When it comes to forming an opinion of the annual sports titles that we love to hate, it can be really easy to overlook all the things they get right. The little things that build up into the overall picture, such as the pace of the game, the way players move, and the intelligence of the AI. We tend to focus on the new features that are added each year, and overemphasize their importance in relation to the basics. When you stumble across a new sports franchise that gets very few of the basics right, you'll rue the day that you so easily dismissed the giants.
Sadly, Rugby 15 is exactly that - a new sports franchise that gets very few of the basics right. It has one really good idea in its pocket in the form of the rucking system. The way that rucks are handled here is probably the best approach we've seen in the (admittedly few) rugby games that have been released over the years. When a player is downed, both teams have to take part in what is almost a quickfire lock-picking game. Move the stick until your ruck meter turns green, then press the right trigger to claim the ball. If you press while the meter is red or yellow, you'll give away a penalty for handling the ball in the ruck. The team who is quickest – or who has the fuller meter if both press at the same time – gets possession. If you win, you can choose to kick, run, or pass the ball back into play. If you're on the offensive, you get a second or two of an advantage so that you can attempt to fill the meter without fear of losing possession, but you have to press the right trigger to release the ball back into the ruck before that period of advantage is over, or you'll be penalized. It's a great idea that really works and the emphasis on timing means that when you're moving forward, you can rush the ball out of the ruck or hold fire until your team gets into position for an attack.
This system bodes well for Rugby 15. It indicates that some thought has gone into things and that fans of the sport of rugby union are finally going to get a game to beat the PSOne's Jonah Lomu Rugby.
Also on the upside is the fact that there are a fair number of ways to play. The game's licences mean that the Aviva Premiership is in place, as well as the French Top 14 and Pro D2 leagues. The Guinness PRO12 lineup is available too, as well as international teams and fictional versions of Australian Super League sides. You can even play a fictional take on the Heineken Cup or the Six Nations. But you can't mix them. So, you can take the Newcastle Falcons through a season of the Aviva Premiership, but there won't be any national cup competitions or the European cup mixed in to the season. For those, you need to play a whole other game mode. You can't transfer or trade players, nor can you play multiple seasons. When you finish the year, you simply get to start again.
Don't get us wrong, you might well relish the chance of taking your team to Premiership glory without the business side of things needing any attention. You might even be fine with setting the difficulty level before every single match of the season, because the game forgets and constantly tries to get you to play on the easiest mode. After all, these are small, tiny, miniscule bugaboos when compared to the devastatingly terrible on-pitch action.
The game engine – barring the ruck system, which works well as we've said – is a glitch-filled mess that looks like you're watching an episode of The Benny Hill Show from a blimp. Players sprint at all times. That is, when they're not magically teleporting between two points, of course. This means that there's never any sort of space for tactical moves or any sort of planning. Everything you do is reactive, and the only time you'll make any progress down the pitch is when the opponent's players glitch or the ball carrier somehow disappears on one side of three defensive players, and reappears on the other, complete with the ball still under his arm. It's handy when that happens, since your "skill" moves (sidesteps and spins) will rarely even trigger, let alone have the desired affect. That feeling of reactive play isn't helped by the fact that defenders can perform successful diving tackles from 10 meters away. The ruck system has been re-purposed for use in scrums as well, where it simply doesn't work properly. Nobody ever drops the ball in a maul situation. Passes that are so close to an intercepting player that the ball actually goes THROUGH him somehow don't deflect from their path, allowing the intended receiver to collect the ball unhindered. AI players wander offside to the point that they're standing right next to the opposing player as he takes the ball out of the ruck, alarmingly often. CPU-controlled teams will make strange decisions, such as attempting to kick a drop goal and instead bugging out and hoofing the ball back over their own heads and into their team's own 22. Line outs are won and lost randomly and if you're on the defending team, they're nothing more than a guessing game where you pick a player and hope that you chose the guy who is marking the other team's intended receiver. Given there's no indication of who the receiver will be, you'll generally lose. But to be fair, if you've paid £45 for Rugby 15, you've lost already.
That isn't a harsh line added just for a cheap pop from the crowd, since the laundry list continues. Animations often take far too long to complete. One notable match saw our beloved Exeter Chiefs four points down to London Irish with one play left in the game. Our scrum-half managed to break away from the defence and sprint clear. Nobody could catch him and it was going to be a game-winning try for the ages. A press of the "dive for try" button as he passed right under the posts saw the dive animation start but not finish until he had run all the way through the in-goal area, meaning that he put the ball down in the crowd, rather than on the pitch, and was therefore adjudged to have not scored a try. Absolutely ludicrous. What's worse is that it happens more often than all that. Players will run out of play with the ball multiple times in a match because of those long animations. That isn't the only problem they cause, as pretty much every time you pass the ball, the passer will be facing the wrong way, which just makes things look even more bizarre and broken. Open play kicking is affected also. Try to kick the ball at any time other than when you've just grabbed it out of a ruck, and you'll probably give away a penalty for a knock-on, given that the kicking animation is so slow that a player can be 20 meters away and still close the kicker down before he's even drawn his leg back.
It has to be said that the overriding feeling that plagues Rugby 15 is one of cheapness. Other than the resolution, the graphics look like the game is running on an original Xbox - we kid you not - and the presentation is utterly diabolical. You'll score a try and watch as the game cuts to the kicker lining up the conversion attempt before the ball has even been downed. Players don't celebrate. Sometimes, you can't even tell if a drop goal or conversion kick has been successful, as the crowd won't do anything, the commentators won't say anything, and the game just cuts away to the opposing team being in control of the ball. Even squad management is pointless. Just go into the pause menu and look at the all-important energy levels of your starting 15 when there's only one minute left in the match. Yep. They're all 100% fit and fresh as daisies, since their stamina never deteriorates, despite the commentators commenting on how tired the teams are, and the menus alluding to the fact that replacing tired players with substitutes is quite important. Thankfully, when the match is over, the statistics screen is in place before the final whistle sample ends, as if the game knows what you've just been through and it wants to help you to get out of there as quickly as possible. And "out of there" is exactly where you'll want to go, just as quickly as you can.
Rugby 15 is an absolute shambles of a game. It gives the initial perception of just being a very challenging affair when you first play, so you'll get half an hour to an hour out of it before you realise that isn't the case and that it's the game that's terrible and not that you're terrible at the game. It had plenty of promise, but when examined closely, nearly every aspect of Rugby 15 is bug-ridden and heavily flawed or at the very best, massively unpolished. If you're a rugby fan and you see this in the store, kick it into touch and run the other way. Or just teleport. Like rugby players apparently can.