LEIPZIG, Germany--This October, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series will be making its first appearance on the Xbox 360. Credited by football fans as the most realistic interpretation of the sport, the game's jump to the console looks set to offer two big improvements. First, the machine's high-definition capability will let enthusiasts fully appreciate the sublime animation featured in the game. Second, the revamped Xbox Live interface should make it easier than ever to find real people to play against online. Add in the redesigned Xbox 360 pad, which offers more-convenient control from the four shoulder buttons, and you have what many are hoping will be the definitive version of the game.
Luckily, with a 75 percent-complete version on show at the Leipzig Games Convention, we were able to catch a glimpse of the next Pro Evolution Soccer ahead of its scheduled release in October. Konami's demo only had four teams on offer, although with Spain, Brazil, Italy, and the Czech Republic to choose from, the selection certainly wasn't lacking in quality. Wasting no time jumping on the machine at Konami's booth, we took on a company representative for a couple of 10-minute games. Favouring the current World Cup champions, Italy, we tried our luck against the rather intimidating opposition of the top-ranked team in the world, Brazil.
Like any refinement of a familiar game, the new version of Pro Evolution Soccer immediately feels both familiar and completely alien. For the sixth game in the series, Konami has made an effort to improve the artificial intelligence of user-controlled players and the computer opposition. Players now make a concerted effort to run into open space, and as long as you deliver the required through ball, you can make much more devastating passes. This isn't to say that the defence is completely impotent to the new threat, as they will automatically back off so that they're not turned the wrong way by a nimble-footed attacker.
While the players seem to be more energetic than ever, they still require a nimble touch on the joypad to keep under control. Shot power is still determined by how long you hold down X, but instead of heading in a straight line as before, shots are now on more of a curved trajectory. The same applies to crosses, which can be accurately dropped into the box, while volleys are more often taken by strikers and with greater accuracy. Having said that, though, we were playing with Italy, and Bolton Wanderers might have less luck with a screaming bicycle kick from outside the box.
While the realism of the Pro Evolution Soccer series has been its major attraction, the lack of official player data has always been its weak point. This isn't completely fixed in number six, though there is more correct team information than ever before, with official and up-to-date Czech, French, Australian, English, Italian, Argentinean, Spanish, and Swedish national sides. Bayern Munich, Lisbon, Benfica, Olympiacos Piraeus, and Manchester United will also boast official kits, complete with advertisements adorning their chests. Speaking of which, more real-life brands have gotten involved with Pro Evolution Soccer 6, as we noticed replays sponsored by Canon, as well as a Reebok logo in the corner of the loading screen.
We can look forward to more licensed teams, improved AI, and fancier footwork in Pro Evolution Soccer 6, but what's it actually like to play on the Xbox 360? Well, the system's pad is mapped out identically to that of the PlayStation 2, which is a great thing. On the previous Xbox, it didn't matter whether you used the original pad or the smaller S version--it was always fiddly to use the black and white buttons, so the extra two shoulder buttons help to keep the game comfortable. However, with the 360 choosing triggers as two of its shoulder buttons, it still requires a bit more effort to shift fingers around the back of the pad than we'd like. As with fighting games, expert Pro Evolution Soccer play requires a good deal of dexterity, and the triggers never feel as easy to shift across as the PlayStation 2's buttons. Only prolonged play testing of the full version will answer that particular concern.
Any concerns over the control system were almost negated by the quality of Pro Evolution Soccer 6's graphics, though. While player animation was always one of the game's strong points, the Xbox 360's high-definition lick of paint certainly helps you appreciate Konami's art even more. Small shimmies made on the right analog stick are now recognisable even as your player passes through a mass of other bodies. The game is awash with small details--players use their hands to stop themselves from running into obstacles, and they lose their balance as they're clipped by other players. It's not that these are particularly new to the series, it's just that it's far more noticeable than before.
The game's commentary still comes from Peter Brackley, who drops in generic remarks as the ball moves around the pitch. Konami has never managed to make it feel immediate or insightful, and over the noise of the show it didn't sound much different here. However, Konami revealed in Germany that the PlayStation 2 and PC game will both be online, with up to eight players supported through four linked systems.
The new version of Pro Evolution Soccer certainly looks the part on the Xbox 360, but with competition from a fully revamped FIFA game, the race for this year's title is going to be hotly contested. Only a good, long play test will reveal if Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is the definitive version, and luckily, we can do just that very shortly when the game is released in October.