“…I feel that I absolutely have to be honest…”
Quality rugby games are few and far between. Every fan of the sport who also sits on the Venn diagram of gaming knows it. As a result, every time a new rugby game does come on the market it is a time for excitement, hope and patience. For what history has taught us is that these games are of the kind that you definitely want to read a few reviews of before you set your hard-earned cash down on the counter. So take off your boots, rugby fans, put your feet up and allow me to be of service.
Rugby 18 is the latest in a sporadic series of games, this time developed by Eko Software and published by Bigben Interactive. The history of the franchise is, shall we say, unpopular. Since Rugby 08, a game which fans found to be at least a fair representation of the sport, there has yet to be a solid installment. In ten years. That tells you something to begin with, and by all rights should make perspective players at least a little cautious. Rugby 18 is, after all, retailing at a full £39.99 price tag (at the time of writing), so taking the plunge is no small-change matter.
How fortunate you are, then, that you have chosen to read this review before going ahead and diving into your piggy bank. The short version of the story is this; Rugby 18 is bad. For the cynical among you, I am not talking about the “I don’t really like it” kind of bad. I am talking about the fact that Rugby 18 is legitimately and fundamentally flawed. I would even go so far as to say that Rugby 18 is, quite frankly, an unfinished title. If this were an early closed beta of the game that was say seven months away from release, I would certainly be showing an interest based on what I have played. As it stands, this game is out in a little over a week when I am writing this, so it is highly unlikely that the issues it has are going to be resolved in that timescale. The sum things up in the best way I can think of, this feels like an early Xbox 360 game, with the exception of some, but by no means all, of its graphical qualities. This game’s release should by all rights have been delayed. It is not ready to be put out into the world. Allow me to tell you why.
Let me tell you an anecdote which sums up the kind of issues I am talking about with Rugby 18 in its current state. During the middle of play, at a time when the opposing team should have had a limited time to play the ball following a maul before conceding a foul, the players on the opposing team simply stalled. The game was running, the clock was running, and my players were able to freely run around the pitch. The idle animations for the opposing team were even active too, with the players in the maul prepared to make a play, but it never came. The game did nothing to continue play, and nothing I could do would get things moving again either. So, frustrated and confused, I was forced to quit the match after watching the clock tick for 25 in-game minutes and realising that the end of play would never come, because the ball would never leave the field of play. How did such a glaring issue make it through play testing? This was not the only problem either.
Perhaps the other issue of note was my inability to score a drop goal. This was not for lack of trying, nor because I was bad at the game. I successfully passed the ball through the posts on several occasions in what appeared to be a futile attempt to score in this way. In every case, the ruling was simply that the ball had been kicked into touch. This maddening situation even led to me explaining in detail the scenarios to a friend of mine who has played the sport of rugby and enjoyed the sports culture for many more years than I. The game genuinely had me starting to believe that somehow this was not a legal move. And yet, after our lengthy discussion, neither of us could deduce the problem. The only conclusion as far as either of us could see was that the rule simply wasn’t in the game. Even now, writing this, I wonder if somehow both he and I have got something wrong. It is hard to believe that such a thing could be missed. Then again, given the other problems I encountered in the gameplay, perhaps not…
The review so far may come across as a bit of a rant. Although I feel these points are both important and justified in the context of an accurate, honest review, I will proceed to get down to business. First things first, let’s take a break from Rugby 18’s flaws to consider some of the positives it has to offer. Most notably for rugby game fans, Rugby 18 contains a healthy flurry of licensed teams and players. This is something of a rarity, and although the selection is still limited, the offering feels like a real gift. Major international squads are in the game, including England, Wales, Scotland, Australia and the All Blacks, each of which contains mostly, if not entirely, licensed players and their likenesses. Teams from the Aviva Premiership feature in the game too, along with a handful of other leagues. The inclusion is good, however I should note that the vast majority of the likenesses are questionable at best. Nevertheless, this paragraph and the next are dedicated to positivity, and thus I shall continue.
There are two other features that I actually really liked in Rugby 18. One is some, and I emphasise the world some, of the visuals in the game. The grass looks lovely, silly as that might sound, and the stadiums look impressive. On the other hand, the players and a number of the animations in game are sadly less than inspiring. The other good feature however is the loading screens. No, I am not being sarcastic. The loading screens feature trivia questions about the sport, which I found to be a fun aside from the in-match gameplay. The term nothing can be perfect quickly springs to mind, though, as for reasons I cannot explain, a wrong answer simply reveals itself as a wrong answer, leaving players who were hoping to find out the true fact for that question wondering forevermore.
