Australian prop Maximo Vierra receives the booming kick-off for the Rugby 15 Four Nations tournament and looks downfield. Afraid of the terrifying wall of All Blacks charging down at him, he decides to hot potato the ball to his nearest teammate. It is a beautiful pass, flying high in the air, above the height of the goal posts, before bouncing harmlessly along the ground towards his own try line. The Australian fullback Lyman Peoples is first to react, scooping up the ball, using his telekinetic powers to warp the bouncing ball into his hands as he runs by. Looking up, he sees a line of defenders, but strangely they are running parallel to him rather than attacking. He scoots at the line, the defenders holding off him, covering invisible support players, until he spots a gap. It wouldn’t be hard, this is more grand canyon than crack in the sidewalk, and he charges through. The New Zealand fullback is nowhere to be found, and Peoples runs 95 metres to the try line where he proceeds to boot the ball into the crowd, pause the game and find out that the ‘score try’ button is actually clicking in the right stick.
Rugby 15 is not very good. The above is a mostly accurate description of my first moments with the game. In many fundamental ways Rugby 15 is broken, rules of the sport are not included or are enforced incorrectly, the physics regularly go haywire, the AI on both sides is abysmal and just about every aspect of the sport; running, passing, tackling, kicking and rucking, is crucially flawed. It fails to learn from (or steal) the great innovations of two decades of rugby games, some of which the developers themselves introduced, and in most ways it is worse than the first 3D rugby game ever released, Creative Assembly’s Rugby 2001.
This is going to be more shit sandwich than compliment sandwich, but let’s start with some of the good. Rugby 15’s rucking is one of the best takes on what has been a difficult aspect of the sport to interpret digitally. You rotate the right stick to find a sweet spot indicated by a power bar, at green you can secure the ball, at yellow you could infringe and give away a penalty. Ball carriers must release the ball in a timely fashion but it doesn’t do a lot to change the momentum of the ruck. The system doesn’t involve button mashing or incomprehensible metres and adds the threat of penalties to the game in a realistic yet not frustrating way.
Even this one positive lets the game down, in fact the core of the game is broken by just how easy it is to win and steal the ball at a ruck. Even on Hard difficulty the AI would rarely get beyond the second phase before I had stolen the ball back thanks to the generous timing. Rugby is an easy sport when you have 95% of the possession, even if your team struggle with basics like passing and kicking.
Passing is another area that Rugby 15 fails at completely. The controls are unintuitive, for the first time since controllers had triggers a developer has decided that a single pass button is all you need, you direct your pass with the right stick and initiate it with the right trigger. The left trigger is used only as a modifier to throw a dummy. The ball acts like a radar guided balloon, slowly floating towards the intended receiver, often warping direction mid-air. Luckily the physics makes interceptions tough to accomplish, as just about every pass results in defender and attacker meeting at the ball simultaneously. The wonky tackling physics don’t necessarily mean passes kill ball movement, but on higher difficulty levels your own passing is often the oppositions best method of gaining field position as defenders move at twice the speed of the ball in the air.
Tackling and kicking are just bad rather than broken. You will rarely have time to get kicks away unless you use the snap kick out of the ruck which looks like it can’t be blocked. Not that kicks are really blocked, you are just tackled as you attempt the kick and knock on (or get incorrectly judged offside). The ball rarely leaves the boot in a clean animation, you can face your own in goal and kick the ball downfield or far worse, face the right direction and kick the ball backwards (a feat the AI accomplishes much more than user controlled players thank goodness). Goal kicking follows a Madden style draw the right stick back then extend forward method, fine when it works but too often (and with multiple different controllers) the game would interpret I had done something wrong and the ball would dribble off the tee like a stiff breeze caught it. HB Studios managed to do this right in The Golf Club, how do they stuff it up so badly here?
Rugby 15 sports the least satisfying tackling physics I have seen in a rugby game since the days of the C64. You have a dive button but most tackling is done by running in to the ball carrier or in my experience, running near them and hoping you trigger a tackle animation. Near the goal line this makes defending a lottery, often you will hit a player with momentum only for a ‘drag’ animation to trigger and you both end up in the in goal, conceding a try. There are some methods to break tackles activated using the right stick but all use canned animations that work only in the most perfect of circumstances or on the easy level of difficulty. When simply running around the opposing defenders works so well why would you step or shoulder charge?
