Nov 8, 2007
Anticlimactic. That's how it felt when, having craved next-gen PES since the dawn of PS3, we finally got to play a finished (or supposedly finished, but more on that in a minute) copy. PES 2008 just doesn't feel like a bold step into the future. At first, it feels like little more than a shinier version of PES6.
But the clue, as ever, is in the word 'evolution'. PES 2008, like each new addition to the series, has evolved - it's just that this year's evolution isn't as obvious as usual. In PES6, for instance, it was immediately apparent that passing was far crisper than in PES5, and that it played a much slower, methodical match. PES5, equally, was slower than PES4, with a new physical emphasis on gameplay, bringing the brute strength of the likes of Drogba to the fore. But in PES 2008, the first change you'll notice is the slowdown.
Yes, sadly, you read that right. We were promised by Konami that this would be ironed out before PES hit the shops, but, just in case, we're obliged to say that the supposedly-complete review code we played got very juddery. It was at its worst in four-player mode, when the game had some kind of seizure whenever we headed into either of the corners of the pitch towards the front of the screen. In solo or two-player it wasn't so bad, and worse on some pitch types than others, and PES being - still - the great game it is, you can sort-of learn to overlook it, but it never quite stops grating. The framerate on the replays was rotten too.
Still, there are plenty of other, more beneficial changes too, and the more you play the more you discover. First, fewer passes go astray through no fault of your own than in PES6 (bar cross-field balls, which can be bafflingly inaccurate). The same applies for long throws, which previously we refused to even attempt because we knew they'd go nowhere near their target. Knock-down and flick-on headers are easier to place accurately as well, while your teammates make sensible runs into space that, in prior titles, they might not have. And one of our favourite tweaks of all is the ability, via the Setplay menu, to send your defenders up-front for corners.
PES is that bit more physical this year, too - tackles crunch louder (with less predictable outcomes) and players grunt when they collide - send Tevez running directly into John Terry, say, and you'll almost feel the breath being sucked from his tiny lungs.
Opposition AI, meanwhile - powered by the vaunted TeamVision system - is smart, spotting obvious runs and passes before you even make them, forcing you to consider every move. The game has a more methodical feel than before, and the slightly weaker shooting - you'll score fewer 30-yard blockbusters - means you've really got to pass the ball about to unlock defences, and said slick passing means you can avoid those gritty midfield battles that often cropped up previously. We're not sure to what extent the AI really learns your playing style, as claimed - when we played well, we never noticed it counter our tactics to the degree that we've felt the need to make changes. But a shift in tactics on your part - tactical options are as myriad as ever, and you can spend hours tweaking them - can make the difference between success and failure.
To unlock those AI defences there are new tricks. As you jog down the wing there's a control to make your player look across the line at potential targets, meaning that crossing experts - Beckham, Giggs, Nedved and the like - can deliver even more precise balls than before, while control combo makes players shape as if to cross, before carrying on their run. You can even pull off a drag-ball stepover, and then pull opposition shirts. And if all else fails you can have your player hurl himself to the floor. This tends to result in cards far more often than it wins free kicks, mind, but it's worth a go.
However, there's a chance you won't need to do any of these things - PES 2008's keepers are the series' worst yet, palming shots into the goal or straight into the path of opposition strikers. This does lead to a lot more exciting, heart-in-mouth goalmouth scrambles, but we're not entirely sure it's worth the trade-off. Perhaps, then, it's a good thing that the low, drilled cross is a lot less effective now - PES6's keepers were known to shove these directly into their own net, so who knows what these pan-handed goons would have made of them. Their distribution from throws, too, can be awful.
Still, none of this changes the thrill you get from scoring a 35-yard wonder strike, the satisfaction of finishing off a slick passing move, or - yes - the joy of watching the opposition goalie palm the ball into your top goalscorer's path for a simple tap-in. But goals are far too easy to come by this year - corners and crosses are stupidly lethal, while defences are likely to crumble into dust at the drop of a hat.
Still a goal's a goal, so cue the replays - where you'll see how good the player likenesses are. You can tell at a glance which player is which, and they're expressive too - they'll wag their fingers at the refs when they get bookings, look to the heavens when they fluff a chance, run over and celebrate goals with the subs bench… they run the gamut of emotions. Their mouths sometimes look a bit flappy, mind, like Zippy from Rainbow with teeth, but you can't have everything.
Master League, disappointingly, is almost exactly the same. You choose a team, or create one from scratch, fight for promotions and cups, sign players - the usual, really, only this time with those static pictures that fooled us into thinking new things were afoot. You'll get shots of fans in pubs, or your star striker being interviewed, but they're neither animated nor interactive. How about post-match interviews where your responses affect team morale? Or your team secretly going out on the lash, leaving you to deal with tabloid uproar? Russian billionaires taking over rival clubs? Sure, the fans play slightly more part than before - the worse your results, the lower your match attendance, which knocks your popularity and makes it harder to sign players - but Master League should be doing more by now.
Don't get us wrong - this is still PES, and at its core, an incredible game - and it'll be even better if they sorted the slowdown. Few multi-player games foster such emotion, and we still play it every lunch time, only with slightly less enthusiasm than before. Why? After a relatively modest 30 hours-plus of play, it feels less divinely balanced, and cruel, than Pro Evolution Soccer 6. By any other standards, it's still the best next-gen football game, so buy it with confidence - but don't let your pre-match expectations get too high.