Pro Evolution Soccer 6

GC: Football fever in Germany. Again.

For once, Microsoft has the luxury of not taking sides - and being praised for it.

Unlike its uphill battles to convince on HD-DVD, multiple hardware configurations, the Rare purchase, and so on, when Chris Lewis got up and blurted "Microsoft owns football!" you felt the excitement in his voice. Finally! Something we can truly stand behind.

The news that both FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer are next-gen exclusives for Xbox 360 for 12 months is spin, of course. After all, the PlayStation 3 versions of both probably wouldn't be ready in time for Christmas, and taking the money hat and siding with Microsoft instead of pandering to an under-stocked, first-days PS3 install base probably made sense to EA and Konami. As for 2007 - well, it's not an international tournament year, so they can afford to ignore the PS3 until Christmas rolls around again.

But it's a good bit of spin. Because most people - and certainly a lot of industry folk - will consider the whole thing powerfully symbolic.

Of far more interest to those of us who play PES, however, was the news that it's finally in proper widescreen.

Yep - one of the off-shoots of its passage to Xbox 360 is that Konami's annual football simulation had to take the HD pledge, and although the graphics weren't exactly flying the HD flag with the gusto of EA's opposition, it was definitely in widescreen. It actually took a while for me to adjust. At first I just thought it was slow, until it dawned on me that I wasn't playing it stretched for once.

Really that's the most significant news you can take away from the Leipzig demo of PES on 360 unless you have all day to play it (and I don't, sadly). The limited demo structure only allowed for Czech, Brazilian, Italian and Spanish squads, no substitutions (and thus no chance to glance at any stat changes and so on), and the most you could discern from the menus available was that the difficulty levels are now described in words rather than counted in stars. Deep.

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So for now there's no word on Live support (though it's inevitable), or of how the game otherwise distinguishes itself from the, er, current-gen PlayStation 2 and PC versions. Although we did hear today that Konami aims to allow up to eight players to compete online on those two systems through four linked machines.

Microsoft's blustering PRs pointed to a new animation system, which basically appears to be the old one but shiny. There's a waxwork kind of look to the players, which certainly isn't unflattering - and coupled with the usual year's worth of tweaks gives the game a much-needed sheen. Oh, and there are in-game ads. RBK balls and Canon digital-camera marks in the corner of replays. Woot.

Having played a selection of exhibition matches against various opposition, the gameplay feels like a slightly stiffer version of Winning Eleven 10, but with key tweaks to push it forward. Which is to say that it's a significant change compared to Pro Evolution Soccer 5, but mostly in that it's walked back some of its bolder and harsher adjustments.

The incredibly common pressing fouls, for example, are almost non-existent now - producer Seabass and his team having decided, he told us before the show, that the decision to ratchet them up had been ill-conceived. Instead the unpractised hand turns pressing-focused games into the usual crochet-style passing battle through the centre of the patch, with occasional interceptions and attacks usually breaking down as participants form up to shoot. Other PES5 changes, though, like the reversal of R2 functionality - or in this case "RT" - remain.

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Konami's championing improvements to the AI, naturally - players will run into space more intelligently, it says, and there were some signs of this - and players can indeed work to turn defenders a bit more. Backwards dribbling is included too, adding to the close-control side of the game, which is already quite refined, while you can retain the ball while slide-tackling.

Meanwhile, the softness of Winning Eleven 10 - our Microsoft evangelist told us he was convinced Konami had dumbed down WE10 to appeal to the Japanese during a World Cup year - wasn't quite the same. PES6 certainly represents a challenge.

But the most you can really glean over a handful of games, however mixed the opposition, is that there are the usual tweaks to take into account. Neat little directed backheels that interlink play with greater fluency, and some neat one-handed saving animations. Otherwise much is familiar - little's been done to address the creaky dead-ball systems, although there are some new icons and a left-and-right bumper "skip animation" button when a foul goes on.

There's still a bit left to do to the code by the look of it - with some obvious glitches in places, worryingly apparent slowdown during the left-to-right sweep when poised over a dead-ball (an old PES bugbear), and some truly dippy goalkeeping. At one point a novice opponent played the ball back to Dida in the Brazilian goal at pace, and it went under his foot, Thomas-Sorensen-against-Brum-style, and wandered painfully into the net. Maybe it was meant; maybe PES simulates to that degree now. Or maybe not. Pat and his purple words didn't think so.

What you do get from it though, particularly poignant off the back of a FIFA '07 presentation full of wisdom about player traits, adaptable animations and variation in play, is that Pro Evo pretty much did all that in the first place, and remains good. On the basis of the Leipzig demo, I can't wait to get stuck into it over a longer period.

Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is due out on Xbox 360, PS2, PSP, PC and DS in October. But not PS3. Ner-ner ner-ner-ner, etc.

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