Rugby 15 Review (PS4)
Rugby often gets summarized with this old chestnut: it's a savage game played by gentlemen. Well, Rugby 15 is a savage game … that should only be played by savages. It pains me to say it, but HB Studios, who showed us so much with The Golf Club, has committed a major infraction with this release — a $50 rugby simulation that's about as barebones as you can get. It's clear that some effort went into securing team and player licensing for this game, but the features, presentation and gameplay of this product are alarmingly subpar.
I'll say right up front that Rugby 15 isn't downright broken. It plays OK, if you look at it in a very casual way. However, the quality of the gameplay systems is low, and the lack of a meaningful presentation package, extra modes or online play are really big strikes against the overall offering.
I know a lot of people squirm a bit when price is brought up as a value proposition for a game, but I've always felt that it does matter. If price didn't matter, we'd be paying $200 for games. To me, the price of a game is an indicator from the developer of the relative value of something, taking into account lots of factors. Sometimes developers don't have the budget to provide triple-A presentation, for instance, and pricing something accordingly signals to the consumer that their expectations — there's that dangerous word again — should be adjusted. Everything is reviewed in context, and price is part of that context.
For Rugby 15, it's absolutely shameful that publishers are charging $50 for this product. I have to think they did this because of the licensing costs for the leagues and players, but it completely belies the scope and quality of this product. This isn't to say that a price of $20 would put this game in much better standing, but it would lower the barrier to entry, and some folks might investigate the game as a curiosity. Whatever the case, Rugby 15 is too expensive, and that's a big problem when either the feature set or gameplay don't even come close to justifying a much-lesser price tag.
So we're left with an overpriced game that has a few basic ways to play, including exhibition, custom cups and a selection of licensed cups and round robin leagues. For the purposes of full disclosure, I've always been a fan of rugby in a fairly casual sense, so a lot of this licensing depth does less for me than it does others, but I suspect this will be the main selling point for the hardcore fans. It appears that HB Studios (and the other dev teams) acquired the team licenses, and a good deal of player licenses, but they weren't able to get certain cup names. To this end, you'll see the "Six Countries" Cup and not the RBS 6 Nations Championships.
On top of the "Six Countries" Cup, there is the Four Nations, the European Trophy and the Southern 15. For season mode, you've got the Pro 12, the Pro D2, the Top 14 and the Aviva Premiership. Custom cups allow you to create your own cup, complete with logo and playoff settings. This is a nice little addition.
The biggest questions I had going into this game were: how would the developers explain the gameplay systems of rugby for new players, and what would they do to placate hardcore players? New players need context for the very idiosyncratic nature of the sport, and experienced players need to feel at home with concepts they're familiar with. Rugby 15 begins to stumble right here, as the splash screen that serves as the tutorial just doesn't give enough context for the complexities of the sport. I'm familiar enough with rugby that I know the difference between a ruck, a maul and a scrum, but what about the average user? Just the same, how about some context for penalties and fouls? Rugby 15 does none of this. Certain concepts, like penalty kicks, are obvious enough, but there needed to be more effort placed into some sort of practice mode or orientation.
For experienced players, the control scheme makes enough sense, but there just aren't options for individual play. A player can perform basic fend-off moves and sidesteps, but there are limited or non-existent options for feint passes or quick moves in tight. Frankly, a lot of the movement feels pretty floaty, and hits just seem to happen at random. You can dive into an opponent and square up with L2 (left trigger), but the nature of the Unity-powered action seems quite canned, with animation priority and input delay rearing their head quite often. Throttling the difficulty helps with some of the challenge — either not enough or too much — but the animation style just ends up leading to lots of gaps and runs that would never develop in real life.
The manic on-field action is complicated by a fairly inaccurate passing system. You can pull a trigger for a direct pass, or you can aim with a stick and hit the trigger to target specific receivers. This works sometimes, but other instances result in a seemingly easy pass floating by an intended receiver and landing on the ground. I'm all for a margin of error, but lateral passes should look and feel smooth. Often I felt that I had no clear idea of where the pass would go. This resulted in constantly using the aiming mechanic, which takes valuable time.
