The popularity of rugby league may be confined to relatively small pockets of Australasia and northern England, but that’s not to say the sport’s first foray onto current generation consoles has been anything other than hotly anticipated.
Fans of the Super League and NRL are well known for being vociferous in their support; and, if the buzz that’s been generated on social media is any indication, the same is certainly true when it comes to their dedication to rugby league in video game form.
Enter Rugby League Live 3, the latest attempt to appease RL fans from indie outfit Big Ant Studios, who have helmed the series since its first outing in 2010. Being rugby league fans ourselves, we were lucky enough to recently spend the day at UK publisher Alternative Software’s studios getting to grips with a near-complete pre-release beta copy of the game. By the end of our marathon five-hour play session, we were left feeling as though RLL3’s September 17 UK release date couldn’t come around quickly enough.
Sports game franchises are often associated with the fear that developers may slip into the lazy habit of simply applying a fresh lick of paint and updated rosters to the same engine they’ve been using for years, but we’re happy to say that this isn’t the case at all with Rugby League Live 3. While the game does build on some of basic groundwork laid by its 2012 predecessor, its engine and presentation has received a complete overhaul, and the result is the most authentic rugby league game we’ve ever played.
While Rugby League Live 2 received middling reviews upon its release, Big Ant’s most recent sports sim, Don Bradman Cricket, earned a much more favourable critical response after releasing earlier in the year, and it’s clear that the developers have learnt a lot from their debut on PS4 and Xbox One.
Perhaps the most obvious and immediate improvement from previous titles is the game’s overall presentation. When RLL3’s unobtrusive and polished main menu first booted up, we were understandably keen to jump straight into the action, and this is made easy here. Players are able to dive quickly into a casual match, in which they can play as one of the 100+ teams included in the title. A full-line up of Australia’s NRL, as well as the European Super League and Kingston Press Championship and Championship 1, are available for users to choose from. A plethora of international teams (though mostly unlicensed) are also present, along with Australian representative (State of Origin, City vs. Country) and feeder clubs.
With the NRL and Super League having slightly different rulesets and other minor variations, Big Ant Studios have ensured they’ve catered to fans from both hemispheres. All matches are fully user-customisable, from the game length and match difficulty level, to the time of day, weather conditions, pitch markings and extra time rules. Presets, including Grand Final and State of Origin decider, also make adjustments to the match-day presentation to give them that ‘big game’ feel.
In terms of Rugby League Live 3’s core gameplay mechanics, its control system is essentially an enhanced version of RLL2’s, which is no bad thing given it was perfectly serviceable last time around. At its most basic, the shoulder buttons are used to pass, and the face buttons are used to perform different types of open-play kicks or tackles, depending on whether you’re in attack or defence.
While that’s actually an oversimplification of things, it illustrates the fact that new players are able to jump straight into the action in Rugby League Live 3, even if they possess only the most basic understanding of rugby league or the game’s more advanced control mechanisms.
It’s in these advanced gameplay options where the game really comes into its own, however, so it’s definitely worth spending the time to get to grips with the various button combinations and configurations available. In defence, players have the arm pin tackle, ankle tap, low tackle, big hit and drag tackle at their disposal, all of which have their own pros and cons and require a degree of effective game-reading to execute at the correct time. For example, the arm pin tackle may prevent an offload, but you risk giving away a penalty for a head-high shot if you come flying in too fast, while the low tackle is safer in that regard but may leave you vulnerable to the opposition player offloading the ball to a well-placed teammate.
In attack, either shoulder button (for left and right) can be combined with one of the face buttons to perform a cut-out pass to one of three players, while a number of tackle evasion tactics, including the fend, hit up and sidestep, are also available using the right stick. Kicking in general play is of huge importance to the sport of rugby league, and the chip, grubber, bomb and field goal attempt are all present here, and are mapped to the various face buttons – with the rear left shoulder button being used to target these more accurately. For placed kicks and conversions, you’re faced with an intuitive power and accuracy meter, and must take into account the current wind conditions when lining up your attempt.
