The Big Match
The PlayStation 2's footy cabinet is pretty well stocked at the moment. What with This is Football 2002 in Sony's corner and EA's massive FIFA Football 2002, Konami have their work cut out for them this Christmas. But they really shouldn't worry - Pro Evolution Soccer is without a doubt the best football game on any console. Ever. (Okay, maybe not better than Sensi, but give me a break.) Ignore the less than authoritative database of player names, team names and strips, the lack of player endorsements and other paraphernalia, and the silly little oversights like the 'Europian Cup': PES is the only game out there that actually feels like football at the moment, and not some sort of bizarre combination of ballet and opera. Yes we're looking at you now, EA. PES captures the spirit of the game, and by the time you're passing the ball about in midfield and threading dainty through-balls between defenders, the lacklustre presentation will be long since forgotten. There are a number of things that set PES apart from the likes of FIFA in its approach to the beautiful game. FIFA has long been the home of extravagant trick moves like Cruyff turns, overhead kicks and ridiculous shimmies. PES has a close control mode, activated by R2, that lets you perform trick moves but they require split-second timing to execute. In other words, you need skills. Another thing that sets the game apart from its competition is its approach to goalscoring. In games like FIFA it's pretty damn easy to score from any position goalside of the centre circle by hammering the sprint key and twiddling your player every which way past opponents, but if you score in PES it's because you deserved to score. Slotting a through-ball into empty space demands that you have created some empty space ahead of time, and shooting is completely unassisted - you have to get the angle, height and power behind the shot absolutely right. Other games may have dabbled with power bars, but I defy you to name even one that offers as much control over your actions as Pro Evolution Soccer.
The problem with games like FIFA is that the goalscoring and general play is completely unrealistic. The ball never travels in a straight line, and seems to move on a network of curved ramps in the air, particularly when you hit one from the edge of the box. PES asks that you fight for every ball, jostling for position and that if you want your striker to get on the end of a cross, you do not simply hold the directional pad goalwards and hit shoot when the ball arrives, you have to wait calmly in position and judge when and where to direct the ball. All in a split-second. The control system is definitely the best of any footy title this writer has played. The analogue stick controls movement, with L1 switching to the nearest player to the ball and R1 initiating the sprint mode. Sprinting obviously gives you a better chance of getting away from opponents, but it also makes it more difficult to keep control of the ball. Defying convention, PES also has a button for tracking back. If a player on the opposing team gets the ball, you need not spend the next two minutes flustering over you inability to direct an appropriate offscreen player in his direction, a simple button press has you following your opponent at full pace so you can concentrate on a sensible challenge for possession. Giving an opposition player a hard time is often enough to force an error - one of my favourites is forcing a player to the by-line then watching them fall in an attempt to cross the ball, instead slicing it into the stands. PES also has more advanced techniques - I'm still trying to get the hang of a lot of them - you can play lofted through-balls, bring your keeper out to deal with an onrushing striker and plenty more. You are unlikely to run out of things to do and see.
While the game is packed with play modes, the interface is pretty dire. It's the usual black screen affair with functional menus and none of the rockstar glitz of FIFA or TIF 2002. You can customize your players if their names really get on your nerves, but there are a certain amount of licensed players in the game anyway, including the all-important England team (with apologies to our continental readers.) As you may recall, Konami had access to Sports Interactive's Championship Manager player database to sort out player statistics, so if the game's depiction of the fleet-footed David Beckham or the lumbering Emile Heskey seems surprising accurate, you have SI to thank. You can also customize cups, leagues and other tournaments within the interface, although several are already built in, including the aforementioned 'Europian Cup'. Ugh. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, it's the game's presentation overall which lets it down. The interface is only one aspect, with the in-game commentary another. The choice of Chris James and Terry Butcher is an odd one to begin with, but the number of broken sentences and mistakes they tot up between them would be comical if it weren't so sad. Chris James often just seems to yell out a random team name enthusiastically, and then stop for a few seconds before carrying on with "'s throw!" I had to turn it off to preserve my sanity. Another issue I have with the game is Konami's decision to implement a sort of luck factor. When you pick up a ball, there is a chance that you will mess up your first touch, which is fair enough on paper and pretty realistic, but in practice it's extremely annoying. The referee and linesmen (sorry, referee's assistants) also make a lot of unlikely decisions, with my outrage often vindicated by the action replay.
The Final Minute
Visually Pro Evolution Soccer is a bit of a mixed bag. It looks pretty good from a distance, but up close it's clear that the game lacks a lot of the clarity and finesse of its main competitor, FIFA Football 2002. The nets don't really bulge realistically, the player models and skins are average, the advertising boards look cheap and the crowd is pretty cartoonish. FIFA isn't much better in that respect, but still. On the whole I was fairly nonplussed by the presentation and visuals in PES, which are passable in my opinion, with a few noteworthy exceptions. Firstly, the game's complement of stadia are all lavishly detailed, so that in the run up to a game as you watch the incessant parades and flag-waving you get a decent eyeful. Beyond that, I would class the players' animation as a real triumph. The fact that you will be able to distinguish players by their body language is truly remarkable, and players really lunge for the ball and hurdle challenges realistically. It's something FIFA has tried to achieve unsuccessfully for the last several revisions, however pretty everything looks. Gameplay is definitely king with Pro Evolution Soccer, so it's unsurprising to see a healthy complement of multiplayer options. Ideally you will want to encourage a like-minded chum to pick this up at about the same time, because proper two player games are completely gripping. This is a game where a nil-nil draw can be a hair-raising experience... in single-player. Nothing gets the blood pumping quite as much as a two player bout of Pro Evo. For me, it's like watching England vs. Scotland in a small room with a Scotland fan. Pro Evolution Soccer is definitely a football fan's game. While FIFA may be enjoyable, it lacks the realism of PES, which despite its flaws is undoubtedly the superior title. If you can put up with the shifty interface, somewhat uninspiring visuals and dire commentary, you're in for a treat. Beneath the surface, PES is the best football there is, and deserves a place in any gamer's collection.