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When it comes to Rugby League computer games for the major consoles, your choices are pretty limited. In recent years, an Australian company - SIDHE Interactive - has tried to remedy this by producing three Rugby League games for some of the main consoles of the day.
The latest- Rugby League 3 is available for the Wii - and recreates the sport on both sides of the world. Players can choose from over 40 licensed teams, including those from the British Super League competition, Australian NRL, State of Origin or the international Four Nations tournament. Each team contains the players correct players from the 2009 season, so you can finally take control of your own team and show them how it should be done!
Rugby League 3 has a lot of options for different types of game. You can play a one-off match, take part in a league competition or play in an international competition, as well as offering a limited management mode. The game is a good recreation of the sport and offers all the competition options that you might expect. It might not be as complex or deep as a FIFA or PES game, but it still offers many hours of playability.
Multiplayer games are also well-catered for and you have up to 8 players competing at once (4 using a Wii remote, 4 using a Gamecube controller). In multiplayer mode, players can compete or co-operate. Whilst I've never played the game with the maximum number of players, multiplayer modes are always more fun - particularly in competitive mode; there's nothing more satisfying than running in a try past one of your mates and seeing the look of disgust and horror on their faces!
Where the game doesn't fare quite so well is in its difficulty level. A range of settings are available, but the easiest levels really are too easy, even for novice players. In my very first season on the easiest level, I stormed to the title, not losing a single game all the way through and often beating teams by 80+ points. Even the harder levels become quite straightforward to beat and it's slightly disappointing that the computer AI can be a bit stupid and predictable, meaning you can exploit the same weaknesses time and time again. If you want a seriously challenging match that is more reflective of the cat and mouse nature of some Rugby League games, then you really need to play the multiplayer mode against human opponents who will learn what you do and develop ways to counter it.
The rules of the sport have been very well implemented and it's clear the developers know the game inside out. Sports are obviously highly complex things and it can be quite difficult to capture every little nuance. However, this is a very faithful recreation and in my experience to date, I have not come across a single rule which has been missed out or is incorrect. The game also really captures the essence of Rugby League as a fast moving sport, with the emphasis on fast passing and quick off-the-ball movement and, with practice, you can put on some pretty impressive set moves.
Presentation throughout the game is solid. Menus are nicely laid out and easy to move around, making it simple to customise pretty much any part of the game or just get on with playing a match. Grounds from the NRL (Australian Rugby League competition) and Super League (British competition) are faithfully recreated and help to add to that air of authenticity. True, the players look a little chunky, particularly when viewed close up, but their movement is fluid enough and generally well animated.
Sound is also fine, if not spectacular. An inoffensive tune accompanies the main menu, whilst the road of the crowds helps to raise the atmosphere in-game. Commentary is provided by the team that do the commentary for Australian TV and can be a little annoying for a couple of reasons. First of all, although some localisation has been done for aspects of the presentation, this doesn't extend to the commentary which uses Australian terminology for positions, such as "locks" and "five eighths" rather than the British "props" or "scrum halves". The commentary also suffers from occasional lags as the game tries to access the relevant part of the CD. So you get commentary like "Welcome to ... ........ the GPW Recruitment Stadium for this match which sees .......... St Helens take on ..........The Warrington Wolves." It's only a minor thing, but it does serve to remind you that you are just playing a game!
The biggest issue with the presentation is that it hasn't actually advanced much over the course of three games. Barring a few tweaks here and there, the graphics and sound are almost the same as they were in the original Rugby League game. The trouble with that is that what was impressive in 2003 looks and sounds quite dated eight years on. Other franchises have come a long way in terms of their look and feel in that time; Rugby League 3 remains firmly rooted in the past. Even allowing for the fact that the Wii is the least powerful of the current generation consoles, you do get the impression that its full capabilities are not being exploited, and that this is more like an update, rather than a completely new game.
Controls are also quite complicated and initially rather daunting, particularly if you are only vaguely familiar with the sport of Rugby League. Virtually every button on the controller has an action assigned to it. In fact, many of the buttons have several different actions, depending on whether you are attacking or defending. In practice, it doesn't take long to get the hang of these and they are well laid out, so that your fingers fall naturally on the ones which you use most frequently (pass, tackle, sprint). You do, however, need to have at least a passing familiarity with the sport of Rugby League as the instruction booklet just refers to tactics such as "bomb", "punt" or "field goal" without explaining what these are (and not helped by the fact that the Australian terminology is used!) I would also heartily recommend investing in a Gamecube controller to use this game, since the Wii remote is awful for this!
As with all too many games a real bugbear is the loading times, which will have you grinding your teeth in frustration. In fairness, this doesn't affect the flow of the actual matches which are unaffected by this, but as soon as you try and access any menus to change options or view some of the statistics, you have to wait for at least 20-30 seconds each time. This is very frustrating and I have found myself not using some aspects of the game simply because I couldn't bear to wait for the screens to load.
Overall, Rugby League 3 on the Wii is a good game and a reasonably faithful recreation of the sport, even if it is rather too easy in single player mode. It's a shame that it feels more like a minor evolution over previous versions than a major overhaul. Still, if you enjoy Rugby League, but don't fancy all those bumps and bruises you get when playing it for real, then this is a good alternative.
And at least this way I can finally get St Helens to beat Leeds in a Grand Final.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011
(by the way: ignore that insane Amazon price of £100 - that's someone trying it on. Although a little difficult to get hold of, expect to pay around £15-20 for a second hand copy).