Games Review: Rugby 18 (PS4, 2017) doesn’t seem to understand how rugby works

If you, or someone you know, could be considered a fan of rugby then there might come a point in your life where playing Rugby 18 seems like a good idea. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. That way lies disappointment and regret because in Rugby 18, developer Eko Software have created a digital representation of a popular sport so fundamentally broken that it makes WWE 2K18 look polished.

This is upsetting because Eko have clearly set out with the very best of intentions. They’ve gone all in on licensing and the options for changing up your on-field experience are surprisingly far-reaching. Even the player models, from time-to-time, resemble actual human beings rather than shambling meat-husks powered by dark and horrible un-life, doomed to toil on a field evermore.

The gameplay that underpins all of this, however, is where it all goes horribly wrong. To simulate a sport in which 30 people must interact realistically is an admittedly tall order but Rugby 18 never feels for a moment like it’s got a handle on any part of its design — be it player AI, simple physics or even the rules of the game it’s meant to be recreating.

A good 90% of what you’ll be doing in Rugby 18 is rucking. Boy, I hope you like rucking because there’s so much of itRugby 18 takes the ugliest, most meatgrinder-y aspect of the sport in real life and attempts to deify it for reasons passing understanding. Every single time the ball is taken into contact, a dull minigame begins. It’s nothing short of a miracle for the ball to actually make it past first reciever because the instant your scrumhalf snatches the ball from the ruck, every single player you’ve got will charge inside looking to make contact. Combine this with some truly dodgy animations and what you’ll find is that by the time you receive the ball, the defence will already be flying through the air to tackle you. And so the infinite rucking grind goes on.

The AI seems to have been programmed only to seek contact because its almost impossible to form any kind of backline. As a result, every single match becomes a war of attrition, forcing you to slowly ruck your way to one end of the pitch and back again.

Amusingly, despite the pace of the game being outstripped by continental drift, the in-game commentary simply cannot keep up with anything that’s happening. Commentators Ben Key and Nick Mullins certainly have a lot to say but they could be replaced with the wah-wah sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher talking and it would still be about as relevant to what’s happening onscreen. Nothing they say actually flows together, the game stitching their soundbites together in such a way that it sounds like they’re badly reading from a script. They will literally, actually say a team’s name outloud and then go quiet for several seconds as though they’re leafing through their script looking for a corresponding phrase. I promise I’m not making this up. It’s actually that bad.

Worse still, the game habitually gets the actual rules of rugby wrong, particularly those regarding offside and penalty advantage, further baffling the algorithm handling the commentary. Out of five penalties I received, three times the commentators called it for the other team. The spectacularly stupid player AI certainly doesn’t help matters much, frequently sprinting upfield to catch their own fucking penalty kick to touch, from where they would literally throw the ball into the turned backs of the opposing team. I swear I’m not making this up.

The result of the game being a massive grind whenever it isn’t giving you brain damage, final scores are so low as to resemble a Premiere League Football match rather than rugby. One early match I played ended 3-0 after a simulated hour (no, seriously) of overtime.

The career mode seems like the only part of the experience to contain any joy whatsoever, but it pulls the rug out from under you later and is often a rather brief affair due to the game’s aforementioned drawbacks. While the game allowed me to build a 23-man squad of absolute monsters from every team in world rugby, and introduced some fun management aspects, the expectation was that you would overspend a touch to get started and then pay your debt off in a season or two. This is achievable and if you aren’t hitting those milestones then you’ll wind up with a team of no-hopers. My first season played out fine, but I didn’t secure any promotion thanks to the points gap. Season two saw me hit the promo milestone after a series whitewash. Great job, says Rugby 18, but you’re bankrupt. So sucked in, game over.

And so the campaign ends. You can’t even reload the team you spent half an hour creating, you have to go through that whole process over if you want to try again.

Rugby 18 is a miserable experience. It’s a game that reeks of that now-familiar combo of a low budget and a hard, deliver-no-matter-what release date. Fans of the sport will be sorely disappointed and everyone else will be baffled that such a mangled, unhappy thing was ever allowed to see the light of day.

Score: 3.0 out of 10
Highlights: Campaign was kind of fun the first time
Lowlights: Literally everything else; oh my god
Developer: Eko Software
Publisher: Big Ben Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.