With the domestic rugby league seasons now drawing to a close in the game’s heartlands of Australia and the UK, it’s left to independent developer Big Ant Studios to provide fans with their NRL and Super League fix during the off-season. Rugby League Live 3 is the studio’s latest entry in a series they’ve helmed since 2010, and their first attempt to translate the sport onto current-gen consoles.
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 I’m 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 gameplay engine and presentation have received a complete overhaul, and the result is the most authentic rugby league game I’ve ever played.
While Rugby League Live 2 received middling reviews upon its release on last-gen consoles, 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 main menu first booted up, we were relieved to see that it was much more unobtrusive and polished than its predecessors, which made it much easier to jump straight into a match.
After selecting to play a Casual match, you’ll be greeted by the team selection screen, which features a full-line up of Australia’s NRL, as well as the European Super League and Kingston Press Championship and Championship 1. A plethora of international teams (though mostly unlicensed) are also present, along with Australian representative (State of Origin, City vs. Country, NRL All-Stars vs. Indigenous All-Stars) and feeder clubs. With these adding up to over a hundred playable teams in total, users should find plenty of value and variety from exhibition games alone.
With the NRL and Super League having slightly different rulesets and other minor variations such as the number of referees on the field, Big Ant 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. Preset match types, including Grand Final and State of Origin Decider, also make adjustments to the match-day atmosphere, such as trophy presentations and the singing of the national anthem, 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 that it was perfectly serviceable last time around. At its most basic, L1 and R1 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 L1 or R1 (for left and right) can be combined with one of the face buttons to perform a cut-out (double-tap) or looping (hold down) 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 L2 being used to target these more accurately. For placed kicks and conversions, you’re faced with an intuitive power and accuracy meter that resembles a golf swing, 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) benefits hugely from their input, rewarding users who understand the nuances of certain types of play through increased and realistic scoring opportunities in attack, and likewise, try-saving opportunities in defence.
That being said, one area where Rugby League Live 3 needs a little bit of work is in the balancing of AI play. On the lower difficulty levels, Big Ant seem to rely a lot on overpowering the fends and sidesteps performed by players to provide them with easier matches, rather than actually changing all that much about the style of rugby the AI employs. On the hardest difficulty, meanwhile, it is almost impossible to make any yards in attack in the conventional way of carrying the ball up due to a hugely overpowered AI defensive line-up. As a result, players are forced to resort to other tactics, like kicking early in the tackle count and playing ‘hot potato’ rugby to make any real territorial progress – which feels a little unrealistic and counter-intuitive.
The most obvious issue with the game’s AI involves their defensive line during clean breaks. If you happen to make a quick run from dummy-half or exploit a gap in defence, you’ll often find the opposing team continuing to run backwards for several paces before turning around to chase your player down. By this time, you’ll likely already be heading for a four-pointer, and it can result in the rather funny, but nevertheless annoying, prospect of a bulky front-rower outrunning a flighty half-back.
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.
However, the game’s commentary, made up of lines recorded by the Australian duo of Andrew Voss and Phil Gould, is another area where RLL3 falls a little flat. The pair fail to inject any real enthusiasm or passion into their canned lines, and their occasional attempts at light-hearted banter between one another feel especially forced. Recycled commentary lines from previous instalments in the series are certainly excusable, but not when the announcers refer to a handful of teams, including Salford Red Devils, by names the clubs in question haven’t used for several years.
Thankfully, the enhancements Rugby League Live 3 brings to its crowd and ambient audio more than compensate for this disappointment, providing a realistic in-game atmosphere where the fans in attendance react dynamically to the action on the pitch. You’ll most likely end up playing with the commentary muted, and come away feeling a lot better for it.
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 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 are then 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 means not only will you be able to download more accurate-looking Super League players, but you’ll even be able to import the likes of RL exiles Sam Burgess, Jarryd Hayne and Sonny Bill Williams into your game.
Perhaps the most anticipated feature of Rugby League Live 3 is its all-new career modes, and Big Ant have exceeded expectations here. One of the most requested features for the series, the Star Player mode, which is clearly inspired by the likes of FIFA’s Be a Pro, allows 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. Relegation and promotion and the Super 8s structure from Super League’s 2015 season have made the cut, although the Super 8s structure in-game is inaccurate due to the fact that teams do not keep their points from the regular season as they do in real life (although this is due to be addressed in a forthcoming patch).
Rugby League Live 3’s career modes undoubtedly add a significant and impressive depth to the game, especially given the fact that they don’t have a season limit as with previous instalments. With cues taken from Football Manager, you can actually play RLL3’s career mode for so long that all of your team will retire and be replaced by regens. In the case of the individual player career modes, your selected pro or created player will be replaced by a child prodigy, who retains all of their accrued stats, upon retirement.
Rugby League Live 3 includes a fully-featured online mode, with quick games, custom match types and tournaments all being available to play. While I’ve had some truly gripping online matches that have gone into golden-point extra time, my experience so far has largely been a frustrating one. Rage quits and abandoned games are commonplace, due to the fact that users are only penalised with a loss for leaving a game early if the opposing player is so many points ahead (Big Ant refuse to share the exact scoreline, in case it encourages more quitters). Far too many times I’ve broken clear for a decisive try in the last minute of a game, only to be greeted with the ‘opponent has disconnected’ screen.
Furthermore, due to the fact that the game uses peer-to-peer matchmaking rather than central servers, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of the game’s audience are based in Australia and New Zealand, RLL3 online can often be an extremely laggy experience, particularly when connecting to those players on the opposite side of the world.
To their credit, Big Ant have promised to support the game extensively post-launch, and the expected addition of geography-filtered matchmaking should go a long way to ameliorate a lot of these issues. Indeed, a beta version of a major patch is already available for the Steam version of the game, which promises to address many of the gameplay balancing issues addressed in this review.
Ultimately, despite a number of forgivable flaws, 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 still leaving more than enough room for improvement in the inevitable RLL4.
Far and away the best video game recreation of rugby league to date.