During the game’s development, Big Ant recruited a number of former professional players to advise its programmers on some of the tactical minutiae that comes together to make rugby league the unique game it is. In Rugby League Live 3, the increased emphasis on positional importance (you can use the D-pad to set a sliding or compressed defence and call your wingers up the field) and the AI’s general reading of the game benefits hugely from their input, rewarding users who understand the nuances of certain types of play through increased and realistic scoring opportunities.
From a presentation point of view, the game benefits hugely from being on the PS4 and Xbox One. The licensed stadiums featured in Rugby League Live 3 look stunning, tackle and movement animations are smoother than ever before, and much of the visual polish, including the authentic broadcast presentation from the aforementioned Don Bradman Cricket, has carried over here. The default camera angle can be adjusted to any number of alternatives, and a vastly improved replay mode allows you to relive your best tries and hit ups. The game’s commentary, made up of lines recorded by the duo Andrew Voss and Phil Gould, is the only area where RLL3 falls a little flat, although enhancements made to the crowd and ambient audio more than make up for this, and generally provide a realistic in-game atmosphere.
While the vast majority of Australia’s NRL superstars featured in the game are fairly accurate representations of their real life counterparts, the same unfortunately can’t be said of the Super League and Championship players. Due to image right restrictions over in these shores, even the most popular of English players are reduced to being generic or caricatured versions of themselves.
It’s not all bad news on that front, however. One of Don Bradman Cricket’s most popular features, the Cricket Academy, has made the jump to Rugby League Live 3, where it’s now repurposed as the RLL3 FanHub. The innovative cross-platform player creation suite, which has been available as a free download on Steam for the past several months and will be included in all retail versions of the game, allows users to edit all facets of existing in-game squads, all the way from individual players’ appearances to shirt sponsors and kit styles. It also allows players to create their own teams and superstars from scratch.
Users will then be able to share their creations and download the work of others – regardless of which platform they’re playing on or where the content was initially uploaded from. With rugby league fans being so passionate about their hometown clubs and players, it surely means that not only will you be able to download more accurate looking English players, but you’ll even be able to import the likes of RL exiles Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams into your game.
Perhaps the most anticipated feature of Rugby League Live 3 is its all-new career modes, and we got to spend some considerable time sampling each of the Star Player, Rookie, and Coach options. One of the most-requested features for the series, the Star Player mode, is clearly inspired by the likes of FIFA’s Be a Pro, allowing users to guide their selected player on their own individual career. Gameplay-wise, matches are played out from the perspective of your player, who is the only squad member you have control over during each game. The camera is locked on your chosen superstar, with a FIFA-inspired HUD next to your stamina meter indicating your optimal position at any given time. Similar to RLL3’s other career modes, players embark on a full season of rugby league action, and while winning as a team is certainly important, you must also gain XP by completing various general and per-match individual objectives.
These points in turn allow you to upgrade your star player’s abilities. Perform well and you’ll reap your rewards through increased wages and attributes; play poorly, however, and you might find yourself substituted and eventually transfer listed. Temporary boosts in abilities can also be purchased with in-game currency prior to each match. Rookie Player mode plays out almost identically, except for the fact that you must create your own fresh-faced player (or import one from the FanHub), starting out in the lower leagues and trying to force your way into the big time.
Meanwhile, the Coach career option is more of a team game, with you not only controlling all of your squad during matches, but also being responsible for the overall running of the club: from selecting sponsors and scouts, to selecting your side and negotiating your players’ wages. From the time we spent playing this particular mode, it also appears that a recruitment window opens in June of each season, allowing for mid-season transfer opportunities.
Other game options present include various skill and training drills, as well as custom tournaments. Although the online matchmaking modes were locked down in the version of the game we were given access to, Big Ant have promised a much more refined experience this time around, including online tournaments and the ability for users to filter their opponents by location.
Overall, Rugby League Live 3 has come on leaps and bounds from its humble predecessors. Big Ant Studios are self-proclaimed rugby league fans themselves, and through this understanding of the intimate workings of the sport, they’ve managed to create a game that rugby league fans will truly appreciate. While its developers have understandably been quick to distance RLL3 from being a competitor to the likes of EA’s big-budgeted behemoths FIFA and Madden, it certainly will be competing strongly for our time when September 17 rolls around.