Rugby 2004 offers the excitement and brutality of international rugby competition. Over 2000 players on 95 teams -- including the Super 12, Australian League, South African League, and New Zealand League -- are available. Players can choose from a variety of game modes: European Trophy, British Tour, Bledisloe Cup, Tri Nations, World Cup, training, historical matches, and more. Seventy-five international stadiums, with four varieties of pitch conditions (soggy, normal, hard, and muddy), can be selected for a match, and the field condition changes as the match progresses. Rugby 2004's sound effects were recorded during rugby matches, while the commentary is from veterans John Inverdale and Gordan Bray.
It could be seen as commendable that EA Sports decided to cover lesser-explored territory by riffing on rugby. After all, the big bucks are on the gridiron, in the dugout, and in hockey and hoops -- so it's nice that the gaming powerhouse took a gander at the sport that evolved into modern U.S. football. Unfortunately, the intent is the only decent thing about this train wreck of a sports sim, which is even worse than the mediocre PS2 version.
Seconds after installing the game, it becomes apparent that Rugby 2004 isn't going to be the next big thing. The opening cutscenes are pixilated and hearken back to full-motion video of pre-Y2K titles. Likewise, the menu text and background looks so ... old.
The graphical woes spill onto the field, too. Even with the game's anti-aliasing turned on the field is full of jaggies. The goal posts and line markings might as well be stair steps leading up to the biggest visual disappointment of all: the character models. Eschewing texture warping to make joints look realistic, these blocky-looking brawlers look like early 3D models from games of yore, like Carmageddon 2. To say Rugby 2004's graphics are heavily dated would be a huge understatement.
Then there's the small detail of presenting a rugby sim in North America. Most of us average schmoes that didn't join a rugby-related fraternity in college have no idea how the game is played. Sadly, there's absolutely no effort into educating curious gaming consumers as to the rules -- called "Laws" -- of rugby. If you don't know a ruck from a scrum, you aren't going to learn it here. There's a couple of half-assed paragraphs in the manual and a glossary of terms, but that's about all the help you'll get besides the in-game "training pitch" (pitch means "field"), which is laughable. It tosses you onto a field with no instructions, no voiceovers, and no tutorial. Your team simply lines up and goes through the motions of the mode you selected: scrum, line out, goal kick, and other cursory sessions.
On the practice pitch and on the field, controlling the players is an exercise in frustration. Tests with multiple gamepads, both analog and digital, revealed that control is sluggish and unresponsive. The particular player you're controlling seems to change direction at random, causing you to jump around the field. Speaking of random stuff, the scrum physics feel random, too: all the thumbstick twirling and button-mashing you can muster doesn't seem to affect who wins or loses a scrum. During run plays, there's a second or so delay between you clicking the button to pass and your onscreen player actually passing, often resulting in a tackle. Even when you do manage to get a pass off, it seems that your player hurls the ball in a random direction, often to land on the field nowhere near any teammates. Computer-controlled teams make passing look effortless, flipping the ball backward from player to player until someone gets a breakaway run -- it's too bad there's no way for a human to play like that. Through it all, the commentary is repetitious and annoying.
There are several camera angles available for most plays, but for kicking plays the game defaults to an uncomfortable viewpoint showing the kicker at eye level in the center of the screen and the projected arc of the potential kick terminating at the extreme left-hand corner of the screen. Effectively aiming a kick with this POV is nearly impossible. You have no sense of the field dynamics, where your and the opposing players are.
Nuances like penalties and injuries are supposed to enhance play. In over twenty hours of testing, the only penalty that ever got called was offside, and it happened way too often. Every third or fourth time there was a tackle resulting in a maul or a ruck, one of our players would run past the trouble spot into opposing territory. Injuries, which are inevitable when grown men play a rough sport with no protective equipment, seemed to occur randomly, not tied to anything a given player did during a play.
Hot seat multiplayer with up to four humans is possible, but do you really want to drag someone else into this dank basement of sports sims? We did -- and he didn't appreciate it. The molasses controls and the other problems made us want to play a rousing LAN game of Call of Duty instead.
We could go on, but why bother? This game is an exercise in counter intuitiveness. Sure, there are almost 100 teams and 2,000 players, and it includes the Super 12 teams and the European Trophy teams. And another good point is that the computer AI is quite convincing, playing like a real rugby team. But so what? When a game plays this poorly, authenticity doesn't save it. Rugby 2004 stinks of repackaged horror from the dawn of 3D gaming.
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