With the rugby World Cup set to kick off in France in September this year, it was only a matter of time before EA Sports put on the headgear and pumped out another game in its Rugby series. Sure enough, Rugby 08 has landed on the PlayStation 2 just in time to take advantage of the upcoming World Cup hype, but fans looking for a significant leap forward from the last game--Rugby 06--may be a little disappointed. While Rugby 08 does introduce some new elements, the game is a little too close to the 06 offering for comfort.
What Rugby 08 does well--as did its predecessor Rugby 06--is distill the complex parts of the sport into a gameplay experience that ramps up nicely in difficulty once you're past the novice stage. At its core are simple-to-handle controls: The left stick is used to move a player, while the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons are used to pass left or right of the current ball handler. Tackling is handled automatically; all you need to do to take down an opponent is steer your chosen player into the opponent's path, and presto--a bone-jarring tackle is applied. When you add the X button to power up and release a kick, as well as the L2 button to dash, newbies are armed with all they need to know to start playing the game. A simple-to-follow tutorial also helps out greatly, although it doesn't offer much in the way of illumination when it comes to the more complex rules of rugby.
These basics will be enough to get players cruising in the game's club level of difficulty, but the step up to the pro or elite levels will require more tactical thought and a lot of patience--just like a real-life rugby encounter. Rugby 08's artificial intelligence stiffens in both attack and defence at the harder difficulties. While the easy club level will tutor beginners in most aspects of the game, there's still a lot that's left unexplained. This obviously won't bother more hardcore fans of rugby, although it would have been nice to have some of the more oblique rules explained. In addition to tougher opponents, higher difficulty levels bring more player-management issues to handle. For example, injuries seem to happen at a much higher frequency at even the midrange pro level. Because the game features somewhat strict AI when it comes to substitutions, putting a player into a position that he doesn't specialise in will result in basic errors and a greater chance of injury. This means that losing a key position player can often make the difference between winning and losing a match.
Rugby 08 contains many of the same offensive and defensive special moves found in 06. These include the shoulder charge for plowing through wannabe tacklers, the sidestep for extra evasion, and the hand-off to fend away opposition players. All of these moves are performed with the right analog stick. For example, shoulder charges are performed by pushing the right stick in the same direction as the left stick. These special moves become a valuable tool in Rugby 08, although their effectiveness is somewhat limited by the amount of time that passes between performing the required right-stick move and the onscreen player's response.
General passing also seems to suffer delayed responses. For example, a half-second will pass from the time you press one of the shoulder buttons to when the player actually makes the pass. However, it's no deal-breaker because it's easy enough to compensate for once you get used to it. Passing, at any rate, becomes only one part of a successful strategy in Rugby 08. As in a real rugby game, smart kicking is vital both for better field position and to score points. In this aspect, Rugby 08 once again features game mechanics that are simple to learn yet hard to master. It's easy enough to kick for touch, using the X button to set power and the left analog stick to aim, but it's more difficult when it comes to setting more precise distances or bouncing a ball infield beforehand. Kicking for goal also becomes harder the farther a player is from the posts.