It seems like only yesterday that everyone was embracing the oval-shaped ball playing antics, due to World Cup fever. Even I, as someone who usually avoids rugby union, actually found joy from the 2019 tournament which took place in Japan. There’s arguably no better time to release a new game to satiate the needs of both long-time rugby fans and newcomers, especially with the 2020 Six Nations Championship currently underway. Stepping onto the field and into the limelight is Rugby 20, but can it capitalise on the buzz still surrounding the sport?
Even for those gamers venturing into Rugby 20 on Xbox One with restrained expectations after playing previous rugby titles which have faltered, there’s still an air of disappointment engulfing this latest offering from publishers Bigben and developers EKO Software. It’s not terrible, but it’s certainly lacking in a few areas.
Focusing on the gameplay first, and the core of it hasn’t changed much over the years because, let’s face it, it’s restricted by the sport itself. Essentially you kick off, pass the ball left or right a few times, maybe have a little run, get tackled, then rinse and repeat for the rest of the match. The passing is executed quite well though, in terms of swiftness and the ease in which it allows you throw the ball further by holding the bumper buttons for longer. Accuracy is an issue however; numerous times a pass simply bypasses everyone and the thrower looks incredibly awkward on most occasions they’re seen throwing the ball. A loose ball is one thing you definitely don’t want, because recovering it is a real bother when players just wander past it before finally picking up in the next attempt or two.
To make matters slightly worse, the whole team comes across as being oddly tentative before, during and after a ruck – a situation which is a regular occurrence in open play. Telling a member of the line-up to join the ruck is a simple button press, but watching them meander over to participate is excruciating. Will they eventually join, or merely dilly-dally in the surrounding area? Who knows, so just cross your fingers and hope for the best. In fact, the positioning of players in general is a bit of a pain; seeing the lads in no hurry to give you an extra option to pass to, with some turning their back on the play and being utterly useless.
The only way to implement consistent structure to the team is to trigger one of the new features – set plays. It’s like choosing from an NFL playbook, albeit less elaborate and done in real-time before extracting the ball out of a ruck. Almost immediately the players fall in line and there’s even some handy symbols on the field to remind you when to instigate a pass. Set plays are great in principal, but the practicality of pulling one off that involves more than two passes is questionable due to the other team being on top of you promptly. Still, they’re a welcome addition alongside a number of new tactical options for attacking and defensive systems.
Nothing else has really changed in the gameplay department since Rugby 18, which means the focus now switches to the game modes. At first sight, it appears as if the career mode has been scrapped completely, but instead they’ve actually merged it into Solo; the Ultimate Team styled My Squad offering. You’ll take a random bunch of players into either the French or Celtic leagues, with the aim being to win games to get promoted, whilst also earning in-game currency for opening packs of cards. Even with a couple of flaws in the way the team upgrades and training costs are overpriced, there’s no doubt Solo is the best mode in Rugby 20 for longevity.
Sadly, the only other mode with depth is League, which literally consists of a one-off season in Top 14, Pro D2, Gallagher Premiership, Pro 14 or the Nations’ Trophy. These are very lacklustre to play because there’s no hiring or firing, no chance of improving the player’s stats, and once the season is done, it’s like you were never really there. The thought of taking an International team to claim the Nations’ Trophy is enticing, until you notice squads like England, New Zealand and South Africa are unlicensed. Fortunately the club-based leagues have the necessary licenses to ensure you’ve got all your favourites from those.
After that, and in terms of offline options, you’ll be left with just a quick match against the A.I. or a friend locally. There are always online matches to venture into though, right? Yes, presuming you can find an opponent or convince a mate to partake in a private match. Even if you manage to get a game, there’s not much point to them and you wonder why there isn’t a rankings system in place with online divisions and such.
Rugby 20 doesn’t do itself any favours in the visual department either, with a look of a game that wouldn’t be out of place at the latter end of the previous gen. The player models won’t be easily recognised and the stadia featured are simply bland, bereft of any character. On the audio side of proceedings, the commentary is pretty terrible and the splicing together of sound bites to create a sentence is rather obvious to the ear. And the less said about the irritatingly repetitive menu music, the better.
Any and all new-found excitement you have for rugby union will be drained from you in Rugby 20 on Xbox One, mainly due to the gameplay being too hit and miss. The game modes are in short supply and the online offerings are dire compared to other major sports games. Granted, the Solo mode provides a bit of longevity and a couple of the new features hit the mark, but when you weigh it all up Rugby 20 is finely balanced as a bang average – at best – sporting experience.
Will Rugby 20 scratch the short term itch for the die-hard fans? Probably just about, but everyone else should avoid kicking off and instead take a seat on the sidelines.