For some parts of the world, Rugby is a sport that rivals Soccer for popularity, in the regions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa specifically, and like Soccer, Rugby also has a World Cup, played every four years. Just like with the last Soccer world cup, EASports have rushed in and taken advantage of the Rugby craze, however FIFA 2002 Worldcup had an established engine and series to work off. Rugby 2004, on the other hand, does not, and unfortunately for the Rugby fans out there, this shows in painful form.
Despite the fact that the majority of the Rugby World Cup was over before the release of Rugby 2004 PC, there is no doubting that this game was rushed out in an attempt to please the Rugby fans, heck, Rugby 2003 and 2002 never existed, the last version before this was Rugby 2001, which in turn was released around the time of the previous World Cup.
Included as far as game modes go are Training pitch, Tri Nations, Super 12, 6 Countries, Bledisloe Cup, European Trophy and British Isles Tour. This is a pretty nice range, but the problem is, not matter how many game modes there are, they all come down to how well the in-game action plays, which can be described as "not very well".
Now I'm not really a rugby fan outside of the world cup, I enjoy watching an NFL game far more, but I have a reasonably good understanding of when a penalty is not properly enforced - not just because I picked up the basic rules via watching the World Cup, but because Rugby 2004 seems to occasionally contradict itself. For example, while playing a friend in a 2 player game, his scrum line pushed mine before the ball was inserted, however, I was penalised while the same thing happened 2 minutes before and he was penalised. Call it a simulated senile referee or a serious bug, all I know is the penalties in Rugby 2004 seem to suffer from inconsistency.
On top of this, the game is very penalty happy when it comes to offsides. Sometimes, after making the tackle, even if you stand offside for a second while running back, the game will penalise you. This becomes incredibly tedious, especially when you're trying to defend near your goal-line. One time I even put the control pad down and let the PC run back for me, and even then I was penalised, so it seems not even the AI in Rugby 2004 can play with itself properly.
Some EA games are not quite there as far as gameplay goes, but they make up for it in the visual department. This, however, does not apply to Rugby 2004. In fact, the graphics seem pretty appropriate for the game itself, that is, crappy. Stadium and player textures make it seem like the year is 1998 again and players generally look like they have trouble moving at all with the rigid and horribly disjointed animations. For some reason, even though the nearest opponent could be 30 meters away, a loose ball can't be picked up, rather, players put out this painfully awkward diving animation and can't get back up, what's up with that?
Another aspect which fails to impress is the controls. Although the control functions are reasonably basic; tackle, kick, pass etc, the implementation of them just seems off. Passing appears, in the most part, useless, as it is almost impossible to ever make a big run so spreading the ball is a waste of time, and the physics involved with kicking are simply absurd. To kick properly, you must hold down and release the kick button while aiming with the d-pad, however it is completely possible to aim directly behind yourself, resulting in a hilariously unrealistic backwards kick at full power. And by "backwards kick", I don't mean a high bomb which goes behind the kicker, I mean a full on boot which goes half the field in distance, seemingly shooting out of the kicker's arse.
If anything about Rugby 2004 can be commended, it is the amount of official elements available in the game. Whilst the lackluster graphics make it hard to visually pick a certain player, they are all there, almost 2000 of them. On top of this, it has 62 official teams and 67 stadiums from around the world. Heck, if you don't want to play Rugby 2004, it makes a pretty good Rugby player encyclopedia. Unfortunately since the graphics fail to replicate the players realistically it was simply the matter of getting 2000 names and numbers, which seems less impressive, unlike NBA Live 2004 for example, which features pretty much every player's visual traits.
In conclusion, unless your desire for virtual rugby is so strong it renders your decision making skills useless, Rugby 2004 is really not worth anyone's time. Obviously this game was delivered in a rush not to miss the real world Rugby World Cup, and while fans will enjoy the huge catalogue of included official teams, players and stadiums, that is all they will enjoy. Since 2001 was the only version before 2004, obviously EA have no real plans to keep this series alive every year like they do for Madden NFL, but with gameplay like this, that isn't probably so much of a bad thing. Fortunately for Rugby fans, both Acclaim and Digital Jesters plan to release Rugby games of their own mid next year for the PC, lets just hope they spend a little more time in Quality Assurance, it seems someone forgot to do that with Rugby 2004. Unless there is an EA "Watch Paint Dry 2004" available somewhere in the world, it is a safe bet to say Rugby 2004 is this year's worst EASports game available.