Rugby appears to be among the trickiest of popular sports to adapt into a videogame, especially where Britain’s favorites are concerned. Football? There’s two games fighting it out every year. F1. Had a potted history, but also plenty of cracking games. Cricket? The Don Bradman series has been somewhat popular, and there was of course the Brian Lara games once upon a time. Rugby really hasn’t had anything close to an essential in terms of a representative game, even when the might of Jonah Lomu was behind it.
Is the sport too complex to translate effectively? Or is it just not a sport that feels symbiotic with videogames in the same way racing and football do? Somewhat predictably, the answer is somewhere inbetween. The question we have here is can Rugby 18 be the one to emerge from the ruck and sprint toward the try line? It certainly knows the basics, but it perhaps lacks a solid plan beyond that.
In Rugby 18, the focus is on Rugby Union alone, which is always a smart move when you need to define how the game should play. That means we get the Aviva Premiership, international sides (with unfortunate omissions). And a variety of other top Union-based leagues to tackle. The modes available are a bit threadbare by modern sports game standards, with just exhibition, league play, and an online-focused fantasy team game where you acquire players via stars. That’s where the longevity will arise for most folk, but the league play is great competitive practice.
When it comes to presentation, Rugby 18 is found wanting in far too many areas. The menus are satisfactory, if a little vanilla, and the player animation is pretty decent, but nearly everything else is of a poor standard. Visually-speaking, the match action is cartoonish, lacking in detail, and bereft of textures. Crowds, rarely a highlight in any sports title, are literally a background image, an afterthought that feels completely disconnected from the cheers and jeers that supposedly emanate from it. Commentary contains some solid delivery, but the implementation of it is scattershot, broken up into chunks that are punctuated by awkwardly long pauses. As first impressions go, it isn’t a promising one, which is a shame because the rugby itself isn’t bad.
Rugby 18 addresses one potential worry early on by leading you through the various control systems during the course of a practice match. There’s a fair bit to learn as smartly, the developer has isolated individual aspects of the game of rugby (scrums, rucks, throws etc) and given each a mini game to ‘win’ in order to move forward positively. This captures the physical grind of a rugby match rather well, a drawn out war of attrition where gaining a few inches of ground can take a monumental effort, but is all the more satisfying when it eventually leads to finding that one pocket of space to plough through and score a try.
A ruck, for instance, has timing and context based aspects to its mini game. A two-colored ring surrounds the area of the ruck, with the team in control having a larger share of the ring, meaning they can move the ball on. To gain the upper hand, a press of the circle button adds another player to the ruck, and depending on who reacts quickest with this, the ball goes in their favor. Passing is handled via the front shoulder buttons so directing play is made nice and simple once you do retrieve the ball.
Mauls and scrums have fairly similar setups. In the thick of either, you have a marker each on the aforementioned ring, and for mauls, the attacker tries to ‘catch’ the defender’s marker and stay on it to push forward, while the defender tries to evade the attacking marker. For a scrum, you both have to catch a marker and stay on it to put more push behind the scrum, doing enough of that will push the opponent back and give you possession. You gain an extra advantage if you time button prompts beforehand as you set up the scrum too, so it’s part speed, part timing.
Beyond these, it’s a bit more hands on. Punting and kicking is the standard hold the power button until you get the desired level and direct it with the right stick, sprinting with R2, and tackling with circle. Tackling a running opponent is probably the most highlightable issue with the mechanics of Rugby 18. While you can see your chance of tackling via a growing colored circle underneath the opposing player with the ball, catching players is a hit and miss affair. Players don’t always move fluidly at speed, meaning you can easily overshoot your tackle attempt. It’s frustrating because it inevitably costs you ground, and more annoyingly, gives your opponent the occasional cheap try.
Mercifully, that’s the only major gripe with how Rugby 18 plays, even if it isn’t all that with nuances of the game. There’s a large amount of room for improvement and refinement for the next edition, but the core is a solid one to build upon. This plays a decent game of rugby, recreating the physical tussle of a match pretty well. The problems are fairly small on their own, but added together they breed an overlying atmosphere of discontent. The presentation is a prominent area to focus on, as is the limited amount of modes, otherwise, there’s really nothing better in gaming terms for rugby union fans.