In all honesty, we weren't going to review this. We had much more important things to be worrying about. But then it snuck into the charts. And stayed there. It's still there at No.13 this week, selling its rugged little backside off as the Rugby World Cup rages in some far-flung corner of the earth, and, frankly, because of it.
To continue with the theme of honesty, we'll let you in on the main reason we were going to pass this one over: none of us has much of a clue about rugby. Sure, we all played it at school, but while the Johnny Wilkinsons and Bruiser McThumpalots of the world cruised off to make a living out of getting very muddy with a melon-shaped cow scraping held to their chests, we were busy following our nation's less successful teams as they got bowled out for 99, failed to qualify for USA '94 and generally depressed the hell out of us. Life choices: we're not good at them.
So allow us to make amends, and give you our considered verdict on EA's Rugby 2004, the bagillion-squid's worth of publisher's first take on the sport in years. Just bear in mind that we're just simple footy-loving folks coming to this on the back of the TV coverage of our boys doing so well. Wherever they are. And that if it sounds like we don't know what we're talking about, it's because we don't.
Then again, with an opportunistic release such as this, perhaps that's just as significant as anything else.
Right then. Rugby. Let's see what you know. A dozen and a few spare burly blokes are trussed up in thick and often figure-hugging clothing and sent out into a mud bath, where they compete with a similar load of burly men from another place for the fate of an oddly shaped ball. The object of the sport is to get from one end of the pitch to the other by kicking and passing the ball, then either drop-hoofing it between the huge upright posts at either end for three points or, for five points, touching the ball down cleanly behind them for a "try". The twist is that the other team gets to stop them by clawing onto them and hurling them to the ground every step of the way.
That's the gist of it. There are other things to consider though - you have to pass backwards, you can gain another two points after a try by converting it (the bit where that Johnny Wilkinson chap kicks it spectacularly between the posts), you often have to pause and lock heads with the other team in a scrum, and you regularly have to try and regain possession when the ball has been knocked out of play.
Knowing all this, and given EA's assertion that Rugby 2004 would be more focused on the running and passing game than the stop-starty antics of scrums, lineouts, penalties and so forth, we assumed we'd be able to pick the game up in a very short space of time. Wrong. Despite launching the game to coincide with the world's biggest rugby tournament, where hoovering up casual supporters' cash must surely be the goal as much as anything else, the developer has singularly failed to actually teach us how to play the game.
Tutorial or Masters Degree?
The "tutorial", if you're willing to call it that, offers only basic instructions (and often only via voice-over), and generally just expects you to get on with it. As such we had absolutely no idea what was going on for ages, and hardly felt that standing around, winning scrums and having absolutely no idea why we were winning them was an improvement on the last Rugby title's "press button when meter gets to sweet spot" mechanic. At least that was pretty transparent. It doesn't help that the game throws all manner of set-play graphics around to confuse you, either.
A lot of fumbling with the manual later, we were finally able to get our heads round what was going on enough to actually compete reasonably well with another team. Controlling your chap is actually pretty obvious for the most part - he runs with the analogue stick and he can tackle, kick and pass at the touch of a button. There's also the requisite switch player button, and with that out of the way the only real complexities are to be found in competing for lineouts, scrums and penalty kicks, which do rely on the meter/sweet spot mechanic.
But for some reason it never really comes together. The game is responsive enough when you have the ball, but when you lose possession it can be a nightmare to retrieve it, with the game steadfastly refusing to make the logical choice when switching players. All too often our team lost silly tries because Rugby 2004 couldn't make up its mind that the guy bearing down on the ball carrier was probably the best bloke to let us control. If the game offered a PES-style "pressing" control - where holding a couple of buttons sends the nearest players tearing in the direction of the guy with the ball - then we'd be less bothered. But it doesn't.
H is for kicking
Conspiring to run us out of play completely were the game's various other quirks and faults. The AI, for example, is slow and lacks any real creativity of play, and the game seems much too biased towards the relatively easy process of kicking goals, especially as scoring tries is relatively tough. Converting tries is also child's play, so it becomes particularly tedious having to sit and watch it all play out when you can guess the result anyway.
It's also one of the ugliest EA Sports titles we've ever encountered, with chunky player models, virtually no transitions between their animations, a generic bunch of facial features and a create-a-player mode that feels totally out of place as a result. Indeed in terms of presentation, Rugby 2004 is terrible. Menu graphics are horrendous, the text virtually unreadable even on a 36" widescreen television, audio is basic and the commentary quickly hateful, and in general the only things to remind you this is an EA game are the constant flourishes of branding, the familiar menu option names and a transfer/points system similar to those seen in other EA Sports games.
Sure, it's got the World Cup, Super 12s, European Trophy, World League, 60 teams, 2,000 real players and 75 stadiums, but that's only impressive when you can tell who the 2,000 real players are and when the stadiums are more convincing than a pop-up nativity scene. And given EA's failure to research the FIFA database properly (with some serious errors reported like jumbled up ethnicities and worse), we don't hold much hope for this, clearly a much lesser sport in the eyes of the world's richest publisher.
Just about Rugby 2004's only redeeming feature is that it's actually vaguely playable in multiplayer, and even then that's arguably only because you're both as hindered as each other. Hardly a recommendation. There's also no online play, despite, er, the game's release being timed to fit alongside an international rugby tournament, and the game appearing on PS2 only (EA's preferred online format for consoles).
Pulling the rugby out from under us
Perhaps we're missing something. Perhaps this is the best simulation of rugby ever made. But any relatively well-travelled gamer knows that you shouldn't need to know or love a sport inside out for it to make an entertaining videogame. Heck, even Madden is fun if you care to put the time in, and NHL plays well in our eyes despite our less than negligible interest in the actual sport. Rugby 2004, on the other hand, is a sport we already roughly know our way around, and it still manages to be nigh on impenetrable at first - even to us - and totally fails to live up to its billing or the rest of the EA Sports catalogue. We've also come to take EA's high presentation values and their sports titles' accessibility for granted, and Rugby 2004 has neither. In essence, it feels like a cynical attempt to steal cash from dazzled armchair Wilkinsons, and we're yanking a point off for that alone.