Again, the points above are not sarcastic. I genuinely liked those elements of the game. The fact that these are some of the standout features however sends a message in its own right. Now, regrettably, I have to get onto the negatives, outside of the blatant issues I mentioned towards the beginning. Perhaps the largest problem is the fact that the gameplay just isn’t all that good. There are long thought out systems there, and they do serve a purpose, but they don’t make the game fun to play, and some of them a very complicated. Successfully defending a line out, for example, is perhaps the most complicated play of all in Rugby 18. Although the game attempts to instruct you on how to do this, I still found it a huge learning curve to even get my player to jump when I wanted them to. Normal, open field play is equally as difficult and frustrating to master at times too. After winning a ruck, for example, you can choose to have the scrum half pass the ball, kick the ball or run with the ball. Sounds simple enough, but the issue comes in when you try to aim your kick too early, leading to the scrum half sprinting off in the direction that you had hoped to boot the ball in. Even elements as simple as defending can be difficult, as players fail to get into position and seem to be in little rush to catch the opposing player. It was often down to Mike Brown (I was playing as England), who was lingering well off the screen, to make a tackle after the opposing player had run the full length of the pitch with the ball.
That paragraph got lengthy with examples, I know, but there is just one more gameplay related one that I want to throw you way. This is more to do with the game’s AI rather than anything player controlled, and whilst it isn’t quite as dramatic as the AI freezing in place as in my initial example at the start of this review, it is still a cause for frequent and growing frustrations. When a player is tackled and goes to ground, a ruck is activated. Any rugby fan will know this. The game knows this too. What the game doesn’t seem to accommodate is the fact that, in that situation, your players are going to want to get in there as quickly as possible. Now I actually quite like the system of players hitting the ruck, in that your careful timing can allow them to hit with more force on entry. What I don’t like is when I tell a player to enter, and the game not only picks a distant player to do so, but forces them to run around the ruck several times for no reason before they get on in there! It is just a case of a poorly designed AI in this case, and it brings an otherwise well-designed gameplay feature down.
There are just a few more nitty gritty things you need to know about Rugby 18. First of all, the commentary is bad. Voice lines have been recorded in chunks and then thrown together extremely poorly. Think PlayStation 2 commentary, and you are on the right tracks. It comes across like a child trying to put the triangle shape in the square shaped hole. It might go in eventually, but it’s an unpleasant experience for anyone observing it. The other noteworthy point, which I touched on briefly, is the appearance of players. Dear me, what on earth went wrong here. Think back to when FIFA and other sporting games began to add features that allowed you to use a camera to map your face onto a player. Think of some of the horrors that came your way in return. Ok, so it isn’t quite that broken, but players do not at all resemble who they are meant to be. If they did not come with a name or number for you to associate them, you would not realise who you were supposed to be looking at. I found Sam Warburton and Dan Cole to be particularly frightening examples. Thankfully, and this is some saving grace, you largely see the players from behind during gameplay; an angle from which they do look passably like rugby players.
You have really stuck with this review, and I want to prove to you that I am not just a negative Joe by ending on a high note. There are some good, fun game modes to try out in Rugby 18. A league mode allows you to take your favourite team through the process of earning some silverware. A career mode allows you to manage a team, lead them to victory and make them your own. A weekly challenge attempts to keep the Rugby 18 experience fresh. Finally, a My Team mode acts as a simplified FIFA Ultimate Team-style offering, and I really liked the way that this worked. Forget microtransactions; My Team allows you to buy players using points that you can earn through every method of play in Rugby 18. You earn them through achievements across the game as a whole, and that is a system I can get behind. There are two small issues; you need to know rugby well enough to understand the positions and players in order to make the most of this mode, however this will likely be most of the fan base. The other problem is that, at the time of writing, there are naturally few players online ahead of release. This might be a problem to you too though, because as welcoming and well thought out as these modes are, they will struggle to save the title from its pitfalls.
I very rarely write what might be considered a “scathing” review. I don’t like doing it; not at all. At the end of the day, what I am reviewing is someone’s hard work. When it comes to a game like Rugby 18, though, which is being sold at the same price level as a AAA title and yet at such a low quality, I feel that I absolutely have to be honest and defend those people that might fall into its trap. The publishers might not like what I have had to say, but the real examples of in-game experiences that I have written about that this is not a finished, £39.99 game. Truly, my personal feeling is that it is simply not ready for sale at all. The game has some merits, and if this were an early working version of the final product I would certainly have focused much more heavily on those. As it stands, gamers are going to be disappointed if they part with real world money to play Rugby 18. Sorry rugby fans; I’d stick to Rugby Challenge for now if I was you. I think we are going to have to wait around for the next good one.