Pro Evolution Soccer 2008
It has become increasingly hard to review new entries into the PES and FIFA series, each has its committed and vocal fan base and anyone not previously tempted by either is unlikely to be won over by each new annual update. It seems as if all anyone basically wants to know is has their favourite improved from last year in ways that suit their own tastes, and has the other one changed to be more similar to it? It's also pretty hard to even think about football as I sit here writing this the day after England relinquished their chances of qualifying for Euro 2008 with barely a whimper. So you'll have to excuse me if a perhaps higher than normal level of cynicism creeps in now and then.
The trouble is taking this years Pro Evolution Soccer on its own, imagining it's the first ever PES game released on an unsuspecting public, and it would be hard not to be gushing with praise. It's great fun and plays a slightly more arcade friendly game than the slower more measured FIFA 2008. However, coming as it does, as the most recent in a long line of similarly good games it's not quite as easy to get excited by it all, we've seen it all before you see. It doesn't help that in terms of big new features with which to justify its existence PES 2008 comes up embarrassingly short, offering instead some tweaks and minor changes to the existing formula rather than any wholesale changes.
Of course, fans and gamers with deep pockets will say the PES experience only needed a few small tweaks anyway and if it ain't broke then why fix it. While they may have a point in one sense, PES does still play fantastically after all, it becomes even harder to accept the game's genuine failings when they present themselves for yet another year if you're unable to see what else Konami have been doing for twelve months. The FIFA series, by comparison, at least seems to be managing to dream up new innovations like the new 'Be a Pro' mode and the ever evolving online options.
So, with no really huge new features on which to base the review, and assuming you all know what football is, we're left examining the smaller gameplay adjustments to see if they make a real difference. Chief amongst these should be the new Teamvision artificial intelligence system which claims to improve the opposition's ability to adjust their style of play depending on your changing tactics. It's a nice idea; your mind is probably conjuring up images of a game that counters your tactics and probes any weaknesses it finds resulting in a far more strategic game as I type. Unfortunately in practice it appears to make very little difference. That's not to say it doesn't work, it's just that any effect is generally so subtle you really don't notice it working during the excitement of a game.
Other far less clever sounding changes have a more noticeable effect however, players feel far more solid this time around with tussling for the ball seeming more like a battle of strength than luck at last. The ball itself also seems a bit heavier this year, something you probably didn't even realise needed fixing tuntil you see how much better it feels now. These small changes mean the game does flow a bit more naturally although other changes have had a less welcome effect.
Keepers seem to have developed slippery glove syndrome since last year with more Scott Carson's (or stupid mistakes as they were called prior to Wednesday) causing more panic in the box than is realistic for the standard of football the game aims to simulate. The most controversial addition to gameplay this year though has to be the ability to make your players take a dive. While it's never guaranteed to fool the officials, and can cause you more problems than it solves, used correctly this can help you win penalties and with it games by basically cheating. We all know it happens in the real world but the idea of including the ability to get away with rule breaking into a sports game seems like an ill advised first step down a road that could end in mini-games where you can overturn decisions by arguing with the referee or trigger a pitch invasion when you're losing.
Last year's unimpressive online offering seems to have had a whole year's worth of nothing done to it and now lags even further behind FIFA. Lag effects a worryingly high number of games and the only game modes are ranked and player matches. Don't even think about setting up online league or cup competitions, surely one of the basic requirements for a football game's online mode?
Presentation is another area that's been constantly lacking in the PES series and this year doesn't see much of an improvement. The main menu screen that uses advertising boarding as the menu may have sounded clever on paper but its one option at a time approach does its best to hide the game's features. Little things like having to continually pick your storage device every time you do anything become even more annoying because they could so easily have been avoided by a little thought. The font size used on the squad and tactics screens is also so small it's almost unreadable for those of us not rich enough to own an HD TV and the small indicator on the pitch outline at the top of the tactics screen that shows which player is currently selected is almost impossible to detect at times, a pain when using team's with unfamiliar players. The lack of real team names is also a perennial problem for PES games, one that we've perhaps grown used to over the years and in some ways it's a small niggle, we all know who's who really ('Man Red' doesn't fool anyone) and it doesn't change the underlying game. But it does add a final blot on the already messy copybook of a game that by now should have learned a thing or two from EA about how to present a football game.
On a more positive note the ever excellent Master League returns offering the chance to take a lowly team to glory using both your on pitch skills and your managerial expertise. Transfers are still a pain thanks to a horrible interface but bringing in new players is still fun as is watching your team evolve and improve as you go. This year there's also basic media interaction, although basic is the important word to remember in that description. The management options in Master League are never going to compare to dedicated management games but they do add a very enjoyable layer of depth to proceedings giving a feeling of involvement and personal attachment that's missing in the more conventional league and cup competitions you're able to setup and play outside of the Master League.
Considering this isn't the first PES to appear on the new generation of consoles it's a shame to find that graphically things haven't moved on a great deal from last year's first attempt. Everything looks clean enough and animations are suitably impressive but there's little in the way of visual subtleties like flapping shirts or dirty kits, although Ashley Cole is wearing suitably horrible coloured boots. It's nice to see the referee on the pitch though, it makes no real difference to the game of course but it helps add to the illusion and I've never quite understood why all football games don't do it. Player models are fine but never threaten to cross the line into great, all too often looking more like plastic mannequins than real people when you get in close. Some facial likenesses however are very good, Christiano Ronaldo being one of the best probably due to his front of box duties.
This may all seem like a bit of a 'slagging off' for a game many people will love despite its flaws, the thing is I'm one of them and my dissatisfaction comes from a love of the series and my frustration at yet another opportunity missed to fix old flaws. PES 2008 is by no means a bad game, it's actually a damn good one, it's just that it was damn good last year too but with the new FIFA offering a genuinely attractive alternative PES needed to step up and do something special to warrant its place at the top of the pile, not to mention the expense of upgrading. The fact that it didn't even seem to try to do that throws the game's few faults into sharp relief. Depending where you stand in the PES vs. FIFA debate this could still very well be the best football game out there and if you've not got a recent PES game then this is certainly the one to get. However, is it worth buying if you bought last year's or you're undecided between this and FIFA? No, I see no reason why it is.
It is defiantly more end to end arcade than true simulation and the ever poor presentation is frankly beyond a joke now, however, to end on a positive note, it does what it does very well indeed providing a version of football that while not hugely realistic plays the kind of fast exciting all action game you wish you watched week in week out on the terraces. Put it this way, my England vs. Croatia game this morning ended 7 - 1 (4-4-2, Beckham on from the start and no untested young keeper), hands up who'd have rather watched that on Wednesday night...