Version tested: Wii
Playing spot the difference every year can get a bit exasperating when it comes to Pro Evolution Soccer. Especially when the incremental changes somehow conspire to polarise opinion. We all (perhaps naively) imagined that Konami would use next-generation technology to create a footy experience that was not only unassailably realistic, but also technically adept.
On the evidence of the last two PES releases the truth, somewhat depressingly, is that Konami is stuck in a bit of a rut. With niggly gameplay issues compounded by dreadfully borked online play and an ongoing failure to resolve the licensing and presentation issues, the franchise's dominant position among the hardcore is facing a bigger threat than ever.
After this recent loss of momentum, the last thing we expected was for the Wii version to turn out to be the most innovative football title in recent memory. For a format more readily associated with dire mini-game compilations and loveless ports, we certainly weren't pinning any hopes on Konami doing anything more than porting the PS2 version across with novelty controls. How wrong can you be?
By putting an entirely different team on the project, the shackles are off and Konami has produced a title that plays to the system's strengths in all manner of interesting and effective ways - some of which could well have a key influence on how football games develop from now on.
Booting the game up for the first time, the omens aren't all that good. Kicking off with a long-winded training camp tutorial isn't usually a promising sign. It flies in the face of the perceived wisdom that Wii games need to appeal to the lowest common denominator and have simplified controls that anyone can pick up and play. PES 2008 on Wii demands you pay close attention to a fair number of subtle tricks and tactics in order to tap into the degree of depth the game offers.
In short, the entire process of only being in direct control of an individual player has pretty much gone out of the window, replaced by a system more akin to being an arrow-wielding Andy Gray on Sky Sports. Effectively you're an all-seeing tactician in control of a live match. You have the ability to direct the flow of play, often using several players at once.
On a basic level, the Wii remote allows you to make players pass with instant precision. An on-screen targeting reticule lets you dictate the positioning of runs, passes, shots, crosses, tackles and the like. Within a matter of minutes you feel in control of the game in a unique way.
Simple actions like running and dribbling are done by pointing the remote at where you want the player to go and pressing the A button. Click once on a particular spot and the player will go there, but hold down the A button and you'll carry out what's known as a Pull Dribble. You can make the arrow longer for extra pace, while a pass is carried out with the B button. Players are intelligent enough to run into space if you decide not to pass directly to them. For shots, clearances and headers a well-timed swing of the nunchuk will do the trick, while a swing of the remote results in a chip.
To begin with at least, this new sense of freedom is a little overwhelming, but slowly some of the subtleties start to dawn on you, and in no time at all you're able to pull off quite complex manoeuvres such as overlapping runs, clever passes into space and smug set-piece routines that would have previously taken an age to master. On an attacking level, the game works like a charm and makes it far easier to string together slick moves and runs than was ever previously possible. Once you factor in the more advanced moves possible with the stick involved (such as jinking past your opponent by pulling down at the right moment as you perform a pull dribble), you really can start to slap some football pie in your opponent's face.
Unfortunately, it's a far harder game to master defensively. Simple actions like sliding tackles and pressuring the attacking player are tricky initially. The idea is that you're able to hold down Z and swing the nunchuk to slide, or simply click on the players you want to put pressure on the man in possession - but it's never quite that easy. The onus appears to be much more on the player on the ball, and more often than not you'll probably find yourself regaining possession because of an unforced error than your own defensive might.
Of course, with practice you'll improve your defensive game - but then your opponent's ability to pass accurately will improve too. The result is a game that's likely to see an avalanche of goals compared to most football titles released in recent years. Put it this way: even when you're playing badly, goal-scoring chances aren't exactly hard to come by.
As with the other versions of 2008, PES Wii suffers from licensing nonsense and tired commentary, but hey - it does boast more stadiums (30, in total). Technically, the PES engine is arguably better suited to the lesser demands of the Wii, and as such, the likenesses and animation seem to fit better than the somewhat sterile look on the beefier systems. This is especially noticeable during the excellent replay system. Nice, also, to see Wayne Rooney officially has more freckles than any football player in history. We're freckle sympathists here at Eurogamer. Long live the ginger gene.
Konami has really made an effort to ensure the online capabilities of the game work as they should. Despite the fact that the Wii isn't the easiest machine around to get an online game going on, finding a suitable opponent was a piece of cake, and we had probably the most lag-free matches we've ever encountered on any football game. Playable either with friends (via the convoluted Wii friends code system) or random strangers, it's simple to get matches going, and extremely straightforward to make tactical changes thanks to a new drag and drop system (complete with comedy caricatures of your team).
If you're all on your lonesome, though, the game also sports a one-season League mode, as well as the more involving Champion's Road mode, where you get a chance to build up player stats and acquire opposition players if you beat them. Often you'll also find yourself having to complete certain 'missions' to progress, such as completing 20 short passes during a game and so on. Cunningly, you can also send your match data to a friend, and take the battle to them if you fancy duelling with your offline single-player team. Nice touch.
All things considered, PES 2008 is a fine addition to the Wii and certainly the most innovative football title we've come across in many years. The wonderfully intuitive control system makes it feel like a different game altogether, and certainly not the tired port many feared it would end up being. Setting aside some slight issues with the defensive aspect, what's on offer here is an excellently free-flowing game of football. It's well worth buying, even if you own it on another system.
8 / 10