Pro Evolution Soccer 4
Wily buggers, these gaming companies. They know what us gamers are like. We're weak. We buy games that we can't afford. We buy consoles that we can't afford. We don't like waiting either. We'll pay over the odds to import a game just for the pleasure of playing it first, getting in there before the crowd. That's why I know that many of you out there have probably bought Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on three separate occasions already. First off, there's Winning Eleven 8, the Japanese version that hit the shops in August. Then, the PAL iteration, Pro Evo 4, hit European stores at the end of September. Now we have the Xbox version that while fundamentally the same as the PS2 one offers one vital addition - online play.
I shan't beat about the bush - this is the gaming event I've been waiting for all my life. Well at least from the first moment I contemplated online console gaming, anyhow. If you're a Pro Evo fan yourself then I'm sure you felt the same surge of adrenaline as I when you first heard the suggestion the PES might be coming to Xbox and might be packing Live compatibility. For months and months after the Xbox version was announced Konami persisted in staying very tight lipped about it all. Will they? Won't they? They must do, surely? But if they're going to, then why haven't they announced it already? Then Gamestars Live came about, we got our hands on the Xbox version and low and behold, what did we find buried in the options menu? Xbox Live, that's what and for many of us life simply hasn't been the same since.
But let's forget Live for one moment. After all, some of you don't even have Xbox Live (I pity you, you poor, lost souls). So what of the offline game? Well, to cut a long story short, it's more or less identical to the already excellent PS2 version. Check out the review here for a thorough rundown. As you'd expect, the loading times on Xbox are far quicker, something that's especially welcome after the quite lengthy waits we were forced to endure in the PS2 version. Also gone too is the nasty slowdown that arguably was its biggest let down. I'm yet to see even a hint of it on the Xbox, even when looking from behind the keeper before goal kicks. It's obvious though that this is a port of the PS2 that's been tidied rather than a new game built from the ground up. Graphically things are near with no noticeable enhancements other than the technical. Also there's no sign that the squad information has been updated at all since the PS2 version was first conceived (Rooney is still at Everton, for instance).
Despite the similarities, however, there is one huge difference - the joypad. Now we could argue all day about the virtues of the S Pad or the Dualshock 2 as both pads have strengths and weaknesses. The S Pad - wonderfully solid, great analogue sensitivity, useful shoulder triggers but it's still a bit big for some gamers and what the hell are the black and white buttons doing there? The Dualshock 2 - tremendously versatile, very instinctive, four shoulder buttons but it's a bit fragile and the analogue sticks are about as responsive as a corpse in a disco. If I'm playing a driving game or a first person shooter then give me an S Pad any day of the week but when it comes to sport then for me it's the Dualshock 2 every time. There's no denying too that I much prefer Sony's pad when it comes to PES. I admit it may be to do with the fact that I've been playing PES with it for years. The two go hand in hand, like bread and butter or guns and death. After years of playing PES on PS2 it has simply become part of me. I couldn't explain the controls to you. I don't even know them myself, not on a conscious level at least. It just happens, if you know what I mean?
If you're a noob to the series then it will probably feel perfectly comfortable on the S Pad and you should have no fear. For me though it felt very odd the first time I played the game with Microsoft's pad. In truth however, on the whole it works perfectly fine. Actions are mapped much as you'd expect them and if only the black and white buttons were on the shoulders somewhere I'd be happy as Larry. However, seeing as they're not there is a problem. What worked as the R2 button on the Dualshock (the button used for sidestepping, first touches and mid-speed dribble) is now mapped to the black button on the S Pad, meaning that to pull of these moves your finger must abandon the face buttons momentarily. To be honest, it's not a nightmare. It is doable and after a while you do begin to get used to it, though I doubt I'll ever stop wishing I had a Dualshock in my hands. Yes, there is a myriad of converters available, some of which do the job, but they do come with drawbacks. Although you can configure the controls, everything resets to default online and you'll have to deal with however the converter maps the buttons. Also, the majority of Dualshock adapters don't allow for the use of the Live headset. If you can find one that does then maybe you should consider investing.
