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The gaming choice of the discerning football fan is back once again just as the real world of football reaches fever pitch...
- Enhanced AI.
- Improved graphics.
- Good commentary at last.
- Some official licenses have been lost.
- Online play currently has a lot of lag.
- No dream team feature from last year's PS2 game.
PES made its debut on the next-gens last year with PES 6 on the Xbox 360, and now it returns with a new yearly moniker in PES 2008 (although Konami have put seven World Cup shirt-esque stars on the cover to stress that this is still the seventh PES incarnation). While retaining the same brilliant gameplay style it's famed for, this year's game makes a number of critical changes that both require a re-mastering of technique, as well as adding depth and realism to the in-game experience all round.
PES has always been a game that has attracted the hardcore footie fan, evident in nice little touches such as Pierre-Luigi Collina on the front cover of PES 3. Everything from ball physics to player stats, and match tactics to set-pieces, have always been re-created with such meticulous detail that football obsessive gamers have been left weeping in admiration over the years. This year, in-particular, has seen a significant re-jig in the gameplay that will require PES fans to go back to the drawing board and look at how they play the game all over again.
I, for example, have played a 3-4-3 formation over the last three years which basically relied on lightning counter-attacks up the wing, before cutting into the box and passing to a striker for the straightforward tap-in (the PES equivalent of checkmate). My first few games of PES 2008 were met with consternation as I found that this stalwart tactic of mine simply won't work anymore. This is because defensive AI in the middle of the field has been significantly improved. It's now much harder to get behind the defence and cut inside for the easy goal. Wingers will usually be ushered into hopeful crosses by the defensive AI, while strikers are much more likely to be marked, making for a much more realistic style of play.
As a result, a lot more of the matches will be decided in the middle of the pitch. Attackers have to make clever little darting runs through the back four, while there's an increased pressure on midfielders to hold-up play and probe for an opening. What makes this even harder to get used to is the fact that first touches are much less forgiving than in PES 6 and more work is required by the player to tame a fiery pass (similarly to PES 5). But, as the Biblical proverb goes: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Both shooting and freekicks have been made a lot easier this year, as a slightly over-excited tap of the shoot button will no longer result with the ball in Row Z.
However, the AI improvements are not limited to just this. While the AI in previous PES games has always been good, it has usually been a case of simply providing CPU players with more accurate shots, greater strength and more pace as you move up the difficulty levels. Never did you really feel like you were being systematically broken down by the AI. While playing CPU teams in PES 2008, we definitely noticed some intelligent little one-twos, improved off the ball movement and a more aggressive defensive slant that made us sit-up and concentrate a bit harder.
As usual, unfortunately, the defensive AI does fall down occasionally when it comes to maintaining a flat back four. While it is harder for attackers to get in behind the defence, defensive players are still liable to bunch and break up the back four under duress. This has classically been a PES idiosyncrasy, though, and it's one that we can forgive it for given the bounty of other great features it provides. Overall, Konami's new improved 'Teamvision' AI is certainly a success for the franchise.
Perhaps PES's greatest strength compared to its competitors is the multitude of attributes and stats it ascribes to specific players. Playing as Brazil for example, you'll notice that Ronaldhino has phenomenal close control, while Adriano is incredibly strong, has impressive pace and a bullet shot, making him one of the most formidable strikers in the game. Once again, Konami has provided enough differentiation between individual player's strengths, styles and physical ability, to bring an unprecedented level of realism to the game.
A similar master class in footie realism that PES has always given other football games is with its ball physics. While it's not immediately obvious to the untrained eye, it's the reaction of the ball to certain physical stresses (e.g. getting parried by the keeper, ricocheting off a wall or bouncing off a player's chest) that makes much of the game feel just right. While the ball physics were already top class in PES 6, the Konami team have seemingly done the impossible (or at least very, very hard) and improved the physics of their pig's bladder even more this year.
More improvements come in the shape of a wider range of player animations. The number of ways that players will tug at each other's shirts, collapse in a heap after being scythed down or perform a inconspicuous little back-heel, is now more varied than it ever has been. This is undoubtedly due to the increased processing power that the next-gen machines can offer the PES series. While on the previous gen systems you'd often see the same foul animation a multitude of times in one game, it now depends on such a wide variety of variables that the resulting animation feels incredibly natural and seamless. It's yet another improvement that many more casual gamers will gloss over but, overall, it provides the exceptional detail that we all love.
As for player likenesses, Konami have done their usual trick of making many of the players look incredibly lifelike, while making others appear completely out of place. Rooney, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Reyes look like spitting images of their real life counterparts, while players such as Crouch look like my dad (who doesn't look like Crouch). It's yet another PES idiosyncrasy, but there is a vast array of improvements with player visuals in other areas that make up for this. The facial detail has improved over last year, but the most significant graphical improvements are in the lighting and detail of player's kits. Both have been given the full next-gen makeover, making for detailed creases in a player's top and the floodlight reflecting off these creases to provide subtle shadows.
The strain of this extra detail can be seen in the dodgy framerate of replays, although there aren't any framerate issues in-game thankfully (on the Xbox 360 at least). Where there are issues at the moment, though, are with the lag on servers both on Xbox Live and PSN. We're assured that updates will fix this in time but, at the moment, the lag problems in some online games are so significant that you'll think you're playing an alpha build of PES 2008. This is due to what look like constant glitches but are, in fact, significant online problems. Additionally, the online game is still limited to two players which is a bit disappointing.
Other slight annoyances are the fact the PES series appears to have lost a couple of official licenses over the course of a year. In the premiership, for example, both Arsenal and Man Utd are no longer the officially licensed teams they were last year and have been relegated back to their usual 'North London' and 'Man Red' statuses. We had other niggling irritations in this area because it seems you don't have the same dream team options from last year's PS2 version. This allowed you to pick a number of teams and then have the computer pick a dream team out of your selection. There's no sign of it on the Xbox 360, which is a shame because it would've been a nice addition this year.
On the other hand, Konami have added the Edit mode for PES 2008, although the Training mode is once again limited as it doesn't have the extensive training challenges of last year's PS2 game. Beyond that, the usual Master League offerings add content and appeal to the single player game. There's also Cup and League Modes for less managerially intensive competitions.
On a final positive note though, the commentary has finally been given an overhaul and at last it's actually pleasurable to the ear. Both John Champion and Mark Lawrenson have been subbed in this year and the change has been inspired. Finally PES has in-game commentary to rival the likes of FIFA, although this year's soundtrack seems to be worse than ever. Watcha gonna do?! As the Bible says: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.