Pro Evolution Soccer 6
When Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) 5 appeared on the PSP last year there was a collective groan amongst gamers, it was as if Konami had unleaded a thirty yard screamer that had just shaved the outside of the post. The strange omission of the Master League option, an annoyingly close camera and crippling loading times all helped to leave disappointed punters wondering just what might have been. Now, a year later and with the much improved FIFA 07 having beaten it to the shops PES 6 arrives hoping to fix the problems and make up for last year's near miss. Has it succeeded? As Meatloaf himself once almost sang 'Two (and a half) out of three ain't bad'.
Most importantly for a lot of people, the Master League now appears in all its glory and provides the delightful blend of a managerial and a playing career that it always does. That fact that unlike in other versions player stats don't evolve over the years is a little frustrating but half the fun is negotiating transfers and building a team of superstars to be proud of so it's not too sorely missed. There isn't a function to take Master League saved games from the PS2 version onto the PSP one either, which would have been nice allowing you to continue your game on the move. Sitting along side the Master League is a wide array of club and international league and cup competitions as well as the expected exhibition and training modes to top off a well rounded set of play options.
Having all the options in the world can be ruined however when navigating round them is such hard work, a problem the PES games seem to have had since the year dot and show no signs of improving. For a series who's closest rival is something as polished and streamlined as the FIFA games it's a source of constant amazement to me that Konami have never seen fit to give the PES series a similar degree of spit and polish. In this PSP version the problem is coupled with the still frankly laughable loading times even when moving between screens of primarily text, which means you end up with an interface that makes you feel like you're constantly fighting with it just to get to the game proper.
However, this is a football game after all and all the menu design flaws in the world can be forgiven if the football action itself is up to scratch. And, as anyone who's ever played a PES game before will know, it more than is. After last years stop start affair PES 6 truly feels like the real PES experience in your hand, the previously much maligned camera now has a lovely widescreen zoomed out view that makes great use of the PSP's screen letting you see much more of the action at a time. Start a match itself and right from kick off the action just feels 'right'. The balance between passing and dribbling feels like it should, the game ebbs and flows realistically and the controls have that almost instinctive ability to translate the flicks and jinks that you picture in your mind as you press the buttons into what the players do on screen. You do miss the flexibility of duel analogue control but the game compensates by giving you enough ways of tweaking the controls setup that most people will find a layout that suits even if it's not ideal.
Graphically the game is a delight too, player models and animations look stunning and the physics of football, from the way the ball reacts to the way players hustle and barge each other for the ball feel just as they should. As always PES's wonderfully fun replays show the graphics off in all their glory, spinning the camera around the pitch watching your wonder strike from every possible angle never grows old.
There could be long articles written about the masterful game of football that PES games play and it all still holds true for this PSP version, but that's not to say it's perfect. The AI has an annoying habit of sometimes changing the player you're controlling just as you're getting close to making an important tackle, especially in the middle of the pitch where it gets a bit more crowded. The AI also seems disinclined to have players make overlapping runs with fullbacks often seeming to suffer virtual nosebleeds at the prospect of getting further up the pitch than their wingers. There's also a very noticeable amount of slowdown when the screen gets crowded with players, most noticeably at corners or goal mouth scrambles producing an accidental bullet-time like effect that could almost be deliberate but for the included jerkiness. Most annoyingly of all, and although improved from last year, there is still an irritating amount of loading time mid game, switching to the over the shoulder view of players for free kicks, corners and goal kicks all results in a noticeable couple of seconds wait staring at a blank screen. A wait made all the more frustrating as it could surely have been solved by using some kind of on screen directional arrow rather than having to load up a change of view. While we're on the subject of loading times, quite why players are forced to wait a good thirty seconds while the game loads up all the stadium graphics just so it can display it panning under the team sheets prior to kick off I will never know, especially when I for one would have been just as happy with them being displayed over a static background or even not at all.
But, and it's a big but, at the risk of seeming to have moaned my way through most of this review only to give it a high score, all of those moans are relatively minor quibbles about an otherwise excellent game. Yes, the loading times are a pain but do they ruin the experience as a whole? Not at all. Yes, the AI seems a little weaker than the PS2 version but is it really that noticeable? No, especially at the higher difficulty settings. It's to PES's credit that such things are all we have to moan about and it seems a little churlish to harp on about them when in reality PES 6 is a fantastic addition to the series and, in my opinion, the best football game on the PSP. It would just be nice for Konami to take on board the criticism and return next year with all the kinks ironed out, if they can do that we really will be in for a treat.