No sport is tougher to translate into a videogame than rugby union, and the welcome news is that Rugby 20 is able to string a few passes together even if it ultimately gets stuck in a ruck. Two teams of 15 players on the field, all of whom have bespoke roles, slinging around a funny-shaped ball, with the nuances of rucks, mauls and line-outs to consider: little wonder even EA’s megabucks haven’t gone anywhere near the sport for 13 years. As such, you have to credit developer Eko Software for even chancing its arm at such a complex pastime. Sadly, games aren’t purchased on effort alone.
Release date: January 23, 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Those who open their wallets in exchange for Rugby 20 receive a true oddity in return. Because, well, it’s a little bit crap – yet also kind of unputdownable. A bit like sour sweets: with every bite you wince, and yet still you find yourself reaching for another, time after time. It's certainly better than the utterly woeful Rugby 2018 that we previously awarded 1 out of 5 stars in our review. In Rugby 2020, however, a stubborn battle with the game’s mechanics is one of the things that keeps you coming back for more. Clunky passing means that it’s often difficult to whip the ball along your line, from fly-half through the centres and out to the wing, without being chased down by an opponent, or conceding a knock-on. Yet that means the occasions where it does work, and you score after getting the ball out wide before dancing around the last man, feel truly joyous.
Run, pass… get stuck in a ruck
It’s a similar story with rucks: every match centres on you moving downfield by getting tackled, swamping the ball and recycling possession. It’s laborious. Yet every so often, when you whip the ball out early and nip through a gap in the defence, or overload one side of the line in order to score a try, the triumphant reward just about justifies the painful build-up. Maybe it’s an attempt to mimic the real-life battering and bruising that players go through on a Saturday afternoon? Hmm, likely not. It sort of works, though.
Nigh-on every match, regardless of team and individual abilities, plays out as described earlier. Ruck, pass, tackle. Ruck, pass, tackle. Ruck, pass, tackle. It’s a shame because scrums and mauls feature some neat mechanics, such as thrusting both sticks upwards to push, and it’s not as through there’s a shortage of sides to choose between. Four domestic competitions featuring 56 squads are included alongside 20 national teams. England, Australia and New Zealand feature fake names and kits, but again the lack of discernible differentiation in abilities mean that their genericness is of little consequence.
Most fun – and nonsensical – is the kicking game. In the real sport, a perfectly placed punt downfield can flip defence into attack, while a niftily timed grubber on the run, especially when one-on-one with an opposition full-back, can be the difference between scoring a try and being held up outside the 22.
Presentation is critical with sports games - and sadly, it’s Rugby 20’s biggest failing. Player models wouldn’t look out of place on an Xbox 360, stadiums lack atmosphere and the commentary from Nick Mullins and Ben Kay is... painfully... stitched together... much like this... sentence. There’s also no edit mode, meaning you’re stuck with everything exactly the way it comes. Even modest-budget efforts such as AO Tennis 2 and Cricket 19 are finding their way with comprehensive editing and sharing options. This staggers awfully in comparison.
Rugby 20’s kicking mechanics turn a game that wants to be a serious simulator into a playground frenzy. Hold down A for half a second to unleash a humdinger of a punt downfield, with minimal backlift, or B to trigger a grubber with barely a change in the running animation. On both occasions everything goes a bit Benny Hill, with players haring in all directions, and zero way of tracking which of your team-mates are onside. Then watch the AI return in kind, triggering the same maddening issues on defence. It’s all a hilarious pantomime, and bears little resemblance to the actual sport.
Get used to Rugby 20’s foibles and longevity comes in the form of a full league season – at least in theory. Various tactics and set plays can be tinkered with between matches, and there’s a degree of pleasure in rotating your squad to keep players fresh for each fixture. But the lack of stat tracking quickly eliminates any sense of individual achievement, and there’s no transfer market or contract negotiations to add a layer of depth. Finish the season, and that’s your lot. Game over. Again rendering the entire experience futile.
Welcome to My Squad mode
The other option for long-term commitment is My Squad mode, where you build up to four fantasy sides for online or offline play. It’s clearly influenced by FIFA’s hugely successful Ultimate Team mode, with all in-game actions scoring currency which can then be dropped on booster packs or player cards. The team-building aspect makes for a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours – we’re delighted with our back row of Manoa Vosawai, Jarrad Butler and Paul Boyle – but again, attributes mean so little in Rugby 20 that after a handful of games the lure of finding new players is lost. It’s a tidy idea, but it’s just half-heartedly implemented.
That last sentence is a potted summary of the entire game: other than an overabundance of rucks there’s nothing here to hate, yet everything feels half-baked. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you have a small-scale game studio trying to develop a complex sports simulator. But it means there’s no way to recommend this as more than an egg-shaped curiosity. Trying times, by both name and nature.
This review originally appeared in Official Xbox Magazine. Reviewed on Xbox One.