That leads to another of Rugby 15’s big issues, the AI. Just about every aspect has been handled better in previous HB Studios rugby games. There is no way to have players run on to the ball at the ruck, every pass goes to a flat footed receiver who is usually swarmed by the defence because there is no way to get fast ball from the ruck, even if you win a ruck quickly and choose to pick and drive the scrum half or number eight will slowly walk to the location his canned animation triggers from then pick up the ball at geriatric speed. Runners don’t hit gaps, defenders run away from the ball carrier and the most reliable method of scoring tries is finding a fast player and running around the opposing defenders, yes this is one of those sports games where you could run endless laps of the field, a swarm of players chasing after you like an under 8’s soccer match. On Hard difficulty the AI tightens up its outside defence but it is far from impregnable. You won’t get through by passing, the speed of the defensive line is as such that the first receiver will almost always be swamped by the defence as soon as he catches the pass from the ruck.
Offside penalties are awarded seemingly at random, the forward pass rule doesn’t exist and you will get yellow cards for ruck infringements when your own team is attacking the line with no prior warnings. A penalty within ten metres of the line is an automatic try as if you choose to tap and go the defenders will back off into the in goal. This and intercepts are about the only way the AI could score tries against me, occasionally they showed some signs of spreading the ball but it was only allowed by my generous nature, like a big brother going easy on his little brother in backyard footy. Just like my older brothers did to me, if the AI ever got too close or too cheeky I would steal the ball away from it at will and give them a harsh lesson in reality, holding the ball above my head like a private school Statue of Liberty, daring the AI to jump for it then pushing them into the spider filled hedge and scoring a try when I got bored of their futile resistance.
As has been typical for most rugby games in the last decade, not all international leagues and licenses could be acquired. The focus has been on picking up the European competitions and player likeness, the Super 15 and Four Nations squads all include made up players, not even players based on their real life counterparts like a Caleb Bale or Jack Conner. Squads and players can be customised but only the sadistic would bother. Options wise the game is threadbare, there are two camera views, no replays and not even a global difficulty setting, it has to be set before each match. Presentation is similarly minimalist, while I actually enjoyed the lack of cutscenes before the game or after tries were scored (Madden this year has far too many unskippable ‘busy scenes’ between plays that drives me a bit mad) the lack of any bells and whistles is very noticeable. Commentary didn’t grate too much but had some accuracy issues and the game looks simple and clean but certainly not anything approaching pretty or current gen. The PC game supports only gamepads (although the ‘select team’ icon is amusingly a keyboard) and does not include online play, probably a mercy considering how many exploits and bugs the game contains.
Yes, there are some brief moments of fun in Rugby 15, but there are never any moments where it feels like real rugby. It is sad, because I know HB Studios are capable of making a good rugby game. They owned the PS2/Xbox generation with their EA Sports Rugby series (05, 06 and 08, forget 2004 ever existed) based on the FIFA engine, and while Rugby World Cup 2011 showed its age and didn’t innovate much even by the minimal standards HB Studios themselves set (the differences between Rugby 05 and Rugby 08 are mostly cosmetic), it was still a good game, a fun, playable interpretation of the sport and most importantly it contained few exploits or game breaking bugs.
I can only put it down to the current generation move to the Unity engine and their struggles to replicate the solid, stable rugby engine they used for their previous games. In the state it currently sits, Rugby 15 is barely playable and certainly nothing like rugby. It’s a shame that HB Studios both couldn’t overcome the technical difficulties and decided to release such an inferior, substandard product, one that would not have been acceptable at the turn of the century let alone in 2014. While I reviewed the PC game an Xbox One and PS4 release is also planned and in its current state it would comfortably be the worst game released for either machine at this time. There is something in the rubble of Rugby 15 that could be used to one day build a better rugby game, but I would be leaving this all behind and finding a fresh start.
Rugby 15 was reviewed using a retail copy of the game on PC, purchased by the reviewer.
Review: Rugby 15