With the business end of the domestic rugby league season now drawing close, it’s time for the top contenders to step forward, lift their game, and show they have the mettle to reach the Grand Final at Old Trafford and ultimately be crowned Super League champions. In the gaming world, the latest entry in Big Ant Studios’ Rugby League Live franchise, which launches this Friday (July 28), also hopes to emerge as a top contender, although its sights are firmly set on being crowned the most successful video game recreation of ‘the greatest game of all’. But will it be heartbreak or triumph for the Tru Blu Entertainment and Alternative Software-published title?
While 2015’s Rugby League Live 3 received a largely positive reception from hardcore fans of the sport, and indeed garnered a positive review here at Power Up Gaming, it failed in some respects to capture the imagination of the wider gaming community, holding mixed reviews on Metacritic and receiving criticism for its at-times obtuse AI mechanics and convoluted core gameplay. Thankfully, being both dedicated gamers and fans of the sport themselves, the team at Big Ant – perhaps best known for their work on the successful Don Bradman Cricket franchise – recognised the title’s shortcomings, and made overhauling the in-game action their number-one priority for Rugby League Live 4.
As a result of this focus, RLL4 appears, at least on the surface, quite similar to its predecessor. Many of the same game modes and playable teams (100-plus, covering the NRL, Super League, lower leagues in both Australia and the UK, as well as representative sides) make a return from last time around, with the overall visual presentation not feeling a million miles away from Rugby League Live 3. Beneath the surface, however, Rugby League Live 4 brings a plethora of new features and improvements to the table.
Being a franchise that is developed in Australia, it’s perhaps little surprise that UK fans of the series have felt a little out in the cold in previous entries. While Rugby League Live 4 undoubtedly retains an Australian NRL-centric focus, a number of additions at least go some way to bring fans of the Super League back on-side. For instance, RLL4 includes a British commentator for the first time ever; the voice of Sky Sports’ rugby league coverage for almost 30 years, Eddie Hemmings, provides analysis alongside the series’ longtime play-by-play man, Andrew “Vossy” Voss.
On these same lines, although the vast majority of British Super League players remain fairly genericised in terms of their face and character models, Big Ant were able to scan in those players who competed in the recent midseason international friendly match between England and Samoa in Sydney – so a small collective of Super League players have their authentic likenesses included in Rugby League Live 4 for the first time. As ever, the majority of the top NRL players also receive the face scanning treatment here.
Indeed, the game’s facial recreations are so visually impressive that they have the ironically detrimental effect of highlighting some of the game’s graphical weaknesses; the juxtaposition of highly detailed facial textures with hair that, in some cases, appears as though it could have been painted on is a striking one. Thankfully, the player models, on the whole, have come on in leaps and bounds since Rugby League Live 3, with players looking much more lifelike and less like caricatures. Furthermore, their movements and animations are now less robotic and distinctly more athletic, thanks to new motion capture carried out by the developers.
The game’s kits, meanwhile, remain highly detailed and impressively authentic; even collecting flecks of mud as matches held on rainy days reach their crescendo. Elsewhere, while the visual presentation of the title is largely serviceable, little has changed in the two years between releases; some of the game’s stadiums, in particular, now look somewhat dated for the current generation of consoles and would benefit from a major upheaval next time around.
Of course, graphics are far from being the be-all and end-all of a video game, and fans of the Rugby League Live franchise are well-conditioned not to expect the same level of visual fidelity provided by big-budget studios, such as EA Sports (FIFA, NHL) and 2K Games (NBA 2K), from what is essentially an independent title. What’s really important, especially in the series’ fourth iteration, is that RLL4’s core gameplay mechanics do the sport of rugby league, and all of its intricacies, justice. Thankfully, the developers have undeniably succeeded in that respect.
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated in-game addition is the arrival of attacking set plays for the first time. With the projected attacking lines of team-mates now highlighted on the pitch, players can select a number of dynamic options such as calling for an inside runner, preparing for a hit-up, cross play or even a sneaky “one out the back” move. In Rugby League Live 3, viable offensive strategies were few and far between; AI team-mates’ running lines often felt completely out of sync with what your own player was trying to achieve. Now, however, users can chain together a series of effective and varying attacks from tackle to tackle. Alongside these set plays, the ability to sidestep, fend and hit up an opponent all make a return, while the ability to drive forward in a tackle has also been refined.
Another newly added feature comes in the form of “Foresight”, which highlights tired, weak or slow opponents – and team-mates – in red in-play. While this may seem somewhat of a novelty, especially for those teams and players you’re already familiar with, you’ll be forever grateful for it on the game’s more punishing difficulty levels as you desperately eye up which depleted opponent you may just about be able to fend off.
Rugby League Live 4 has largely retained the same control system for passing as its predecessors, with the front shoulder buttons – combined with a face button corresponding to first, second or third receiver – being used to pass left and right (or both shoulder buttons for a quick pass to your nearest playmaker). Aided by the improved offensive running lines, passes generally feel snappier and less “floaty” than before, which will come as music to the ears of those who spent extended periods of time with the last game.
