It has long been a point of contention that rugby union hasn’t had a decent video game in a very long time.
For many, Jonah Lomu Rugby, released in 1997, remains the pinnacle – a time capsule filled with Bill McLaren’s jokes that may never be surpassed.
For some, EA Sports’ efforts – culminating in Rugby 08 – are the most beautiful virtual form of rugby we’ve seen. Many devoted fans are still tweaking the title some 15 years after its release with updated squads, kits and stadiums. That was 2007.
Since then, it’s been a long wait for something resembling a quality game. In that time, rugby league and cricket have had a lot of decent games made by independent publishers.
Rugby Union may have seen a few titles made by smaller publishers since Codemasters and EA Sports lost interest, but nothing really stands out as a good game.
Rugby World Cup 2011 was a scaled down port of the Rugby 08 engine, just with fewer features.
Rugby 15 and Rugby World Cup 2015 were bare bones titles with forgettable gameplay and even less in the way of replayability.
The Rugby Challenge series was just a bizarre series of games, starting out promising before ending with recycled, bug-laden games as the copied and pasted game engine got around to developers and publishers.
However, the only positives about them are the career mode – archaic in terms of modern sports games, but at least similar to a traditional career mode – and the ability to edit and create players.
We’ll come back to them later.
Which brings us to Rugby 22, the third in the series of games developed by EKO Software and published by Nacon and BigBen Interactive.
The first, Rugby 18, was a bit of a mess. Rugby 20 was a more refined title, with a lot of promise.
Does Rugby 22 build on that promise? Well yes and no.
In terms of gameplay, this game is probably the closest we’ve come to capturing modern day rugby, and it’s certainly the best game on the pitch since Rugby 08.
While it’s not perfect, and the game may reward you or the computer for essentially breaking long, looping miss passes of rucks, it flows better than previous iterations.
The players’ movements feel fluid more often than not, and there are moments that really suck you in.
In one game as Cardiff, hitting New Wales call-up James Ratti with a short ball to make a clean break in the middle felt exactly how a mobile attacker marching away should feel.
So does some of the interplay in the wider channels when playing as France, Fiji or any other freewheeling team. Passing feels sharper and cleaner, but you’re also more likely to be punished for forcing things.
Unlike Rugby 20, you can’t just make contact and throw a 20-meter pass like it’s nothing.
As a result, many of the tries feel deserved as you have to get through the stages properly to score. The implementation of tactics and pods – advertised as new, but largely available in Rugby 20 – only help with that.
There’s something very rewarding about setting up a forward pod before pulling the ball back to the fly-half behind it to move it wide. For example, playing as Wales is a nice way to get the ball to your strike runners, which feels natural rather than just spamming mispasses all the time.
Crossing the whitewash makes goal kicking, which was insanely difficult in the previous game, a little more forgiving.
But of course there are also flaws. Spades still feel a bit redundant – with up-and-unders virtually impossible to collect despite a new catch feature.
Defending sometimes feels a bit of a chore, with less control and more luck than for example Rugby 08.
Graphically, there are times when the game looks decent. There are times, however, when it feels a bit like FIFA 2002, with some of the lighting creating creepy-looking faces that project just a little too much emotion. Of course, graphics aren’t overly important and don’t really ruin the immersion.
Overall, though, there’s probably more to Rugby 22 than not. It’s not perfect, but if you want to play rugby in a style that matches Fiji, Exeter or Harlequins, you’re more than capable of it.
Not that you would see the last two teams in the game. The Gallagher Premiership license is missing and while the French leagues and United Rugby Championship are there, it is a huge blow to a game that ends up with fewer official teams than the previous release.
Where you really feel the effect of this is in the game’s “career mode”, which I don’t like to call a career mode.
Essentially, it’s a FIFA-style Ultimate Team card game, where a relentless series of matches earns you points to buy Panini-style packs, using cards from random players to improve your custom team.
But with the lack of a Premiership license, many of the players are randomly generated and unlicensed meaning your team could easily be filled with Joe Bloggs multiplied instead of Antoine Dupont or Louis Rees-Zammit.
Being the main draw of Rugby 22, it takes the longevity of the game seriously. There’s a league mode, but it’s a one-season thing. You can fulfill your fantasy to win the URC with the Dragons, but once you’re done, you’re done. There is no second season, no recruiting or anything like that.
That’s the problem with the game. You can’t push it far beyond the boundaries of the field.
It’s a good time to come back to the two positives of the Rugby Challenge series: the career mode and player creation/editing. How Rugby 22 desperately needs these two features.
The career mode section speaks for itself. If Nacon and Big Ben really want to make it a series of games that can grow, the first thing they need to do is replace the card-based career mode with one with recruitment based on choice rather than luck. That cannot be emphasized enough.
The other is the ability to edit teams and players. At this time, you cannot move players from one team to another, nor can you edit stats or create new players.
The squads in this game aren’t perfect, and neither are the ratings. Sam Parry has the same rating of 87 as Alun Wyn Jones, with some regions missing big names completely.
Leigh Halfpenny may be injured, but it would still be nice to see him on the Scarlets squad somewhere. Being able to move players, edit skills and create new players would not only fix the mistakes made by the developers, but also breathe some much-needed life into a game that can get old quickly.
That’s largely the problem with Rugby 22. It doesn’t take long for you to wonder why you should play it.
Despite all the promises on the field, that’s a problem the developers will have to solve when there’s a fourth title in the series.
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