Rugby’s had a turbulent history with video games to say the least, and with publisher Bigben Interactive’s last two attempts (Rugby 15 and Rugby World Cup 2015) getting utterly battered by critics, the French company has taken a couple of years off and come back with Rugby 18 – developed for the first time by Handball series developer Eko Software.

In all seriousness – well, about as serious as you can get when you’re talking about virtual rugger – the ditching of veterans HB Studios represents a new attitude towards Rugby 18 from Bigben. While the change certainly isn’t revolutionary, Eko Software has evolved the franchise closer to where it needs to be, yet it still falls behind the level that games like Jonah Lomu Rugby reached 20 years ago.

The most obvious change is that instead of a side-on camera view like in FIFA, the game’s perspective has shifted to be behind your team a la Madden, which feels much more natural in a sport that is as much about playing horizontally as it is about playing vertically. It’s easier to see pockets of space to run into and available players to pass to, making it a much welcomed change.

Passing and kicking is simple: L1 and R1 correspond to left and right pass respectively, while square unleashes a kick. Holding down these buttons increases the power of the action, but this always seems to be inconsistent, especially when passing – holding either button for full power can unleash a rocket that immediately goes out of play or a limp piddler that barely reaches your next teammate. The fact that passing seems to be relatively inaccurate too – even passing a few teammates across seems to fail most of the time – can lead to a lot of frustration. What’s more, it’s also very difficult to pick up the ball once it’s on the floor, as your players seem to want to run everywhere but up to it due to the somewhat clunky movement controls.

Like offensive play, defensive play is simple yet also frustrating. A tap of circle makes your player tackle, with a handy graphic underneath your player showing how successful your player is likely to be at making the tackle. However, this is pretty misleading, as sometimes your player will freeze or stop instead of a attempting a tackle, which again leads to frustration and to your opponent making big gains.

So open play isn't brilliant, then, but how about set pieces? Penalty kicks and conversions are simple and work well, a flick of the right stick allowing you to aim and add curve to your attempts, while mauls and scrums require you to aim the right stick in a certain direction to drive forward before you can pass again, and rucks consist of you and your opponent sending in players to fight for the ball until one team gains full control of a circle projected on the screen. All of these are explained well visually and are easy to pick up, although rucks often suffer due to bad AI, as sometimes your players will get tangled with others and take longer to reach the ruck, giving your opponent an advantage.

Speaking of visual explanations, Rugby 18 does do some aspects of presentation relatively well. The aforementioned set-pieces are much more approachable to newcomers thanks to their visual nature, and the fact that offside players are marked with an X helps when trying to understand which players you can use and which you can’t.

Other aspects, however, are dismal. The commentary is absolutely dire: BT Sport’s Nick Mullins and former England lock Ben Kay lend their voices this time around, but the lines are so poorly stitched together that it sounds like Mullins recorded his lines in various different rooms. This is the sport of passionate pundits like Brian Moore and Bill McLaren, yet Mullins and Kay have no memorable lines – just Mullins pointing out what’s going on and Kay either adding "That was good" or "That was close".

The fact that not a single stadium has been licensed for Rugby 18 – not even Twickenham – doesn’t help with matchday presentation either, and the stock stadia aren’t even named, just called “Stadium 8” and so on. The graphics are nothing to write home about, and while they’re not particularly bad, they’re certainly not up to the standard of games in other sport franchises either.

Yet the worst thing about Rugby 18 is its complete lack of interesting modes. Aside from playing quick match, there’s either League mode – in which you can play a season of the Premiership, Top 14, Pro12, or Pro D2 – or there’s Career mode, a sort of single-player FIFA Ultimate Team in which you buy players for your squad, earn points, and go up divisions improving your team until you reach the top. The latter is a fun idea, but gets repetitive in practice as the game never throws any curveballs or introduces any new ideas.

Lastly, there’s MySquad mode, which in theory should be Rugby 18’s Ultimate Team, yet is barebones and could barely be called a “mode” at a stretch. Through playing any mode in Rugby 18 you earn Squad Points which you can spend in MySquad to create your own team. And that’s where it ends. You can only play with your MySquad in quick matches, and with no online infrastructure in the game except the ability to play one-off games, there’s really no point in making a MySquad at all. It’s weird, and leaves you with a feeling of, “Is this it?”

Conclusion

Though Eko Software has tried to give virtual rugby a breath of life – and in some ways, with a revamped control and camera system, it has – the lack of modes and dismal presentation leave a bad taste in the mouth. At full-price, Bigben is demanding an obscene amount of money for a game that feels years behind where it should be.