The Pro Evolution Soccer series--which is known as the Winning Eleven series in the US--has long been revered by football fans (that's soccer fans, stateside) for its engaging and realistic gameplay. That trend looks set to continue in the series' latest version, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, if our extensive preview time with a quite polished Australian PlayStation 2 version of the game is any indication.
Pro Evo's strict adherence to realism has always made it a more difficult game to master than some of its competitors, and PES 2008 looks likely to be no walk in the park either. One of Konami's key additions to this year's game is a new artificial-intelligence system they've dubbed Teamvision, which supposedly allows computer-controlled opponents to learn and adapt to how gamers play. What this seemed to translate to on the pitch was a higher level of aggression from opposition players. We played numerous games on Pro Evo 2008's default regular difficulty, and the defensive pressure piled on by opposition teams is certainly much greater than last year's offering.
Opposition defenders will immediately run at whoever of your team members has the ball, shutting down the free space and restricting the amount of time to pass. They'll often work in groups as well, with two or more opposition players ganging up to help force a turnover. Defenders also seem much more adept at reading the play this year, and will readily move off their marked player if there's a loose pass to be swooped on. Quick passes--and accurate ones at that--are now more than ever the key to breaking down a computer-controlled Pro Evo side.
Offensive AI also seems to have been ramped up from the previous game, with opposition attackers more adept at passing the ball around to catch defenders on the hop. Attackers also seem more willing to run with the ball and take your defenders on. All of this results in a generally tougher experience, something which long-term fans of the series will surely welcome.
This higher difficulty could catch many off guard initially, and our first few run-throughs certainly turned up some surprising results (like when we played as Brazil and got walloped 3-1 by minnows Costa Rica). But thankfully the series' core gameplay mechanics and control scheme have stayed generally the same from previous iterations. The X button is still used for short passes, circle for long, triangle for through-balls, and square for shooting at goal (although this is still as touchy as ever). In defence, X is still used to pressure a player, while circle makes your player slide tackle an opponent. There's also a range of advanced attacking and defending moves that can be busted out through a combination of the D pad, shoulder buttons, and right analog stick, but the bottom line is that experienced players should adapt quite quickly to the new difficulty on offer.
Pro Evolution has always led the way when it comes to realistic ball physics, and the 2008 version similarly showcases the same levels of finesse. If anything, the physics seem slightly improved in this outing, and it's particularly noticeable in the way the ball moves in different playing conditions. Player animations are once again high-quality, and in some cases they're eerily realistic. Goal celebration animations, player tackles, gestures to the referees, and more are all fluid and lifelike, making it a great game for spectators to view over your shoulder.
As for gameplay modes, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 still offers a wide variety, including the returning Master League mode where players can choose a lowly side and take it all the way to the top divisions. Each game won and achievement unlocked will also earn you PES points, which can be used to unlock classic teams, players, stadiums, and more.
PES has long been behind the FIFA series in terms of official licences, and this latest version is no different. To be fair, there are still plenty of real-world players, leagues, and teams included, such as the entire French Ligue 1, the Italian Serie A, and dozens of national sides. But UK gamers will be disappointed to read that no Premier League sides are included this year, a step back from last year's PES, which at least featured Arsenal and Manchester United (although with months to go before the game's official release, Konami may still be working behind the scenes to grab some of those licences). Fans of star player Ronaldinho also miss out, with the Brazilian omitted from the game. And for Aussies, the still-young A-League is nowhere to be seen. That said, this latest version of Pro Evo once again gives you the ability to change existing team names and even logos, so true football aficionados can in some part get the accuracy they crave.
While Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 doesn't offer any major leaps from its predecessor, our preview time with this build seems to indicate that Konami has tweaked the right areas to ensure long-time fans of the series will come back for more--namely, bumping up the challenge even further. As well as the PS2, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 is slated for release in the third quarter of this year for the PlayStation 3, PSP, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, and PC.