotates 180 degrees on you! This is equally confusing if you are receiving the kick, more than once I have taken a defensive catch near the touchline with my fullback and ended up running out and rather than back in field because the camera got me confused.

Play Calling (Dynamic Team Control)
At set plays (lineouts and scrums) you get a chance to call one of four set moves. Each team has a selection of them, and you can customize which ones your team uses if you so desire. This is a nice feature and once you get the hang of some of the moves you can pull off some great tries. I particularly like the "gamble to go wide with switch" move from an attacking scrum (shown on the right), if done right it gives your outside backs acres of space to play with. The diagrams for all the set plays can be found in setplays/ folder in the installation directory.

I was a bit disappointed that they aren't any scrum moves that involve the forwards though. At the very least you should be able to pick and go with the No. 8 off the back. Oh well, maybe another feature they might add in the next version!

Interpretation of the Rules of Rugby
The first section in the manual covers the rules of Rugby. It does a pretty good job of covering the basics, although I'm not sure that this game is going to convert too many Rugby newbies to the sport, and the rugby fan already knows the rules!

Unfortunately for Creative Assembly it would seem that the average rugby fan knows the rules better than they do as there are a few interesting rule interpretations in the game and a few more rules that don't seem to be included. I am willing to accept that some of these decisions may be conscious ones from the developers in the interest of playability (or maybe these are new rules being introduced in 2001!?!) but I will point out the problems I have noticed.

1) The 'not held in the tackle' law isn't played at all. If your player is ankle tapped and trips over but isn't held on the ground you can't jump up and keep running, you have to set it up for your support players. There have been a couple of times I have been so close to scoring a try and had this happen to me.

2) The half and full time whistles are only blown once the ball goes out of the field of play or a team scores. In the real game once you are into stoppage time the game generally ends at the next breakdown (usually a scrum), in Rugby 2001 you can play 5 or 6 minutes of extra time just because neither team kicks or runs the ball out. In a multiplayer game I think this is fine as it's up to the players to decide but when you are playing the computer it's a bit silly. I have actually won games against the computer in extra time because they didn't bother to kick it out.

3) If the ball is kicked dead in general play, or from the kickoff, the opposition should get a scrum back from the point where it was kicked, instead the defensive team is forced to take a drop out from the 22.

Conclusion
Overall Rugby 2001 is a good game, and the best Rugby game I have ever played (and I've played a few!) but it could have been a great one if it included player and team editing capabilities and didn't have all the little inconsistancies in the commentary and the rule interpretations.

Since I am very familar with the EA Sports NBA Live and Fifa Soccer series I was expecting some of the features that are standard in those to be present in Rugby 2001 and for the in game graphics to use the awesome EA Sports 3D engine.

When I quickly discovered this wasn't the case I was pretty disappointed, but once I played through the Training drills and played my first game I quickly forgot about the details of the graphics (which aren't bad by any stretch, they just aren't anything like the realism that the other EA Sports series have) and really enjoyed the playability of the game and this enjoyment was multiplied ten-fold when I played it in multiplayer mode.

I hope that Creative Assembly can take some of the criticisms on board and release a patch that tidies up some of the more glaring problems and that the gaming community can get to work on hacking together some editors to let us customise the teams and players as we see fit, at least to tide us over until the next upgrade! Let's hope we don't have to wait another five years for that!

Now get on over to GameZone and order yourself a copy!


Resources

The Official EA Sports Rugby site (Producer)
Creative Assembly (Developer)
Goughy's Rugby 2001 (fan site)
GameZone Discussion Forums
(incl. some Rugby 2001 discussion)

Tips
Simon (from GameZone) and I have exchanged a few tips on the game, here is a summary of what we have so far.

1. If you are to the breakdown first just pass the ball (don't bind).

2. For the rucks/mauls try joining the rucks while holding "dig" and then push as soon as most of your forward pack has joined and you should never lose your own possession. To win opposition ball you need to be first to it and get the first push in (just like the real game).

3. Push the join maul button repeatedly to get the pack to join as one (not one man at a time like Jonah Lomu Rugby).

4. If the CPU is winning the maul, just wait for your bar to max and give it one big push. Otherwise get ready to tackle. :-)

5. The push and dig options are listed as up/down in the manual, remember this is up and down the field not the screen, so if you are playing left to right the push is left and dig is right to push on your controller! It took me a while to work that out!!

6. In the Rucks and Mauls don't let your power graph get right down as it takes ages to replenish by which time the opposition will win the ruck. Instead when it gets low (as you are pushing) change to dig for a few seconds to let it build back up before you put in another shove.

If you have any others tips then let me know and I'll add them to the list.

by jules

Let us know what you think!

Damn straight it needs a player editor! The first thing I would do is build a team full of Black Toddadder's and kick some pasty Pommy butt!!
Supposedly this article has been viewed 4303 times since we bothered to start counting*.
(Although it could have just been jules on the Reload button doing some serious ego padding!)