Outside of football, the other football and a handful of other North American pastimes, it’s tough being a video game-playing sports fan. While there’s fans all around the world for countless different sports, so much of the money is tied up in just a handful of yearly franchises. Rugby 20 is the latest attempt to capture the sport, just in time for this year’s Six Nations.
But you won’t have all of the official teams from the Six Nations in the game. BigBen and Eko have had to pick up licenses here and there. You have Wales, Ireland and Scotland, you have the Pro 14, Top 14 and English Gallagher Premiership and a bunch of others, but there’s notable omissions that include the England, South Africa and New Zealand national sides. Getting to the ‘Nations Cup’ final and facing off against the Not Quite All Blacks just doesn’t have the same feel, and as with so many sports games it’s a shame that they’re not able to tap into a centralised license.
Still, just as with PES for football, it’s really all about the action on pitch more than it is the licenses. Given the complexity of the sport, the various different phases and set plays that you have to take part it, it takes a little longer to get used to the controls for a novice player. For whatever reason it doesn’t put first time players into a tutorial, and even if you independently head to the tutorials section, you’ll be met with a string of basic lessons that don’t really manage to cover more advanced play.
It doesn’t take too long to master the controls, though. Passing is handled to the left and right by the shoulder buttons, tackling is simple enough to mash the button in regular play, and rucking has you throwing bodies into the pile, timing a flick of the right stick to add impact and tap to secure the ball. Get those basics figured out and you’ll be able to grind down an opponent, battering away with your front row until you can quickly throw it wide and try to make a break with a winger. It’s rugby 101.
You do have other options, though. You’ve got time to consider your options after securing the ball, with 20 seconds ticking down before you’re forced to move on. That lets you wait for your attacking line to reset, and gives you the chance to simply pass, do a quick box kick and chase, or pick a set play that sends runners in sweeping crossing motions marked on the pitch, acting like a kind of quick time event as they move on rails and you simply time the passes.
It’s a valiant effort to capture some of the attractive attacking play that can make high class rugby so exhilarating to watch, but that long set up phase saps the feeling of momentum from the game unless you’re doing quick passes out wide. Even then, you rarely feel like there’s a player on your shoulder to really offload to and get sucked into tackles.
You also lose fluidity when play is stopped by penalties. Advantage is played, but penalties are still frequent in the game, leading to kicks at goal, line outs and scrums. Line outs are pretty straightforward, scrums have a QTE to bind, set and engage before a stick-twiddling battle for supremacy that’s brutally difficult against tougher AI. Those are fine, but kicks at goal are infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t aim the kick outside of the kicking position, and have to time stick flicks to get just the right power and apply enough after touch. It’s simple between the posts, but nigh on impossible at any kind of angle or distance.
The opposition AI can put in a decent effort at holding you up, but on Semi-Pro, if you’ve got even half a clue on how to counter-ruck, you can turn over the ball with impunity, letting you march down the field and start battering away at their try line. On Pro and you’ll feel like you’re running into a brick wall a lot of the time. The one real issue is the regularity with which they make the most sinful of fouls. They’ll pick up your players and dump them on the floor and clothesline you, picking up yellow cards and stays in the sin bin two or three times a game. Honestly, most of them should be straight reds.
Rugby 20 somehow manages to be fairly entertaining – I kind of want to play more of it, now that I’ve got a handle of the game mechanics, stuck the difficulty on Pro and have accepted that it’s a video game instead of a simulation – but it’s also amusingly wonky and even broken at times.
The main gameplay issue is that there’s no real consistency to the ball physics and the speed and momentum of players. Seeing players scurrying to a scrum halfway across the pitch, or suddenly sprinting as fast as Usain Bolt to run in a try from the other end of the field is equal parts amusing and frustrating. At the breakdown, players madly scramble to get back to their positions for the next play instead of fluidly adopting roles, and that leads to the annoyance of the scrum half never committing to the ruck themselves, sometimes leading to a turnover. And then there’s just the way that the ball floats through the air, only to then snap into player hands, how tacklers can snap into positions, and on and on…
Alongside regular quick play and tournaments, there’s also Solo, a mode that is to FIFA Ultimate Team what candy sticks are to cigarettes. As you play, you earn experience and currency that can be used to unlock various in-game packs for the game’s team building mode set in the French and Irish lower leagues. It’s FUT Lite, with no microtransactions or feel of gambling, no player contracts to worry about, minimal effects of team cohesion. It feels like it’s trying to capture the zeitgeist, when a more traditional manager mode would have fit the game better.