We like driving. Given the choice between walking to Somerfield and driving to Sainsbury's, we hop in the car. When our folks ask for PC tech support, we race 40 minutes up the motorway to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del. But driving has its drawbacks, and if you took away luxuries like adjustable seats and made us stop at every zebra crossing, roundabout and set of traffic lights between us and our destination, we'd be far less inclined to pull on our cap and gloves and take you for a spin. Particularly if we kept being cut up by some boy racer to whom none of the above seemed to apply.
You can probably see where we're going with this. We're trying to sum up the experience of playing Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on Xbox Live. Which somehow manages to underwhelm. See, we like playing Pro Evolution Soccer 4 with other people. Given the choice between sliding neat through balls between AI defenders and scything down our friends as they gallop towards goal, we plug in the second pad. And the third and fourth. Yet, as hard as it is to imagine, Konami has made a number of crucial mistakes in the composition of the series' first online console game, which make a mockery of its World Rankings system and leave you cursing at least a handful of times during virtually every game you play. And you know what's most frustrating? It's still far too good for us to give it anything less than a nine.
Before we get into all that, let's cover the good news: PES4 Xbox gets the basics right. In gameplay terms it's the equal of its magnificent PS2 counterpart, so we'll save us and you the bother of recounting what made that so magic. Just read that review first if you need a grounding; the only real differences offline are technical. The more powerful Xbox version runs flawlessly from every angle and elevation, eliminating slowdown issues, and obviously it looks better in general. It still can't compete with the sharpness of the PC version, which runs at much higher resolutions, but the players have more definition and the colours are somehow richer. Elsewhere, another benefit of the transition to Xbox is the opportunity to save a huge number of goal replays without having to consider the limited storage capacity of a memory card; each replay takes just two blocks, and the save and load times in general have been sped up thanks to the game's reliance on the hard disk.
Other than that, the only critical difference is the slab of plastic in your hand. Controlling PES4 on the Xbox "S" pad is more or less the same as doing so on the PlayStation 2 Dual Shock, except, for obvious reasons, the L2 and R2 functions (Strategy and Special Commands respectively) have been remapped to the White and Black buttons. This caused a problem for us veterans of the PS2 series because the "Special Commands" function is something we use very often to affect a good first touch, to shimmy away or pull a step-over, and it feels a little awkward reaching down with our right thumb to do so. Being able to use our index finger on the shoulder button while keeping our thumbs poised for passing and movement was one of the things we most appreciated about playing PES on a Dual Shock pad.
Still, it shouldn't be too hard to adjust to the change in layout over time, and failing that there's always the option of a joypad converter - of which there are several available from importers like Lik Sang. Meanwhile, for anybody approaching PES for the first time the issue won't be quite so frustrating. After all, if you're not pre-programmed to reach for a shoulder button when you want to control the ball away from your marker, you're not going to have too much trouble learning that it corresponds to a little black nub under your thumb instead. Furthermore, anybody approaching PES for the first time will be well catered for by an extensive training mode (expanded for the fourth game in the series) and a vast manual that runs to some 70 pages of English, explaining everything from the rules of the sport to virtually every advanced button combination in the game.
Make friends and then run away when they win
We can say it's good, then. In fact, we can do better than that: we can say it's our favourite football game on the Xbox. If you want to argue the toss between FIFA and PES then be our guest, but we'd imagine that anybody who truly believes FIFA 2005 to be superior is already busy playing this year's version of that online - perhaps even competing in the officially sanctioned World Cup tournament that EA's running at the moment. FIFA's online implementation was largely faultless this time around (unlike last year on the PS2); there's a ranking system that sensibly penalises you by recording a 3-0 defeat if you quit out of games before they're finished, it can send out email updates, and it supports all the other things that make Xbox Live feel so polished and intuitive. So we can't imagine there are too many FIFA fans hanging around here out of anything besides a desire to flame or simple curiosity.
