Just three weeks to go. Still, if you can't wait that long for a taste of the full game, fear not, as we've just returned from a four-hour playtest of the latest (approx 90% complete) PS3 code. We did try the 360 code, but bafflingly, the shoot and pass controls insisted on defaulting to the trigger buttons, making any kind of dissection virtually impossible. So without further delay, let's get to it...
If you've had a chance to check out the demo, you'll already know roughly what to expect from the general pacing. It's still quick but there also appears to be a greater emphasis on player skill when it comes to pulling off tricky passes and through balls. PES2008 seems to possess an ever so slightly more tactical edge than its predecessor, while never compromising on the excitement levels. FIFA 08 may have taken the realism route this year, but Konami's effort has kept one foot firmly placed on both sides of the fence, with a slight bias towards arcade action.
Example: Players were far more flexible and lithe, and were able to flick the ball off their chests then turn with greater fluidity than in PES6, making for more flowing matches. Conversely (and perhaps this will be tweaked in the final version) star players such as Ronaldinho ran like they were on rails, enabling us to smoothly pull off dribbles that made Maradona's surge against England in ‘86 look like an everyday occurrence. If you're more fond of dribbling than a toddler with an over active saliva gland, you're likely to be in seventh heaven if Konami don't make any last minute alterations, though some of you will no doubt be spitting bile at just how easy it can be to bamboozle opposition defences with more skilful players.
This next one you're either going to love or hate. Diving. Yes, after much cogitation Konami has finally decided to include the dirtiest trick in the book (bribing referees aside) though it struck us as strange that the game was bereft of an option to turn this feature off. Hopefully, Konami will have had the foresight to put this into the final game and help prevent the usual online pissing contests (between die-hard fans with diametrically opposed views) that generally arise from development decisions such as these. The question here is, does it work? Well, kind of. While it was fun to take the odd opportunistic tumble, the constant stream of yellow cards was a pretty sobering experience. In fact, we didn't have a single decision go our way and not once did we see the AI try to use this tactic. What's more - and here's hoping this is sorted before release - we were even yellow carded after taking a dive when there wasn't an opposition player within a ten-meter radius. Ludicrous!
While we're on the subject of cards, refs still seemed a little too keen to dish out the yellow and reds for slightly mistimed slide tackles, which when timed correctly, often resulted in the opposition just getting the ball straight back anyway.
Let's move onto ball physics, which admittedly, is always a highly subjective topic. This build saw a decent improvement over last season's pinging pig's bladder and there was a far greater sense of weight to how the ball moved. Slow passes bobbled as they skimmed over the grass, while thunderous shots looked as though they'd been fired out of a cannon. Bounces were also slightly more muted (no bad thing), resulting in free flowing games containing fewer farcical pinball incidents.
These refined ball physics also complemented the revamped passing and shooting controls. This year it seems we're back to having more control over pass and shot power, while through balls are far tougher to pull off. However, when we did manage to thread the eye of the needle, the teeth grindingly annoying defender teleportation feature (whereby the last defender would miraculously outpace you once you were through on goal) from last year's version didn't seem nearly as evident here.
Keepers also looked more realistic, moving with feline flexibility to palm away shots and get down low to push away stinging drives. They also seemed to react later when unsighted before flying into an Oliver Khan-like rage and bellowing at their defenders. However, there were some problems here, too. Perhaps it was just a balancing issue, but keepers tended to spill the ball rather too easily and palm power shots directly into the path of onrushing attackers, a flaw that was most evident (and exploitable) when playing in multiplayer.
Clearer in-game player fatigue, a revised quick freekick option (whereby you can now watch the player grab the ball if it's nearby and quickly resume play), increased crossing accuracy when you make the player look up, more player animations to refereeing decisions, beefier sound effects and some great player likenesses, including a double chin on Ronaldo that practically trails on the ground (though as ever, other well known players were barely recognisable) all proved excellent touches, though we have to admit to really disliking the new behind the keeper angle when facing penalties, which just felt, well, a bit crap really.
Also new this year is a revamped Master League featuring bolstered player interaction features (admittedly we only had a chance to take a quick look at this and will reserve any judgement till the finished version) and a Track Record section that charts achievements and sets specific goals e.g. win ten penalty shootouts or score a 35-meter goal. Track Record will also keep a record of how many games you win, lose and draw, and even provide you with a set of grades for your tackling, passing, and attacking abilities.
As you can probably see from the screenshots and given that many of you will have played the demo, you'll be well aware that PES2008 is unlikely to win any awards in the next-gen visual stakes, especially when compared to FIFA 08's highly buffed graphics. Overall, PES2008's visual changes appeared to be more incremental than revolutionary, ranging from the more animated but still basic-looking crowds to the contemporary yet hardly eye-popping menus. Perhaps the only serious gripe was the way that players sometimes looked like they were pulling off a pair of pigs with their fists while running. Otherwise, the graphics and animations were generally solid.
While Pro Evo 2008 is unlikely to be a revolutionary leap forward for the series, it certainly looks to be an improvement over last year's version, tackling several key issues and adding some great new tweaks and features. It's too early to make concrete predictions right now, as the version we played was still around 10% off completion, but things are certainly looking positive, despite the odd concern. Just three weeks to go...