Wayne Rooney. He's a bit good. And this from a Liverpool fan. It strikes us, sitting here in the dark, watching - one second - Wales and England Under-16s, and contemplating where to go with all this, that the irritatingly labelled Boy Wonder is as good a place to start as any. Rooney is a perfect example of the difference between Pro Evolution Soccer 4 and FIFA Football 2005. But how so, you say. The long and short of it is this: in FIFA, he plays for Man United, he wears the right squad number, his face is modelled on the real one, and he's pretty nippy and packs a wallop in the final third; in PES4, he's still at Everton, he's strong in the air and fast with a good first touch and a venomous shot, and while you can't tell him from Adam face to face, you can tell who it is when you see him move.
Oranges at half time?
FIFA and PES4 both get a lot of things right. But for our money PES4 manages to emulate the more satisfying component parts of the sport, and enough of them in unison that it starts to resemble the feeling of watching and indeed playing the game for real. FIFA still does a good job, but it just doesn't seem to tweak our footballing nipples the same way. What it does do though is deliver an engaging enough game while satisfying more of our administrative concerns - up-to-the-minute player and team data, the right tournaments, and online support on the PS2. These are things we definitely want in our football games. Konami has made some positive steps with PES4 - the addition of four licensed European leagues and online support on the Xbox - but when transfers from two months back haven't gone through it turns people in the direction of the EA director's box. And the omission of online support from the flagship PS2 version is distinctly frustrating.
But losing 4-0 on Sunday mornings to teams from places like Tring and Aston Clinton didn't turn us off football, and despite the aforementioned issues (one of which, at least, can be solved by updating data with a third-party tool; try to guess which one), it's the football itself that keeps us coming back, whatever the outcome. PES4 gets so many of the things that make you watch and play football right that it actually feels like football under your thumbs. Of course there are gaps, which we'll get to later, but with each passing year they're lessening in number. By the time we retire, our sons and daughters will be writing about the latest PES games and ruminating, "It's exactly like football, except without that bit where..." It'll just be more efficient.
Back in the present day, PES4 clearly gets enough right to justify the asking price. To begin with, it gets the ball right. Far more so than it has done in the past. The ball moves convincingly, has a physical, untethered presence, and takes meaningful deflections that tickle or terrify you in just the way you secretly desire. It also gets the animation right. Players connect convincingly with the ball, with better transitions between the running and passing or shooting animations; they run and change direction more realistically, fall believably (or at least authentically); and because the way they behave looks right in most given situations, and the ball behaves of itself, the illusion of real football is upheld visually. The likenesses don't really matter, the mashed potato faces in the crowd don't really either, and we can even forgive the bizarre pelvic thrusting of the encroaching defenders on corners. The only other thing of any particular importance is the bulge of the net and the action replay modes, and those remain satisfying and adequate respectively.
Dreaming of goals
It gets the speed and fluidity of the game right. Players don't labour over passes any more, and the ball doesn't drift on a seemingly predetermined path to meet their runs. The passing game is a lot more convincing and important than ever before; players are more than capable of moving the ball on with the outside of their favoured foot, so it's possible to string a lot of quick one-touch passes together, and your success is more down to your pass selection than anything. First touch control is a lot more elegant and intuitive this time too, with a far wider array of flick-ons and associated animations, giving you much more of a say in what happens when the ball approaches at speed and under pressure. The net result is that the game not only looks convincing but manages to deliver a sense of momentum and flexibility where others stutter.
It gets the AI right. You're only controlling one player directly at any given time, but if that happens to be a left winger, for example, then you'll find your left back overlapping to help going forward, while players around you make darting runs more effectively than they used to, opponents drop back to mark attackers, and individual players take up the sorts of positions they usually adopt in real life - with equally effective results. And, for that matter, PES4 gets the control right. It isn't an easy discipline to master, but it's home to the sort of depth that continues to reward for months on end - clever one-twos, offside traps, flat and looping chips, step-overs and delicate ball control, and a free kick system that, while still occasionally enigmatic, now allows you to lay the ball off and strike it as well as belting it first time.
