Rugby League is a simple game. Tough, physical, but simple. That’s part of the appeal. Sure, in every game there may be two or three moments of genius from a Johnathan Thurston, but even those moments will be on the back of forwards hitting the line hard, falling forward, and playing the ball quickly.
All of which poses problems for Big Ant Studios, the Australian developers of Rugby League Live 4. You need to have those flashy, spectacular, game winning moments. The perfectly timed offload, the side-step and fend, and the fifty meter sprint to score in the corner. But those moments make up five percent of the game. Most of the time you’ll be tackling, hitting the ball up, and kicking.
It’s a delicate balance for a video game. In the past there has been some criticism of the Rugby League games. Offloading was too easy. Every set where you didn’t score a try was a disappointment. This year it’s changed. Passes after contact, or too close to the defensive line, usually result in someone getting smashed and coughing up the ball.
Which is all fine, but it means hitting the ball up, tackling, and kicking. The core of the game, needs to be challenging, enjoyable, and rewarding. It needs to be something you’re happy to do over and over again. Unfortunately, Rugby League Live 4 doesn’t quite get there.
The way it all works is you move your player with the left stick, and side-step and fend with the right stick. Also, if you click the right stick just before contact you can try to drive through the tackle. If you are on defense, this will put in a big hit. While it all sounds fine, every hit-up consists of wiggling the stick and hoping something happens.
The stick wiggling also continues after contact. When you’ve made the tackle you can hold the player down, even drag him into touch, or fight to get up and play the ball quickly – again, all with stick wiggling. Although, you do need to listen to the calls from the ref because holding down your opponent too long will result in a penalty. Too many penalties and you’ll end up in the sin-bin.
Stick wiggling I can do, but I have a bit more trouble when it comes to kicking. As any team with an average kicking game knows, a good kick is essential. Grubbers I can do. Press a button, and that’s it. To kick long you first need to pass the ball to the right player, hold the button down until a target circle appears on the field, move the target with the left stick, and release to kick. All in the couple of seconds it takes for the defense to get you. In a week of playing, I’ve yet to make a good kick.
If it seems like I’m focusing on the controls a bit, I am. While there are tutorials, they’re limited, and kind of rubbish. I still don’t know how to kick properly, but I also have no idea how the play calling mechanic works, and I still get into a total mess when it comes to switching between defensive players.
Despite all that, I’m having fun. As well as the NRL, I’ve played in the UK Super League and Auckland 9’s, as well as State of Origin and Test matches. I’ve created a fast and powerful second rower who has made the Warrior’s starting lineup, despite suffering major knee and shoulder injuries.
Most fun of all, I have a positive winning record online. Believe me, I’m as shocked about this as anyone. I have to admit I won my first game after my opponent’s game froze and I walked through his team and scored, then he had a perfectly good try disallowed by the bunker, before I got a intercept in the last quarter. Remember, never offload – it just isn’t worth it.
But it’s not a deep nor comprehensive online mode – you can only play quick or custom matches. Although, with the custom match you can either create your own game or choose from a list. The best thing online though is the fanhub. Excellent versions of all the leading players are there, with the likes of Sonny-Bill Williams and Israel Folau. You can also create and share referees, teams, stadiums, and competitions.
If you compare Rugby League Live 4 to other major sports games, it’s going to come up short. It’s not a criticism, there’s just no way around it. So, what a game like Rugby League Live 4 needs to do is decide what it has to get right, and concentrate on getting that thing right. By focusing on the hit-up and wrestle, Big Ant Studios are on the right track.
A few years ago the NHL games made fighting something you had to avoid at all costs. You always lost and always ended up in the penalty box. It was never worth it. It feels like Rugby League Live 4 is going the same way with offloads. They hardly ever come off and usually end up as a knock-on or intercept.
Rugby League is a simple game. If you want to maintain a winning record, focus on rucking it up hard, holding on to the ball, and kicking deep. And avoid playing me online. It’s not worth it.
Dene received a digital copy of Rugby League Live 4 from developer Big Ant for review.