If there's general rule of thumb relating to sports games, it's that when a company gets a game right, the sequel or yearly update will almost always improve on it in every way, even if it doesn't have the same impact of its predecessor. Regressions are rare, yet gamers must ask themselves whether enough changes are evident to warrant a purchase. At first glance, this appears to be the case with EA Sports Rugby 06. However, upon further inspection, the minor tweaks lift this year's version head and shoulders above its forebear in nearly every department, making it a worthy purchase for fans of the hard-hitting sport, even if they have last year's edition.
EA got a lot of things right in the 2005 edition and created what was probably the most complete rugby game since Jonah Lomu Rugby on PS1. It was not without its flaws, though - the ropey AI had a 'Pied Piper of Hamlin' mentality when chasing the ball carrier and there were some weird instances regarding defensive touchdowns and penalty kicks that didn't seem to follow the rules of rugby as well as it should have.
First of all, from a graphical perspective, the game looks outstanding and the developers have obviously become familiar with the engine that drives the game. The presentation is slick, player models and the variety of tackle animations are excellent, and the stadiums are downright impressive. You could say that Rugby 06 is one of the best looking current-gen sports games around, particularly if you're a fan of the sport. The little touches, like players' kits getting dirty, breaths of air emitting from the forward pack in cold weather, improved ball physics and the sports broadcast-like presentation, add a layer of polish that lift the game from good to great.
Adding to the atmosphere, commentary provided by Ian Robertson and ex-All Black Grant Fox does the job well. As expected they offer comments in a timely and reasonably natural fashion, extrapolating on the game as it unfolds. Unfortunately, some actions will draw the same comment again and again which does get a bit tiresome, but isn't exactly a problem unique to Rugby 06.
The gameplay in Rugby 06 has been tweaked considerably, with nearly every option and strategy available in the real sport being implemented - whether it be from set-piece or broken play. The only thing you can't do is start a rolling maul from a breakdown, but this probably helps to speed the gameplay up. After all, who wants to watch a game dominated by forward play? "Not I," said the rugby spectator.
Perhaps the greatest addition this year is the ability to offload in the tackle. In certain situations, depending on the players in support, a graphic of the 'off-load' button will appear above a player's head, indicating that a pass can be offloaded. This increases the fast, flowing nature of the game and means that an overlap can usually be taken advantage of. In fact, the whole game plays a lot quicker. Quick lineouts are now available, which, in addition to being more realistic, is a great way of countering teams with powerful punters, like England's Jonny Wilkinson, or New Zealand's Daniel Carter, enabling the defending team to counterattack before opposition forwards can arrive.
Equally pleasing is the updated team roster and player stats that reflect the form of last year's international competitions. This is reflected in the introduction of 'impact players' in Rugby 06, with the best players in each team sporting a star above their head, indicating their prime status. These players break more tackles, score more tries and stamp their mark on the game more often, so it's important to utilise them as effectively as possible. Playing players out of position now has greater detriment to your side's efficiency, so be sure to understand your squad and cover yourself for any injuries that may occur.
There's really not enough space to go through every tweak that Rugby 06 has received, but it's worth mentioning what a satisfying learning curve the game has. While it's imperative that new players go through the tutorial mode to get to grips with the basics of set-plays, scrums, lineouts and attacking manoeuvres, most players will be a little overwhelmed at first. Slowly, but surely, players will learn the subtle tactics, like running from the back of a ruck, fending off a tackler, and using the d-pad to organise set-plays and defensive formations - things that will help the player gain momentum and territory to get closer to the opposition line. Speaking of momentum, playing at home gives the home team a momentum bonus, thus allowing them to compete more equally with higher ranked teams.
Rugby 06 features all the international tournaments and competitions that you'd expect from an EA Sports title. There's also a world-league where you take a lowly club from division 3, through the ranks, gaining job security, trading players and the like. It's a welcome addition that adds longevity to the single-player mode, but if you're the sort of gamer interested in a rugby title, chances are you're in it for the multiplayer. Whether it's 4-player co-op or 4-player competitive, in the hands of skilled players, Rugby 2006 will get you fired up like you're watching the real thing.
But like a model with a cocaine addiction, not all is perfect in Rugby 06-land. For the second year running, there's a glaring oversight regarding penalty kicks at goal. If the option arises, it's possible to take a penalty kick at goal from inside your own 22. This in itself is not a problem as it's impossible to land the kick, but the AI puts all opposition players behind the goal line when it should be leaving a few men in front of the posts, in case it rebounds. So it's possible to deliberately kick it 10 metres, scoop it up and run a good 50 metres up field. Strangely, because of the effectiveness of this tactic, multiplayer games can be relatively cheat free - just be sure to turn on the offside marker in the gameplay options menu.
The scrums are a bit hit and miss too, and there can be quite a lot of turnovers, particularly when your wings get tackled. Until players learn the importance of building momentum to retain possession, it can be quite disheartening to watch your men turnover so often. I also have a slight issue with the create-a-player mode. While it's exhaustive, it doesn't put any limits on your statistics, so you can max your players out from the beginning. It would have been nice to have a system where you gain experience points and nurture a player into a world-beater by winning matches.
It's worth mentioning too, that players should look through the various camera perspectives to find what suits them best. The default perspective is a side-on view that, while serviceable for some aspects of the game, can make some things like taking a drop goal quite difficult. When things get a bit hectic around the ruck and maul area, it can be a bit tough to see who has the ball. An alternative to this is to use the 'Classic 3' camera that mimics those found in gridiron games such as Madden. In fact, that view is this reviewer's camera of choice.
Firstly, it solves the issue of who has the ball - whoever has the ball is always running up field. It's such a stupidly simple solution that, despite the sometimes disorienting 'switch' that occurs when possession changes, makes the game so much more fun to play. You can see how your offensive and defensive patterns are formed and gaps are easier to spot, so you can either plug them up on defence or exploit them on offence. There is never any question over who has the ball in the scrum, the pass buttons become more intuitive and drop-goals (something that can decide a rugby match) can be taken from different positions on the pitch.
Rugby 06 is a deep and well designed game that is enjoyable and fun to play. For fans of the sport, it's a worthy investment of your time and money, capturing rugby more accurately than any game before it. The addition of offload passing, impact players and other new gameplay features have taken the flawed stone of last year's title and polished it into a shiny jewel. EA has done what many have thought could never be achieved - Jonah Lomu Rugby no longer sits atop the rugby throne.