Defending involves reading the play and deciding whether or not to have your current player close down the ball directly (hold X) or to try and tackle the opponent manually, and equally whether or not to bring another player out of position to hare towards the ball (hold square) and try and impede his progress. Attacking requires solid, patient passing and thoughtful build-up play - lone man heroics are rewarded only occasionally. In PES4 everything, with the continuing exception of penalties, is a skill, and the relative difficulties of things like defensive headers and goalbound bicycle kicks are arguably comparable to what you'd find in the park. And, just like real football, that makes it all the more entertaining when something unusual happens, like breaking upfield and scoring a goal in a visceral flurry of one-twos, fleet-footed front men and diving headers. Because far more than any other sports game PES4 convinces you that the potential's there for it to happen; it's just up to you to find a way to make it happen.
The relevance of the stats to proceedings is more obvious now than ever. Playing with a team of Phil Nevilles would be engaging enough - they'd all move the ball quickly, it'd be just as crisp and responsive, and it'd be just as finely balanced - but the individual characteristics of players you follow closely are borne out here to a degree that seriously impresses. The presence of the referee on the pitch is a largely superfluous change (perhaps he's there to crow about the refined advantage rule), but players predisposed to tackling erratically are going to find their way into his book more often than others, while players like Djibril Cisse collect fouls like we used to collect football stickers - regularly and inexpensively. (Even if they pick up a slight knock, they can now go off for treatment and resume a few minutes later.) And if you put Ashley Cole up against Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, it's a real battle, as the Portuguese youngster jinks and roars to the touchline and Cole keeps pace and works hard to block him off at every twist and turn. This sort of thing is why we know it's Rooney in spite of his face.
That players now seem to tackle in a manner that befits the situation adds even more spice, and it helps that what the game shows you now far more accurately reflects what you're actually doing in the finer details. You'll still be yelling the occasional harsh word in anger as you get the ball and seem to be penalised for it, but on the whole if you see an opening and trying to stick a boot in, you stand far more chance of pegging back the attacker than scything the backs of his legs and earning a red card when all... he needed... to do... was hook... the bloody... leg...
PES4's charms are many but it's their cohesion that clinches it for us. It's like we said: it may not be a flawless facsimile, but the things it does do right are weighted and integrated in a manner that reflects real football. And like real football, we've never seen enough of it; the disc's always loitering somewhere close to the PS2. At this stage, each new version is about filling in the remaining gaps. Next year, off the tops of our heads, we're hoping for slightly less midfield pinball (an occasional problem borne of the marriage of good ball physics and clustered players), slightly less angular turning movements (we're using the analogue stick anyway), more of the little intuitive reactionary movements that help claw back the ball, and a few other little specifics, but there's no longer any need to paint in broad strokes.
A few yards wide
All-round official data and perhaps, one day, the right competitions are undoubtedly some of the more important things still missing, but the Master League option puts in another good year here, with an improved scouting system, the ability to take your team into match mode, use the right squad from the start and even see them retire through injury, and all the things that made it such an attraction in the past. It's a real time-sink for the single player, and you'll really feel like you've triumphed when you finish on top for the first time with a squad made up of your best efforts.
Even just picking up Match mode every once in a while for a few games can have you playing for endless hours, whether you fancy showing a lesser team how to pick the ball out of the back of the net a few times on a lower difficulty, or you want to really test your mettle and gun for the result right up to the 90th on five-star. Make no mistake: for all its fluidity and flexibility, PES4 doesn't make it any easier to score goals. However good you think you are, unlock the six-star difficulty level in the PES Shop and see if you don't agree with us.
Still, there are a few things which rank as disappointments that we're not prepared to accept. There are ways round things like outdated squads and there are suitable alternatives to authentic competitions, but things like a lack of widescreen support (still), dull presentation, the ever-so-slightly-improved-but-still-overwhelmingly-annoying commentary and in-game slowdown are much less forgivable. The latter has improved since the Japanese Winning Eleven 8, which had a tendency to drop a considerable number of frames during goalmouth scrambles, particularly with the Wide camera angle, but it's still there to a degree that you will notice.
It's not an immaculate display overall, then, but it really is getting there, and it's so much more than the next sports adaptation these days. We may enjoy games like Tiger Woods, NHL and Virtua Tennis, but in most cases we're just in love with the mechanics. Even FIFA. Beat someone at that and you might celebrate and goad them about it, but when we score a goal in PES4, we do, even if it's just for a split second, feel like we've really put one past the other team. On a football pitch. It's suspension of disbelief. It's also proof more than anything that PES4 was designed by football brains for football brains. And if you love football as much as we do, then the only reasonable excuse for not buying it now is waiting for the Xbox version and challenging us over the Internet. Another season unbeaten for Konami.