The EA Rugby series has evolved steadily in terms of graphics and content over its history, but question marks have remained over its gameplay. Thankfully, although the game engine remains largely the same, there have been enough notable additions to draw fans' attentions once again.
Besides the stalwart full licence that always accompanies EA games, which gifts Rugby 06 with official tournaments and player profiles, there have been a number of tweaks in gameplay that vastly improve on past experiences with the franchise. Of particular importance is the ability to offload the ball while in the process of being tackled. This not only gives a new element of realism, but also provides a great opportunity to exploit occupied defenders on the run. Side stepping, shoulder charging and palm defending opponents have also received a boost and are easily executed. Set plays and the option to take quick penalties also adds a new element to attack.
One thing that really got us going is the addition of the big hit. Not since FIFA 1998 has a game included such a satisfyingly devious tackling system. Who wants to latch themselves around a grown man's waist in a tough yet delicate embrace, when you can be smashing bodies with your forearm while screaming guttural nothings at the crowd? Although players must be warned that causing injuries also increases the potential to pick up penalties along the way.
Gameplay is well-balanced, and flows smoothly most of the time, even though scrums, mauls and line-outs remain exactly the same as Rugby 2005. Superstar players have been tweaked significantly to mirror their real-life counterparts' skills, allowing you to execute pin-point kicks with Johnny Wilkinson and pour perfect double-shot skim cappuccinos like George Gregan (well, you get the idea).
The general AI of your team-mates has also stepped up a notch, and they perceive attacking threats a lot better than before, particularly when faced with up-and-unders and defending your line. However, this appears to come at the expense of wide defence, which can usually be defeated by a fast-footed flanker.
Defence is not something taken lightly by EA. Rugby 06 captures this brilliantly, with every tackle looking and sounding as bone-crunchingly marvellous as it should. The only gripe is the old gremlin of offside, which will have persistent defenders called out when the ball is played.
Although the game's graphical improvements are marginal, Rugby 06 has pumped enough steroids into the gameplay to avoid too much speculation in that area. The new additions should be enough to cement this as the only choice for rugby nutcases everywhere.
Verdict: With the competition playing worse than a one-legged Namibian shepherd, the only choice for fans is EA's Rugby 06. Where previous instalments felt lacking, there is a real sense of evolution here.
Score: 4 1/2 out of 5