There may be a time when - as a huge rugby fan like me - you’re tempted to play Rugby 18. You may be drunk. It may be on Amazon for less than £5 (or the local currency of your choice). You may just be so desperate to experience a virtual game of rugby that you’ll say to yourself: “Well, how bad can it be...” These urges will only lead to the same crushing sense of disappointment you should be accustomed to by now, as Rugby 18 represents this year’s woefully inadequate representation of one of the world’s most popular sports.
It’s a shame, because the intentions are good. Many of the licenses are present and correct, along with a decent swathe of options to vary your experience, and some of the players don’t actually look like weird plasticine sculptures of their real-life counterparts. Underneath it all, though, the actual gameplay remains more of a horror show than an intentional spear-tackle followed by a 15 minute stretcher break and a whole lot of booing. It’s tough to simulate a complicated sport that requires 30 players to all behave realistically at once, but Rugby 18 fails more spectacularly than Kosuke Hashino trying to score a 7s wonder-try.
You’ll spend 90% of your time in this game rucking. Quite possibly the least glamorous aspect of the actual sport is worshiped here, as you go through the same tedious mini-game every time the ball is taken into contact. Given that every player on your team tends to rush inside to seek contact the minute your scrumhalf picks the ball out of the ruck, it’s rare for the ball to get past first receiver. Laboured animations and dumb AI running lines often mean the defence is in the middle of a tackle the second you receive the ball. Which means constant, endless, mind-numbing rucking. Organising a backline is like trying to herd a bunch of super-seeking toddlers past a sweet-shop, as all players seem inextricably drawn to the contact area. Each match, then, becomes an attritional battle as you slowly ruck your way up the pitch, with the occasional break if the ball gets past first receiver or you get so bored one of your props decides to kick it away. It’s not 100% negative, as the set-pieces are reasonably intuitive, and the passing system at least allows you to vary the distance of your throw.
Hilariously, the commentary can’t keep up with the action. Ben Key and Nick Mullins utter (often completely irrelevant) nuggets of wisdom, adding little to the proceedings, something made 100% worse by the fact that none of the phrases flow together properly. So it sounds like the guys are reading a team name, then hastily flicking forward a couple of pages in a script to read the next bit. It’s dire.
What’s worse is that not only does the game fail to get some of the rules of modern rugby correct (especially concerning offside laws and the rules surrounding penalty advantage), but the commentators often become confused about which team has been awarded the penalty or set-piece. In fairness, it’s often tricky to keep track of the Benny Hill-style action. The AI often gets so confused that they’ll charge up the pitch to catch their own penalty kicks to touch (yes, really), pass the ball into the backs of their teammates with alarming regularity, and toss the ball directly from rucks to the fullback, who is stood 25 yards behind play. It’s a colossal mess, and a complete chore to play.
And because games devolve into such a life-sapping grind, scorelines are always comically low if you play shortened matches. Despite continuing for (yes, literally) a simulated hour after the final whistle, one of my early matches ended 3-0 when the ball finally went out of play. Like pretty much all the rest of them. Not only does this suck the excitement out of the sport, it also cripples you during leagues and career modes because you get smashed on points difference as the game simulates based on full, 80 minute matches.
In career mode this really, really matters. I fired up a Career and the start of it - where you build a 23-man team from almost every top player in world rugby - was really entertaining. Creating a Bath Rugby side from scratch was heaps of fun, and you’re encouraged to be thrifty but also to overspend a little and pay off your debt after a couple of seasons. If you don’t you’ll end up with a team of complete no-marks. It took about 30 minutes but was, honestly, the most fun I had with Rugby 18. The first season, played in a generic 6th division comprised of four teams (including my Bath), went well, but I missed out on promotion based on points difference due to the issues listed above. Second season I managed to get promoted by winning all three of my games. Success! Well done, said the game. Sadly, you’re bankrupt, so it’s Game Over, asshole.
After six miserable games and a taste of the shittest glory imaginable my Career was finished. Could I reload my saved team and try again? Nope. I’d have to spend another 30 mins building the squad from scratch again. Any enthusiasm remaining for Rugby 18 quickly drained away.
This game’s problems are too myriad to list. It’s not just the fundamental stuff that’s broken: it’s also the small details that slice away a fan’s hope at every turn. It’s Kyle Sinkler taking free kicks. It’s Christian Wade being chased down by Donncha O’Callaghan after a 10 yard head-start. It’s the hilarious AI substitution that takes place after the final whistle, with the team that’s 14-0 down, and the commentary that optimistically announces that “He’ll need to make a real impact if they want to rescue this one”. It’s Dylan Hartley actually making a pass. Compared to the likes of FIFA 18, NBA 2K18, and any other modern sports game, Rugby 18 is at least ten years behind the curve. No, the budgets aren’t the same, sure, the framework isn’t as advanced each year, and yes, rugby is an incredibly complex sport to capture in game form... but Rugby 18 still costs exactly the same in shops so it needs to be judged by the same criteria.
Fans of rucking and low-scoring grind-fests (should sell well in Gloucester, then) will find something to tolerate here. Anyone else - even the most ardent rugby fan with a huge tolerance for mediocrity - should avoid this like a Courtney Lawes blitz tackle. Ouch.
Rugby 18 releases on PS4, Xbox One, and PC in the UK on November 3.