Tom sharpens his studs
I was sitting in my lounge last Thursday playing Pro Evolution Soccer 6 with a friend, and halfway through our second nil-nil - as Brazil and France bounced off each other's stubborn, powerful defences - a third friend, who had been patiently waiting for something to happen, started to chant quietly under his breath: "Allez! Allez! Allez!"
This, he insisted, after being beaten up with a cushion, was Pro Evolution Soccer: Liverpool Under Gerard Houllier Edition, closer to real football than ever in terms of its grittiness and its physicality, but not exactly fiery and explosive to behold - unless of course you're referring to our third game of the evening, when my opponent's patience ran out and was replaced by exasperated use of the slide-tackle button. 11 versus 8, that finished, and I only won one-nil.
Individual players' pace is much less of a defining factor now, with acceleration in short supply. Players like Ronaldinho struggle to break through on pace alone, and even when Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo receive the ball out wide in line with the centre circle, they're much better off making for the byline than trying to cut inside. There are fewer "godly" players here in general, and with the top sprint speed now reduced, it's also a more physical game. Stature is incredibly important. Pick a heavy-set back line and you can deal with a lot of threats before anything develops, because they will do a surprisingly effective job of closing down nippy forwards even if their legs are older than Maldini's. Cesare Maldini's. Meanwhile in attack, finding composure on the ball is simultaneously more necessary and much harder, with a lot of shots ballooning away unhelpfully unless you're perfectly set to strike, or your attacking stat point is breaking through the top of the skills pentagon.
Fortunately off-the-ball movement has improved, and it's possible to do more with the ball in close confines using the shielding button, holding it up and pivoting away from defenders. You can do a clever little dragback turn to create space, too, and in each case it's just as well given that PES6 relies so heavily on patient build-up play. Where once you could get away with surging forward and playing a quick one-two to reach the edge of the penalty area, here you'll only be using that through-ball button during moments of supreme vision and excellence, and even then you'll probably find the defence has tracked you back by the time you approach the penalty area.
There are at least some things that improve on the balance and flow of the last major Western release, PES5, like the less twitchy referees, who can now thankfully stomach the odd bit of argy-bargy from the defensive 'pressing' buttons, and the ability to keep the ball when sliding in with a tackle, which does more than anything to keep the turnover rate within reasonable bounds, and certainly helps to discourage profligate use of the dash button in central midfield. Meanwhile, the addition of a quick free-kick function, activated when it's possible by pressing the two shoulder buttons closest to you at the same time, allows you to continue without having the entire opposition team standing ahead of the ball, as was the case in the past, and the advantage rule is better-handled, with players being punished even if play has subsequently taken quite a while to stop.
But equally it's hard to escape the feeling that this shift in balance has led to a more frustrating game overall. Konami wants us to be excellent before we can dance through teams, and it's a noble goal more ably realised than in previous versions, but is it actually fun?
The answer is that that probably depends on what you want out of it. If all you want to do is take Ronaldinho on a whistle-stop tour of every blade of grass, pirouetting with the right-analogue-twirl through a lead-footed defence on the way to smashing the ball past the goalkeeper, you can achieve that by notching the difficulty down to the first or second levels. (In the Xbox 360 version's case, that's certainly the best way to mine it for gamerpoints - with most of them available for winning leagues and cups, which can be done on any difficulty level. Grr.)
But surely, for the more adventurous, simply bouncing around midfield until you can find a sufficient bludgeon is just forced attrition?
Well, maybe on your own, but in multiplayer, I'm happy to say, there's still a great game to be had. Multiplayer games see both players working hard to maintain possession, shielding the ball and fashioning openings through deception, dragging defenders out of position and using flair players like Zidane, whose characteristics inspire his team-mates to work more confidently around him, to switch the play. But although the lack of speed pushes you into certain tactical brackets, the things that are brilliant about PES remain intact: the individual players' real-life strengths and weaknesses convincingly portrayed through a set of statistics and particular aptitudes; the need to think like a footballer to create chances, and the need to act like one to seize on them; the precise fatigue and injury systems that demand tactical considerations often absent from the competition. Most importantly, there's the genuinely convincing illusion of football: PES looks like little footballers playing football. Sometimes they're a bit dim-witted, failing to pounce on a loose ball (and the goalkeepers make some fairly horrendous mistakes now and then), but the illusion itself remains intact, the players' shortfalls themselves quite convincing.
