This week we got our hands on the latest rugby league video game, Rugby League Live 2, for an exclusive play-test.
Rugby league games in the past have felt a little like the poor cousin to many other sport titles, but this latest incarnation finally bridges that gap.
It looks and feels like a proper game this time, and it’s got the gameplay and depth, including the much needed career mode, to go with it.
More on the game modes later, the most important thing is the gameplay.
Passing has undoubtedly improved, with the options for quick pass, flat passes and cut out passes. The whole attacking element of the game has been further transformed by the introduction of running lines, so that you can see the angles your players are going to run immediately from the play the ball.
Your props are props, your wingers are wingers. Players generally stick to their positions, and this makes for a much more realistic game. Pick an option from dummy half, and time your passes right to execute the play that you want. The controls for passing remain the same – L1/R1 + O/X/^ to select the recipient of your pass.
Press L1 and a double tap of O and you’ll send an inviting flat pass to one of your runners, who will run on to the ball with momentum, with much greater chance of breaking the line. Too many times in the old game, your players would receive the ball at an angle or at a standstill, and there was little chance of gaining momentum.
It’s a lot more fluid this time, and this applies to when you do make those line breaks. Sidesteps and fends can be executed with a flick of the analog stick, and now passing the ball around the full back is a lot more likely than in the old game, meaning you can turn those breaks in to tries.
There’s a slight alteration to scoring tries too – you now have to double tap  to slide over for a try, whereas a single tap will just place the ball down. This can potentially help when you’re being chased, you’re in the corner or you want to have a scoot over from dummy half.
There is a learning curve to the game, and particularly out of dummy half. At first, we found the dummy half to be quite static, and it was difficult to gain any momentum from it, but it turns out timing to pressing the buttons is key. Rather than button bash too, it’s important to wait for your dummy half to make the pass you’ve requested, as he times it right to bring in the dummy runners and the other players who are on their set lines.
Speaking of the learning curve, there’s a few alterations and changes to the buttons. R2 is now sprint, and X and O are now quick kick options. These are useful for kicking in difficult situations, although we did find that we were accidentally kicking the ball on a few instances when we were trying out flat passes with L1/R1 + O. For more measured and targeted kicks, holding L2 and then pressing the appropriate kick button executes the kicks, and allows you to add length and direction.
In defence, there are a three tackling options – low tackle (X), dive tackle (^) and arm-grip tackle (O). The latter is the most effective, but also the most liable to high tackles. Offloads are prevalent too, and you really feel like the ball is a lot more “loose” than it has been previously – meaning if you opt to offload out of a tackle, the player will try. Of course, if you make the wrong decision, then it may result in a forward pass or a knock on.
Decision making is another key function of the game, which adds to the realism. If you throw out a poor pass, or decide to offload in a bad situation, then you will get punished for it. There is an issue with interceptions, which occurred far more frequently than they should – Lee Briers had a field day when we played Warrington – although we put that down to us trying to be overly expansive. Players will be rewarded for more disciplined and realistic play.
You can strip the ball in the tackle, and hold down if you so wish, we were penalised a few times for holding the player even in a stand-up tackle. The big hit cut scenes seem to have disappeared from the old game, although there are now instances where the attacking player will bounce off an impact from a defender. We had one instance where Ryan Bailey bounced back off a defender and was then able to offload, whereas other times, the attacker was wrapped up at the second attempt.
Player size and attributes are now much more realistic. Although the UK teams don’t have official player likeness, there is a least some resemblance to their real-life counterparts. You’ll also find that props have much more impact when running a hit up, than say a half-back. Likewise, if you break through with a forward, he is much more likely to get caught than a winger would be.
All player details can be edited in the Footy Factory, which is the game customisation engine. This enables you to edit any existing players appearance or stats, as well as create your own players and teams. There are tonnes of options to choose from. Also part of this section is “Team Management”, which will be key in helping you keep all the squads up to date with all the latest signings.
While the gameplay and graphics are a marked improvement, a big step for the game is the re-introduction of Career Mode.
It was included in Rugby League 3 (available on Wii only) but then excluded from the first Rugby League Live game, which really limited its shelf-life.
Once you’ve selected your team, you can then select a sponsor, who will reward you if you reach certain objectives throughout the season – you can choose from five options, perhaps choosing by selecting the most realistic objective.
The funds a sponsor pays go in to your finances, and this will determine how much money you can spend on coaches, which in turn help improve the quality of your players. You can set your players on certain training regimes too, to help improve their game.
You of course manage your team week-in, week-out, through the trials and tribulations of a season. Players get injured, and also in a neat feature, are cited by the disciplinary panel, where you can appeal bans, dispute charges or submit early guilty pleas, to determine how long a player might be missing for.
The main draw of Career Mode is of course the ability to sign players from other teams. Unfortunately, this is only possible at the end of each season, where you can offer new contracts to your out of contract players, or scour the market for other players. There is a powerful search engine that enables you to find available players both in Super League and the NRL, although there doesn’t appear to be a way you can sign players that are under contract, meaning you may have to wait a few seasons to lure some of your favourites.
Another slight disappointment is that real Championship players don’t appear in career mode – you cannot play as a Championship team anyway, although they do appear in cup competitions on the results page. Instead, a number of re-gens, or made-up young players, fill the rosters, and you can sign them for your Career Mode team.
All negotiations take place in real time – so as soon as you offer a deal, you know whether you’ve been successful or not. Players may opt to sign elsewhere, or to stay at their current club, but you’ll know right away. You need to ensure you stay on salary cap, while also ensuring you have the appropriate number of players in your first team squad.
All in all though, the Career Mode is a welcome addition, and certainly adds to the game. While it’s not at the depth of say the Career Mode on games like Madden and NHL, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Also heading in the right direction are the graphics, which are really crisp and clean, and it certainly looks and feels like a proper sports game. The kits are perfect, and the stadiums have been rendered excellently too.
Although Championship fans can’t play as their team in Career Mode, you can play out a full league season in Competition Mode. Other modes include Training, which enable you to hone your skills in kicking, passing, tackling and more.
The video ref is back, and so are cheerleaders, for an interesting add-on. The commentary team remains Australian, although Andrew Voss is now joined by Phil Gould.
All Super League, Championship and Championship 1 sides are included, all with their proper kits and teams, which are up to date from the 2012 season. There were hints that downloadable updates may be available in the New Year, but there is a section within the game that makes updating the squads easy.
Stadiums are limited to Super League and the NRL, and perhaps slightly disappointingly in World Cup year, only three national teams are included. However, one thought that crossed our mind, was is there potential for a World Cup version of the game, much like Rugby League 2?
As with many things, rugby league has almost felt like a second class citizen in video games of the past, but this game will appeal to not just rugby league fans, but sports fans too.
The fluidity of the passing and the introductions of the player running lines is a big addition to the game, which is now a more realistic rugby league sim. The interceptions issue has the potential to become a source of criticism, but it may just be a case of adapting your style of play to the realistic nature of the game.
It’s definitely worth a purchase, and as ever, it’s important that rugby league fans get behind the game to help improve the series further in future.