Whatever, anybody who does feel that way isn't likely to be driven to jealousy by Konami's efforts. On the surface, PES4 Xbox Live looks fine; you can choose a quick match or optimatch, create your own game for somebody else to join, and check out your position in the World Rankings. Konami's also sensibly ruled that you can only pause the game three times, and that you'll only have 60 seconds on the pre-match and half-time screen to tinker with Formation Settings. However, after a few games, that initial sense of "Finally!" dissipates completely. To be replaced by the punching of armrests, various accusatory gestures thrown at the screen, and a constant, high-pitched wailing. In our case anyway. The reasons for this are threefold:
Firstly, there is no obvious facility for starting up leagues and tournaments with your friends. The World Rankings system will allow you to compare your progress to players on your Friends list, which is helpful, but that appears to be the extent of it. If you want to have them compete against you in some sort of persistent league structure, it's going to require coordination of your own devising. Secondly, the World Rankings system itself is hamstrung by the absence of one of FIFA's key features: the penalisation of quitters. Of the 30 or so games we've played on Xbox Live so far, only a quarter of them have actually reached conclusion, meaning that our collated statistics make for mid-table mediocrity. However, we've been in a winning position in more or less all the others only to have them cut short - presumably because the other player decided that resetting the Xbox with half a minute remaining was better than banking a defeat and having it besmirch an "unbeaten run". Wenger would love PES4 Xbox.
Nevertheless, these are problems that can be overcome. Gather a decent group of online buddies and there's plenty of potential for leagues, cups, and never-ending friendlies, which nearly make up for the absence of critically important features like those mentioned above. What really grates after a while though is our third big issue: the inability to skip animations or replays. In other words, every time you're caught offside, you have to sit and watch the replay. Every time you commit a particularly handsome foul, you have to watch the referee running up to your man and ticking him off, followed by a replay of the incident, maybe followed by the sight of a player being stretchered off. When the game reaches half-time, you have to watch all the players leave the field as the camera flicks between their faces. When you score, you have to watch the homoerotic celebration sequences. None of this can be skipped.
Presumably Konami did this in order to maintain synchronicity between the two players' machines, but whatever the reason the result is a lot of sitting around hammering buttons wishing that the bloody thing would get a move on. And we don't quite buy the synchronicity argument anyway, since you could skip things in FIFA without much effort, and it's still possible to cut short replays of goals even in PES4. In fact, that in itself can be a pain, because the scorer has power over whether his opponent has to sit and watch the shot again and again or not. Many of our random opponents delighted in making us sit through goals several times, cackling harshly in our ear, and then quit anyway five minutes later when we levelled the scores...
Fortunately you can say that the experience of playing the game online isn't vastly removed from doing so against somebody sat next to you on the couch. We encountered a fair amount of lag during our experimentation, but we also enjoyed some extremely smooth contests, and frankly getting to play PES4 online against our friends is worth the odd stutter - even if once in a blue moon the ball seems to misbehave, or the goalkeeper teleports half a yard away from the ball, leaving Deco to square it for Saviola to stroke into an empty net. [Let it go. It happened once. -Ed]
Not quite a team
It's a shame more changes weren't made in the extra time the Xbox port had in development. It's particularly disappointing to see that widescreen and progressive scan are still off the menu, despite the addition of 5.1 surround sound, which surely can't make that much difference to the experience. It's also frustrating that the player data is still from August. Not even late August. Rooney is still at Everton, Luis Garcia's at Barcelona, etc. etc., and there's seemingly little chance of Konami releasing updated info as downloadable content - assuming that greyed out "Content DL" box on the back of the packaging actually means something. For a game released on November 26th - well over a month after its EA-made rival debuted with up-to-the-minute stats - it's hard not to be frustrated by that.
Still, while there are evidently drawbacks to playing Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on Xbox - whether offline or via Live - on the whole Xbox owners will be able to get past them. The initial learning curve remains a touch steep, but the pay-off is one of the most well-rounded football simulations ever cut to the back of a DVD. Passing's swift and fluid, big name players are endowed with the mercurial skills they've become known for, identifiable by their movement and playing style as much as their countenance, and the ball reacts and behaves in playful style, rather than acting like it's drawn to people's feet. PES4 is arguably guilty of nudging the success rate of through passes a bit too high, and someone really needs to demonstrate the advantage rule to these referees, but otherwise it's probably the only football game where you can talk about the offside trap and wingers overlapping without actually lying.
Looking at it from the Xbox owner's perspective, it's a flawed introduction. In fact, if we reach back right to the beginning of our PS2 PES4 review, let's revive "The Boy Rooney(TM)" as an example: he comes on and debuts mid-week in Europe and scores a hat-trick, only to fall completely flat at the weekend. PES4 arrives on Xbox with a fearsome reputation, clearly deserved, and it's capable of the sort of magic that will have you scrambling for an Xbox pad the second you get home most evenings. But taken online - where its impact was most needed - its form is patchy and you get the feeling it's not giving its all. It wanted to play in Europe on Xbox, hence the high profile transfer, but if it's going to win our long-term affection on Xbox it's going to have to put more effort into the details. It's a fantastic, must-buy game for virtually every football-loving Xbox owner, but it could have been much better, too.