And, of course, so much is decided by that great footballing truism: that anything can happen. You may not be able to roar past the left-back, but you can always outwit him to create space and get the cross in, and nowhere is that more true than against a football-loving friend, the way PES is meant to be played. When it all pays off, and you split the defence in the last minute, calmly slotting the ball past the advancing keeper, the sense of elation is almost without compare.
Even so, I would probably still rather choose PES5, or even Winning Eleven 10 (which, while almost comically fast, is far more accessible and visceral) to play with others, because as much as there's a demand on skill and planning here, there comes a point in time when you lose a game because Henry was caught by a defender despite starting off a couple of yards ahead of him, and that grates.
And while we're on the subject of grating, let's address the differences between the PS2 and Xbox 360 versions, which hardly flatter the new boy. On PlayStation 2, you can play four versus four online. On Xbox 360, you can play one on one, or two versus two offline (Xbox 360 has no support at all for more than four players on one console, either). On PS2, you can choose from 33 stadiums. On Xbox 360, there are eight. On PS2, you have the PES Shop to work through, unlocking extra bits and pieces. On Xbox 360, there is no shop - you get what you're given. On PS2, the menus allow you to quickly flick between starting eleven and substitutes; to view the scorers during a game by hitting the pause button; to save off replays to your memory card; to edit virtually anything in the game; to play an International Challenge mode, based on World Cup qualifying, and Random Selection matches, where teams are randomly drawn players from a chosen continent (simply brilliant for multiplayer pick-up matches). On Xbox 360, of all of that, all you can do is edit the player names. You can't even save replays, which is just ludicrous - particularly given that the manual actually says you can.
Graphically, the Xbox 360 has widescreen support, and many more polygons pumped into every area. Movement in both versions is slick and believable, to a degree it hasn't been in any other version. Players now tumble over challenges that they can't hurdle and goalkeepers tip the ball around posts single-handed. On that level, Konami continues to impress. Body shapes are convincing, those little flicks look just like they do on TV, with players prancing to avoid follow-through, and although the 360 players are a little bit Madame Tussauds in places, that version's conservative enough in other areas to avoid the impressive fuzzy-felt effect of other sports games. Then again, and this is true of both PS2 and Xbox 360 to some of extent (the latter of which has Dolby Digital support), the crowd remains quite dead at times, chanting away but rarely all that excited when the ball flies into the net, and although the 360 graphics are slick and in places believable, we're not talking about Fight Night levels of realism here; this just looks like a PS2 game put through a few filters.
Konami has also resisted whatever urges it may have felt about some of the game's other core mechanics. Throw-ins, corners, penalties - all a bit rubbish, all the same. Free-kicks are still acceptably skill-based and interesting, and success has a lot to do with the player you've chosen to stand over the ball (hint: deselect, wherever necessary, Roberto one-in-a-hundred Carlos). But this is still old-PES. You get the feeling the series needs to put PS2 behind it and focus exclusively on the next-generation formats before it will find a new level.
Somebody also needs to get a bit more proactive in the licensing department. With FIFA seemingly on the march in a gameplay sense, the disparity between EA's gotta-catch-'em-all approach to licensing and Konami's positioning-a-bedsheet-under-the-window is all the more apparent. Chelsea are back to being London FC, even though Manchester United are in. The Germans appear to have gone completely, but for Bayern Munich's lurking in Other Leagues A. The Master League (thankfully they remembered to include that on Xbox 360) feels a bit lifeless as a result, and of course if you buy the Xbox 360 version, you can't rely on somebody painstakingly altering everything and then offering the save-file to download, and nor can you do everything yourself. There's also a bit of hangover from World Cup squads - with players like Zidane and Beckham still there, despite their real-life circumstances.
All of which means that Pro Evolution Soccer is worth your money for the sixth year in a row, but hardly the massive leap that it has been in the past. If you have a choice of formats, PlayStation 2 looks to be the way to go, with better features in almost every department - including online, despite Xbox 360's service-level superiority. Indeed, Xbox 360 owners have every right to be disappointed by this release, and chant angrily from in front the screen. In the end I'm left feeling the same way about Konami's current PES-base that I did during the summer the mighty 'pool booted Ged Houllier: what we have is solid, and refinements could propel it back to glory, but really it's high time we started over from scratch.