Version tested: PlayStation 3
We all like different things. Some adore FIFA 08, some hate it. Some love PES 6, others abhor it. It's all a matter of taste. I'll warn you now, a section of you are going to hate PES 2008, simply because it doesn't dance to the right footy rhythm. Others amongst you will think it's the best game of the series to date and lavish it with the type of love usually reserved for a firstborn, while some of you will just groan and write it off as more of the same. Question is, which is going to be?
As you're probably only too well aware, PES 6 was fast, frenetic and intense, a mix of arcade action and realism melded into a ball-pinging match day experience that thrilled and frustrated in equal measures. For every sublimely orchestrated build-up there was a defender teleporting in front of your attacker, for all the squealing thrills of the Ping-Pong-style physics there were cries of anguish at the farcical penalty area pinball scrambles. PES 6 was a game that provided moments of footballing genius one minute and had you hovering over your console with a hammer and a murderous glint the next.
In many ways, PES 2008 is very similar to its predecessor, yet in others, wholly different. This year's version provides a far more robust rendition of football, exuding the type of muscularity associated with the modern game and injecting it with an arcade vein that sees you pulling off the kind of mesmerising runs that have been AWOL for the past few versions.
The ball feels considerably weightier this year, players more solid and more combative. From the instant you kick off, you'll feel the difference. No longer does the ball skid puck-like over the surface, but bobbles, floats and rolls with greater realism than ever before. Long shots are no longer laser-guided missiles but more akin to real football, where balance, space, time and distance play a greater role when firing at goal. It takes some getting used to, but after a few hours, the weightier ball physics begin to feel natural and satisfying, almost like watching a real, modern-day pigskin flying around a stadium.
The added sense of weight also benefits the players, whose movements are now more lithe and realistic. Tussling and jostling have been taken to the next level, with a player's strength and size having a major impact on their ability to maintain possession and hold off the opposition. A towering six-footer can dispossess a slighter player through brute strength alone (and thankfully this doesn't always result in a foul), though this is offset by an increased dribbling ability that flies in the face of the game's seemingly more realistic approach to the beautiful game.
PES 2008's players - even the less skilful ones such as Dirk Kuyt and Gilberto Silva - can now embark on mazy runs to rival a Greek epic. Players possessing superior footwork such as Ronaldinho and Ronaldo (either of them) have become one-man armies, battering-ram runners with ballerina finesse and magnets on their boots, who can single-handedly win a match by themselves. Controlling these players is a dream for dribbling enthusiasts, though purists amongst you will probably be disgusted at just how easy it is to weave past the opposition.
However, the game still gives the advantage to defenders in the final third, though thankfully the irritating teleporting defenders from PES 6 have been removed. Stoppers show an incredible ability to throw in last-minute tackles and blocks and have a better chance of tackling you in and around the area, though the advantage given to defenders is done subtly enough for you to rarely feel cheated.
One downside to having star players possessing such dazzling footwork, pace and power, is that they become tantamount to tanks, equally adept at tracking back and dispossessing an opponent as they are at dancing past defenders, which is hardly realistic when you find yourself constantly using a Brazilian attacker to charge half the length of the pitch, win possession and then hurtle towards glory on a hypnotising solo run. While patient build-up play is perfectly possible and often preferable to charging forward, PES 2008 can at times take on a basketball-like quality, where teams take turns to stream forward in waves of attacks, then desperately try to defend the counter-offensive (especially in multiplayer).
Passing is another facet to receive a revamp. The hit-and-hope technique of earlier PES games has been further abolished here, and you're now forced to genuinely look up and around the pitch to find a player in space, before measuring a correctly weighted pass, through ball or cross.
Other improvements include crowd and player sounds, which have been beefed up since last year. Home spectators now sound genuinely pleased when their team finds the net, rather than a prawn sandwich brigade. Players also grunt a great deal more from the increased physicality of the proceedings. The much vaunted learning AI (Teamvision) is impressive enough and provides a stiff challenge, though rarely does it appear to dynamically learn and counter your playing style as the claims led us to believe it would.
Additions of less importance (more cosmetic than anything else) include more animated crowds, an exhaustive list of stats and achievements that rate how well you play and a basic Master League makeover with rudimentary player interaction and extra player and team stats (hardly the revamp we were all hoping for). There's also a soundtrack that's clearly attempting to suit every taste, but the low quality of the songs is likely to have you hurriedly reaching for the mute button, as is the irritating commentary.
As well as a host of improvements and additions, there's also a fair smattering of negatives here. For starters, too many slide tackles still result in the opposition instantly regaining possession and the new penalty-saving angle feels pointless and occasionally disorientating. What's more, goalkeeper handling is a little suspect at times, especially when it comes to parrying stinging shots, and, somewhat unforgivably, using the new cheat (dive) ability when there isn't an opposition player anywhere near you still results in an instant yellow card. However, perhaps my biggest bugbear lies with the graphics, which despite showing a slight improvement since PES 6 (likenesses are either excellent or utterly inaccurate), still make little attempt to siphon the true potential from next-gen technology.
Ultimately, the main reason behind buying PES 2008 lies with its newfound robustness, thrilling action and an unadulterated joy associated with dribbling that you won't have felt since you were born. Matches lie somewhere between realism and arcade accessibility and the often-frenetic pace provides a totally different football experience to FIFA 08's slower, more considered gameplay.
PES 2008's entertaining match improvements, exhilarating action and solid additions mean it just about scrapes another 8, though at no point does it come even close to flirting with higher scores. It's fast, fluid, fun and physical, an improved, revamped version of PES 6 if you like. If that's what you're looking for from the next iteration of the series, then you won't be disappointed. If not, then I think you can probably work the rest out for yourself...
8 / 10