And thus we come back to it - Xbox Live. The cold reality of the situation is that PES online could have been so much more. As it stands, it's functional, nothing more. You can play someone online but that's about it. There are no leagues, no lobbies - this is bare basics through and through. There are lots of problems as well. The most severe of them would have to be the fact that you are not punished for quitting out of a game. This results in a tendency for squalid, third-rate Xbox Live'ers out there to quit out of matches a few seconds before the end if they're losing. Not only does this make a mockery of the online rankings, but it's also very #£&%!$@ annoying. Konami have promised a patch that everyone is praying will rectify the issue and reality in it cannot come soon enough. Sticky Dave and St Stew, you have been named and shamed.
There are other issues too. For starters, any editing you may partake in won't appear when you go online as everything sets to default. In a way you can see why Konami have done this. I could foresee some folk maxing the stats for a certain team or even altering them into daft caricatures of all manner of people and themes. But how annoying is it to spend hours editing the player names, squads and shirts only to be forced to return to default once online? Again, Konami's desperate need of a decent license for the series is agonisingly apparent. In game it's impossible to skip the cut scenes that follow things like fouls or offside decisions and although in reality this doesn't prove as frustrating as it sounds, there are times when the option to skip would have been most welcome. Choose to replay a match with the same teams and all of your players will be in the same condition as they were in the previous game - annoying if Henry and Reyes both happen to be on rock-bottom form. Troublesome too is the inability to import formations when online. Instead you're granted 60 seconds for any tinkering you may like before the game - certainly not long enough for a complete personalisation of the team tactics.
Unfortunately lag can on occasion be a slight issue too. If you're hosting a game then it's never a problem. Whilst this at least is good the poor lobby structure is definitely not. Once you've set your parameters you're simply forced to sit and wait until Live matches you up with an opponent. As everyone wants to host, since it guarantees a smoother game, this can sometime result in lengthy delays before you find an opponent. If you do decide to join another persons game though at least the lag rarely gets bad enough to severely detract from the experience, though in a game such as PES that demands split-second accuracy even the slightest glitch can be very aggravating, sometimes causing you to miss an interception, tackle or a shooting opportunity.
Yet despite all of this, all of the criticisms and all of the problems, one thing still rings true - playing other people on PES is absolutely brilliant! Okay, in many ways it's technically inferior to playing alongside a mate on the sofa but for those without mates or playing partners (darling, fancy a game of PES?) it's ideal. Remember too that in one evening you can square off against people of assorted skill from all over the world. Often you'll find that after a particularly close game you end up playing the same player over and over, especially if they're not the quitting bastard type. PES has always been an immensely satisfying game, but take it online and that sensation is increased tenfold. I simply cannot describe the almost orgasmic ecstasy of successfully spinning 360 degrees past a defender and listening to the resultant gasp of awe from the guy you did it to. Golden! Getting that injury time winner in a tight 2-2 game is so much more rewarding when it's a person and not a CPU that you're beating. It's better still if you know that person and can mock them the next day!
In many ways that single paragraph in relation to all the criticism heaped before may seem a little insubstantial, but such is the joy of playing online that it still offsets it by a long way. It's one of those gaming experiences that I at least cannot really convert into words. It's simply magnificent. Yes, it could have been so much better. I certainly shan't deny that but win a tight game against some unlucky chap online and you simply won't care about any of that - your joy will outweigh any misgivings you may have. PES4 on Xbox is certainly the best football game on the system and quite possibly the best iteration of the game to date. There are only two situations where you have a reasonable excuse not to own it, now I come to consider it. If you really really hate football then I might let you off. If you own the PS2 version and do not have broadband access in your town I might also grant you a little leniency. If you own an Xbox and meet neither of these criteria then purchase is simply an obligation. I think it's the law. Did I hear someone say "but I already have Fifa 2005" at the back? Wash your mouth out. And get your wallet out too.