While the passing mechanics may have largely remained unchanged, kicking is an entirely different story, with both placed kicks and kicks from general play receiving a major upgrade. While the game retains a momentum ‘golf swing’ mechanic for conversions and kickoffs, this has been tweaked to provide players with more control over the distance, direction and accuracy of their kick, with the right analogue stick – alongside on-screen indicators – being used to great effect here.
In general play, meanwhile, a variety of kicks such as bombs, punts, grubbers and field-goal attempts can be deployed using either the corresponding face button or the rear-left trigger/shoulder button alongside a face button. These are generally easier and quicker to pull off than before, where players were all-too-often caught in position on the fifth tackle. That being said, the slow-motion feature for in-play kicks has been removed, which may take some getting used to via trial and error at first. Similarly, contesting kicks has received somewhat of an overhaul, with flick-backs, safe catches and acrobatic leaps all being available; an accuracy meter is also now used to determine which team is likely to come up with possession.
In defence, Rugby League Live 4’s tackling system has also changed substantially. The rear left shoulder button/trigger can now be used for controlled movement when approaching the ball carrier, which essentially compresses the player’s team’s defence and reduces the possibility of an offload – while drag tackles, big hits and ankle taps are also viable options depending on the current situation. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the option to attempt a one-on-one ball strip has been removed from the series. While the feature was unquestionably improperly balanced in RLL3, it would surely have been better for Big Ant attempt to implement a stricter success rate rather than remove it outright.
The dynamic defensive tactics of setting a sliding defence or calling the wingers either back or forwards are ostensibly identical to those featured in the game’s predecessor. However, thanks to the game’s smarter AI, these actually have much more of a meaningful use this time. An all-new per-player offside indicator, meanwhile, will be your lifesaver in preventing numerous needless penalties being given away, by showing you which players to avoid tackling with during the current play. Similarly, the ability to make substitutions on the fly, through use of the touchpad, will make your life a whole lot easier.
As we touched on earlier, one of the biggest criticisms of the series’ previous entry was an at-times lacklustre defensive AI system, which struggled to adapt to the title’s scaling difficulty levels. In RLL3’s rookie and amateur difficulties, the fend and sidestep, in particular, were noticeably overpowered, while at higher levels, it was almost impossible to beat or make ground in a tackle at all; players were forced into playing an unrealistic game of “hot potato” rugby league in order to make territorial gains over their opponents. Those fans will be pleased to read that one of the major improvements Rugby League Live 4 brings to the table is a completely overhauled AI – both in defence and attack.
Defensively, the AI opposition play a lot smarter, reading the game well and being satisfyingly difficult to break down even on the lower difficulty settings. Gone are the days of being able to run sideways until a gap opened up in front of you; the AI generally organise their defences extremely tightly, requiring either the odd moment of brilliance from your team’s playmaker, or else disciplined and patient gains-based play to succeed. ‘Hospital passes’ are fiercely punished by your opponents, while poorly timed kicks or ill-thought-out set plays will be given similarly short shrift.
In attack, meanwhile, the AI make extensive use of set plays to great effect, with gaps in your defensive line quickly being exploited by your opponent. While frustrating at times, the net result is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, experiences we’ve had in a sports game to date; players are forced to play smartly and must authentically emulate – to some extent, at least – the real-life sport of rugby league in order to succeed.
While the majority of RLL4’s game modes are similar to those found in Rugby League Live 3, it’d be remiss not to pay tribute to the various minor (and in a few cases, major) improvements that have been made to some of the returning features. The ever-popular FanHub makes a triumphant return, offering players one of the most comprehensive player and team customisation suites ever featured in a sports game. This time around, users are even able to create their own stadiums and match types. In the case of the latter, while you won’t be able to turn the sport on its head and create, say, a union or AFL match, you can set numerous variables including the number of players per side, the number of points awarded per try and kick, and as minor rule variations such as whether or not to observe 40/20s and scrums. One of the most pleasing aspects about the FanHub is that it includes a platform-agnostic sharing tool; that is, users can download players, teams and stadiums uploaded by others, regardless of which console they were originally created on.
While Rugby League Live 4’s career mode remains largely the same as its predecessor, the ability to control the whole team – rather than just your star player – in the player career mode is a welcome addition. Elsewhere, peer-to-peer online play makes a return, with Big Ant eager to address some of the matchmaking issues that have blighted some of the series’ previous releases – although it remains to be seen how this will hold up come the full launch of the game. For what it’s worth, in our limited experience so far, the online games we’ve taken part in have been, mercifully, lag-free.
Although blockbuster sports titles such as FIFA may rely on new, gimmicky gameplay modes such as The Journey to attract returning players, Rugby League Live 4’s developers have instead rewarded long-time fans of the franchise by retaining and tweaking the series’ already successful features and shifting their attention to what really matters: the core gameplay. In overhauling RLL4’s AI system and in-game mechanics, Big Ant have managed to create a sports title that successfully captures exactly what it is fans love about rugby league. The physicality, the free-flowing action, the individual brilliance and the unpredictability are all accounted for here; Rugby League Live 4 is, by some distance, the greatest video game representation of the sport released to date.
An overhaul of Rugby League Live 4's core gameplay breathes new life into Big Ant's tried and tested sports sim format.