Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 Review (PS3)
Read the reviews about Winning Eleven games over the past years, and you’ll see a repeated theme, something along the lines of, “Konami has tinkered/slightly upgraded its already great product, leaving the same great gameplay.” Each new incarnation of Konami’s famed football series evokes familiarity yet releases a vague scent of dissimilarity, as if your girlfriend got a 2-inch haircut, or if a classmate switched to dark-rimmed glasses. The same…yet different.
But with the jump to the PlayStation 3, with all its additional graphical power and online capabilities, many Winning Eleven (wait—Pro Evolution Soccer) fans have high expectations for this year’s game, set for release on March 18. So what should you expect? Living in South Korea, I have explored PES: 2008 now for nearly four months, and here’s the verdict: The gameplay upgrades are, as always, subtle, while the graphics outfit the game in its prettiest, crispest virtual home & away kit to date.
Don’t expect 10 goals your first game
Like a Wes Anderson film, PES has delivered a product that packs a steep learning curve at first, but rewards gamers the longer they indulge, as never-before-seen details and pleasant surprises emerge. It’s not unusual 5 or 6 months into the game, you stumble upon an undiscovered step-over, or a nifty, over-the-head ball flic animation. In this regard, PES:08 is no different.
In my first month, I noticed how the game pace was slower than last year’s 2007 version. The ball seems to pass slower, as if the pitch weren’t trimmed for weeks. Even the players running speed seems to be slower. Perhaps the reason for this is the game’s upgrade to high-definition, allowing for a wider view of the pitch, despite using the same camera angle (wide view). Yet, the slower pace allows for a more managed, less sprint-and-run game. Players, especially brutes like Inter’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, seemingly can ignore two or three defenders kicking at their legs and advance forward.
Still, as I adjusted to the game’s speed, the game’s tried-and-true elements were revealed: the controlled, quick passing in the midfield; the ability to instantaneously call upon the myriad of dribble, one-touch, and shoulder fake animations to evade a defender; the intelligent CPU off-the-ball movement. These basic components are where the PES fans and FIFA fans show the biggest contrast in preference: FIFA’s gameplay core seems to start with generating space via the dribbling tactics summoned upon by the Right analog stick; PES relies more on team play, with concise passing. To illustrate with a basketball example, PES seems to be a great mid-major basketball team steeped in team fundamentals, while FIFA is more like a Memphis or Kansas, relying more on flash and individual play.
New A.I. reads your mind…sort of
The biggest improvement, as touted by PES producer Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka, is the so-called “Teamvision AI,” which is a feature where the CPU tracks your attacking and defensive tendencies. I think this new feature has effects both in-game and throughout a season. For example, you will notice if you attack down the wings, the defense will creep up, forcing you to charge down the middle instead. Also, in a season playing as Valencia in the Liga Espanol, I toppled FC Barcelona 3-2 in the first game, then struggled in the ensuing 10 matches against lesser teams, as the opposing defenses and offenses adjusted to my style. Other small, new touches include: the ability to dive (simultaneously press L1+L2+R1), and to take free-kicks without the screen going momentarily black.
Not the prettiest girl on the soccer block
In terms of the graphics, the game certainly looks much better, as one buddy of mine during his first game exclaimed: “Wow, you can see the grass blades!” The facial expressions, while still a bit too “emo,” are more human, even expressing angst and happiness at correct times. The crowds are all 3-D, and you get close-ups of a few portly fans in the pre-game introductions. That said, the faces, stadiums, and jerseys all look considerably worse compared to FIFA. However, in the animation department, PES’ subtle in-game movements, as mentioned above, are more diverse and realistic than in FIFA. One major difference is PE’s long-established “Super Cancel” feature, which allows defenders or attackers to cancel the computer’s pre-destined direction mid-run; in FIFA, however, players plod along as if they were on tracks.
Like previous versions, the English commentary is sub-par, though more enjoyable and lively in any of the foreign languages, be it Spanish or Japanese. The crowds chant team-specific chants, even for the national sides, and boo more frequently. Sadly, I have not seen any flares tossed among the crowds yet.
Who is Rigaloose?
PES packs a number of game modes: Exhibition, Master League (the game’s Franchise mode where players age, retire, etc.), League (players don’t age; you can choose among the French, Spanish, English, or Dutch leagues, or create a super league of various club nationalities); Cup; Online; and an extensive skill-by-skill training mode. The Master League allows you to either start with a current team, or build up a team from the 2nd division with fictional players. Either way, you accumulate cash by winning games, placing high in tournaments, or finishing first in league goals or assists. With that cash, you pay your players and bid for new ones. The system is adjustable based on the frequency and difficulty of transfers, player development, and whether to include Classic Players (Pele, Maradona, etc.). One new addition is the inclusion of a Fan Popularity grade with individual players, which determines how difficult it is to buy a player. But because there is no economic factor to the game, i.e. no tinkering soda sales or monitoring attendance, there are no real ramifications for selling your club’s Steven Gerrard-esque poster boy.
With the access now to PS3’s hard drive, it has never been easier to upload user-created kits and updated rosters. And trust me—you’ll need to upgrade, as the English Premiership, outside of Tottenham and Newcastle United, are unlicensed. The players are all there, but weird kits and team names appear, like Arzegum (Arsenal), Rigaloose (Liverpool), and McCresta U (Manchester United). The menu screens, decorated with sleek blues and grays, are a bit difficult to navigate—for example, finding in-season results was a pain—but little touches, like a global map as the backdrop during team selection, complete with a shiny dot showing the geography, are nice touches. The game’s music is a mix of grunge, hard, and soft rock that you’d hear on any FM station.
As for the online play, you can always find a game, given the game’s international popularity, as PES, naturally, boasts most of its sales in Asia and Europe. Still, like any sports gaming experience online, there are cheap players who fancy up weird team formations to cheat the CPU system. Lag is always a problem, though not anymore than other sports games. Also, you can only play head-to-head, or two human players against the CPU, but not 2v2 games.
Konami sticks with the if it ain’t broke theory…
In conclusion, PES produced what many of us should have expected, given its recent track history of baby step improvements. If you’re a die-hard fan of the series or football, you will be treated to the best blend of graphics and gameplay to date, though don’t expect to be overwhelmed with improvements, especially if you’re not new to the series.
Graphics: The best-looking PES to date, but pedestrian compared to FIFA.
Sound: Commentary and in-game music are bland, but team-specific chants ramp up authenticity.
Entertainment Value: If you have the patience to learn the nuances, PES will reward you with a realistic football experience. Master League is solid.
Learning Curve: Not as approachable as FIFA, given the game’s authenticity. If you only think “offsides” is a 5-yard penalty, you’ll struggle at first.
Online: Some options on last year’s PS2 version didn’t make the cut for the PS3 version; still, PES has a very active online gaming community.