With two absolutely rancid rugby union titles already available for Xbox One (Rugby 15, Rugby World Cup 2015) it was with apprehension that we strode out onto the field to take on the competing code of rugby league in Big Ant's latest offering. Fortunately, the team is nothing to do with those godawful games, but is responsible for the excellent Don Bradman Cricket and with this in mind - and having had two relatively successful kicks fly between the posts with the game's earlier versions - Rugby League Live 3 certainly had the credentials to allay our fears of another current-gen rugby-based horror show.
Rugby League Live 3 washes away the memory of those other rugby experiences on the platform right from the outset, providing a representation of the sport that is much closer to the higher-end sports titles than you'd expect from such a relatively low-key release. A whole stack of licences are in place for a start, from England's own First Utility Super League and Kingstone Press Championship and League 1, to Australia's Telstra Premiership, Holden Cup, State of Origin and even the Auckland Nines competition. The national teams of Australia, New Zealand, and England are officially licenced too, with other nations featuring dummy players that can be overwritten by using the game's built-in download facility. Indeed, the "FanHub" where players can create and share teams and lineups is used to as great effect as it was in Don Bradman Cricket, to the point that you can go as far as creating your own referees and entire leagues to share with the world.
Aside from the commentary – which feels stilted and which we're relatively sure is mostly recycled from Rugby League Live 2 - the game's presentation is on point as well. Rugby League Live 3 is one of the few sports titles that truly makes the stadium feel like an enclosed space, surrounded by a living, breathing crowd, rather than being just a green rectangle with a few stickmen dropped around the perimeter. Each of the 40-plus stadiums (mostly licenced, with a few generic ones in there) has a feel all of its own, so a big summer evening match at the MCG in Melbourne feels entirely different to a wet afternoon at Spotland in Rochdale. You'll get to play in them all too, given the wealth of gameplay options. Full career options are available so that you can play as a manager, controlling tactics and transfers and taking control of the whole team come matchday, or as a player, trying to stay in position and help your side to victory without making too many mistakes as you battle to be signed by a big team. Online play is on the cards as well of course and while it works well, the fact that the game isn't going to be the most popular product on the market means that matchmaking can take some time. In fact, there will be times where you're simply not going to be able to get a game, which is a shame.
On the field, the gameplay holds up for the most part. Players clatter into each other with a great sense of weight, meaning that you can really feel when the Rabbitohs are trying to pin you back in the Grand Final as the tackle count increases and that goal line isn't getting any closer. As with every rugby game made to date, there is something of an issue with the speed of play that is jarring. Rugby league is a fast, all-action sport, but the way in which players can turn on a dime here without much of a concern for physics takes the shine off the apple at times. It isn't Rugby World Cup 2015 bad (very little in the world actually is), but there are times when running with the ball that a player can be heading toward the top-right of the pitch, only to switch and be heading to the top-left without taking so much as a step to rebalance himself.
Some will find the gameplay to be punishing, but the relative beauty of that will be in the eye of the beholder. Big Ant very rarely tries to teach players how to play the sports that they're creating simulations of and that's no different here. If you don't know where you should be standing in relation to play when you're playing as a full back in your career, then apart from the occasional arrow showing you roughly where to go if you're an absolute mile away from things, you aren't going to get any help. On anything but the base difficulty level – which is almost insultingly easy – you're going to need to know the ins and outs of the sport to be able to even battle out a draw. Some lacklustre training drills aside, there's very little in the way of help to show you where you're going wrong. There's also timing to consider when you have the ball in hand. Rugby League Live 3 is very, very reliant on precision timing. If you don't know the optimal time to press the button to fend or sidestep, you'll be clattered to the ground right away. Since each player has a different effectiveness rating for those moves, it can be a tad overwhelming to think about getting your timing right to compensate for a lesser player's slower sidestep motion when you're about to be slammed to the deck. If you don't press the button at the exact time when a tackle is coming in, you won't be able to hand the ball off, either, since you'll be wrapped up. Again, player ratings affect things here, so there's a ton to think about when it comes to even the simplest of moves. Mastering the game's timing is key to progressing but you're on your own as to learning the ropes.
For those who like to play from a sideline cam view – as opposed the game's default end-to-end view – there's an issue with running with the ball, too. The right stick is used to sidestep, but unlike all the other controls, it doesn't pivot in relation to the camera. So, to step left (which is a step "up" the screen from the sideline view) you still have to press left. This looks like an oversight to us and it's one that prevents that camera angle from being used well. Maybe it'll be patched up, but for now the problem persists.
Aside from the issues that we've mentioned though, there are a couple of other things that cause frustration. The player switching mechanic works well enough for 90% of the time when you're controlling an entire team, usually giving you control of the right player when needed. There are times – and it happens enough that it simply has to be mentioned – where an opponent will be rushing down the wing and you'll press to switch to the closest defender, only to be given control of the second-closest, who has been left sprawling after diving to stop the attack. The time it takes to press again, for the game to give you control of the correct player, and for him to get up to speed, is generally enough time to allow the opponent to get away and sprint in for the try. If you're winning by a bucketload, that doesn't matter all that much. With any other scoreline situation, it has a major impact on the game, especially when AI defenders don't exhibit any such issues.
Despite these complaints, there's so much detail in Rugby League Live 3 that it's a tough one to overly criticise. Make a player sprint for the entirety of the match and he'll get injured, which is something that we found out after being sidelined for the best part of a year with various ailments. Get injured too much or play too poorly and you'll get fired in career mode, with the game giving you nothing but the option to retire or become a manager as a result. Stamina is extremely important in rugby, given the energy-sapping nature of the sport, and it's emulated well here. The game will usually allow for a much larger defender to stop a smaller forward in their tracks, but if that forward has only just been brought into the game and the defender has been putting opponents down for 75 minutes, there's a better chance that he'll be able to break through. It's all very convincing and while Rugby League Live 3 is far from perfect and can be extremely infuriating at times, there's no doubt that rugby league fans will be happy enough with a competent enough simulation of the sport.
Rugby League Live 3 contains a multitude of impressive features that you'd usually really only expect from the 2ks and EAs of this world and that's to the developer's credit. Extremely detailed off the pitch and generally fun on it, the game is it's only let down by a number of areas where the polish hasn't been applied as well as it could have been. Sadly, those issues do start to mount up with extended play but was it not for the player selection issue, it would have scored an extra point here for sure.