Normally I just leave Tom to review Pro Evolution Soccer on the basis that he's put so many man years into it that his knowledge of the game boots mine into row Z. That doesn't mean I don't have an opinion on PES, and it certainly doesn't mean I don't play it from time to time. I just try and avoid having my spirit crushed too often by playing him.
Played against similarly skilled opponents, PES still ranks among the most entertaining games around. With even a modicum of knowledge of its inner workings you really do start to feel like you're crafting a football match with your own hands. Once you develop your own approach and strategy to the game, you really start to notice how good the AI is, how you can pull players out of position and take full advantage of space and the individual strengths of your team. The whole build-up play still feels thrilling.
But it's not a game without its crippling flaws that so many people seem willing to overlook year upon year. My main problem with PES has always been that it's absolutely no fun whatsoever against someone who plays it all the time, and PES6 merely seems to exacerbate that even more. In a game where keeping possession has always been quite difficult to master, PES6 attempts to get around that with the ability to shield the ball. But still, as Tom rightly points out, you forever find yourself with a pacey player in a good position - yards ahead of the opposition - only to get mugged at the death.
That doesn't mean it's always hard to carve out attacking manoeuvres, though - it's just that the dynamic now favours the defence even more than it has in the past, meaning newbies won't be murdered quite as badly as they perhaps once would have, but may find it even more of a tall order to break out of defence and score. It's an odd dynamic, because although the scorelines might be lower than before (and therefore the humiliation lessened) the barrier to entry for newcomers seems higher than ever unless you're content to play the beginner or amateur AI.
But whether you're a veteran or a newcomer, you'll share a common complaint - that PES6 appears to be the most difficult in the series to score. Having ploughed through two of the game's leagues and all seven cups against the AI, it's true that the first two difficulty levels are almost insultingly easy. But beyond that, and against human opposition online, it's an absolute lottery whether the game will let you score or not.
Okay, admittedly I'm pretty rubbish at PES, but not that rubbish. Half the time online I've matched opponents shot for shot, and occasionally murdered them - yet on every single occasion it was a real effort to get the ball on target. Occasionally I've been on the end of some real beatings myself, and found myself a few men short and rarely conceded more than one or two goals. Whether you're an old hand or bright newcomer, those headers and volleys just keep on ballooning high and wide when just tucking them away seems like the simpler option. Don't believe me? See for yourself.
Now, clearly there's a knack to all this. People repeatedly advise me to time shots properly, to try and press RT/R2 to cushion the ball and to make sure the players are not off balance, but it only seems to get you so far. I wouldn't mind if this was just something the less skilled players have to overcome with practice, but the fact that the very people dishing out the advice are shouting expletives at the game in sheer frustration hardly bodes well.
Something else that conspires to reduce any fun you might get out of PES6 is how desperately laggy the online play appears to be at the moment. During corner kicks, the game repeatedly turns into a slideshow, and if you get an opponent across the other side of the world the game's practically unplayable. You have to more or less relearn how to play the game to take into account of the lag, with the power bar registering your input often seconds after you've pressed the button. With every other game badly affected by the problem, it seriously compromises attempts to build up flowing attacks - not to mention timing your challenges. It might be a great leveller, but it's hellishly annoying.
And what of the game's technical impoverishment? After playing FIFA on 360, you'll really notice how old school the animation is, with players' side-to-side motion resembling a team full of crabs. The adoption of widescreen, though, is a major bonus for a series so mystifyingly resistant to such a fundamental idea, and genuinely helps with building up the play effectively. And while the lack of all the stadiums might sound like a daft omission on 360, you'll hardly notice it once you're in the thick of play.
What you will definitely notice, though, is how little effort Konami has put into delivering the 360 version. With barely any major technical improvements over the PS2 version other than cleaner, sharper graphics, it appears that Konami is content to tread water for this year's release and eke out another edition before the inevitable arrival of a definitive next-gen version in 2007.
Elsewhere, you'll still cringe at the appalling presentation, exasperating commentary and literally the worst soundtrack in any major game - not to mention the continuing lack of real teams after all these years. Having raked in the profits from selling literally tens of millions of copies of the various PES games over the years, it's absolutely mystifying why Konami still brings its most important game to market with such a degree of unapologetic poverty. PES6 stinks of a cynical, half-arsed attempt to mug the 360's hungry user-base into buying a next-gen version of their favourite football game. Not only is it far from 'next-gen' it's not even properly finished.
With so many features missing, a poor online implementation and a tragic unwillingness to treat this as a next generation project, Konami has taken a hefty gamble with PES6 on the 360. Factor in some of the unpopular design decisions and it's hard not to think that the series has taken a noticeable step backwards at a time when EA's busy taking giant steps with FIFA. PES is still a great game, but whether it's the greatest anymore is a more contentious issue than ever.