If a penalty is called and a scrum is initiated, a little minigame takes place to drive the scrum forward and gain ball possession. The same minigame is played for rucks (after a player is tackled) and during mauls (standing skirmish). The idea is that you find a sweet spot on a color-coded meter and attempt to secure the ball, with red being a foul, yellow being risky and green being a safe recovery. Once you have the ball, you can either run with it, kick it or pass it back. I actually liked the concept of this system for these encounters, but it's way too easy to recover the ball on a defensive ruck, when you really should have very little chance. But since the sweet spot is so easy to find, you'll constantly have possession. About the only time you'll lose the ball is at the opening of a match or if one of your passes goes awry, which as I said, will happen.
Lineouts (the throw-in from out of bounds) work about as well as you could hope for, and the kicking game is actually pretty good. Spot kicks just involve flicking the stick back and forth — like taking a swing in The Golf Club — and judging the wind correctly. Kicks during play come in all of the usual varieties for rugby, including chips, bombs, grubbers and punts. You can also soccer kick the ball when it's on the ground. I did find that the canned animations resulted in some instances where I thought I had plenty of space but then was blasted before the kick was released.
The difficulty setting is a big factor in how some elements of the game play out, with easy being far too simple and normal providing a bit of pushback from the AI. Curiously, the game doesn't lock your difficulty choice after you make it before a game, and you can't set it permanently in the options. This was frustrating, as I wanted to make a game harder during an AVIVA Premiership match, but I couldn't do so mid-game. When I backed out, it cost me a loss. Fairly strange implementation there.
When on the higher settings, the AI will play more aggressively and plug some gaps, and they definitely use kicks to drive you down the field and wedge you in. What doesn't change is the simplicity of the minigame for rucks, mauls and scrums, as you'll be able to secure the ball about 90 percent of the time. Fouls are rare if you take your time, and you'll constantly have chances to split the inconsistent defense in order to power home a try. I did have to grind a bit more when turning up the difficulty, but there are still too many openings.
Overall, the feel of the game is breezy but full of problems. The systems don't have a ton of nuance or depth, and the same sorts of strategies will yield results. I noticed some gradation between power players and speed players, but other positions and specialities seemed interchangeable from one another. Again, Rugby 15 is playable, in a basic sense, but what's here just isn't all that engaging for very long.
As a small positive, the Unity-based nature of the game does allow for some fairly speedy load times, and the menus are all clean and easy to navigate. HB Studios has clearly got that part down.
The visual package is another big knock against the overall product, as fields, players and (blurry) crowds all look like something that was possible on last generation … and even possibly on the PS2 and original Xbox. Animations are spastic and lack fluidity that you would commonly see in a top-tier sports game, and the overall movement speed seems way off. There are no dramatic camera angles, interstitials or replays, and games all just have the same flat perspectives. It gives the whole thing a very stayed, clinical feel. This might have worked for The Golf Club, but rugby is a game of emotion, and that's not translated here.
The commentary and audio offerings aren't much better, with not a lot of variety and some flat deliveries. The commentary isn't that bad, to be fair, but it loses some of the charm that was found in The Golf Club, where HB Studios actually managed to parlay a possible weakness into something sort of amusing.
Rugby 15 fails to deliver on a lot of fronts, including presentation, feature depth, gameplay systems and replay value. If this was to be a barebones rugby experience that at least played well, that would be one thing. But it doesn't even achieve a "decent" gameplay experience, and it's asking a premium price to play. It's hard to see who the audience for this game will be, as it doesn't have enough for the hardcore and lacks the context for casuals. It just doesn't bother to bring any meaningful features or gameplay depth to the table, and it wants you to pay as if it had.
Score: 3.5 (Subpar)