UK REVIEW--Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer was already looking a little stretched last year, and the 2008 edition takes the series to the breaking point. Instead of improving on last year's game, it offers no noteworthy new features. Some of the smaller gameplay tweaks make the game more enjoyable to play overall, but an equal number are frustrating and feel unnecessary, while the subpar online mode of last year's game has barely been improved. It makes you wonder what Shingo Takatsuka and his team have been doing for the past year.
The biggest upgrade for the game is supposedly the new Teamvision artificial intelligence system, although its claims to revolutionise the playing experience prove to be overstated. Computer-controlled opponents are slightly more intelligent when it comes to changing playing styles, although defenders still feel a little bit superhuman in their ability to resist attack. Overall, the game feels more flowing than last year, but rather than feeling revolutionary, the improvement just feels like a return to the earlier glory of the series. In fact, the immediate changes feel so minor that even hardcore fans of the series will have trouble picking them out. The ball feels slightly weightier and players move with more physicality. They also tussle with each other more, pulling shirts and out-muscling each other over the ball. It adds up to a more natural-feeling game this year, and one that still plays an accomplished game of football. Anyone who hasn't played Pro Evolution Soccer will find that this is still a solidly playable game, but long-term fans may wonder what Konami's done this year to deserve the £50 upgrade fee.
Many of the new gameplay tweaks are actually more annoying than they are welcome. Goalkeepers now fumble the ball with infuriating regularity, and the fast pace now makes Pro Evo feel more like an arcade game rather than a simulation. Another new feature that betrays the game's simulation roots is the ability to make your players take a dive. It's something that undoubtedly happens in the real world, but its inclusion in a serious video game could be seen to tarnish an otherwise respectful representation of the sport. Used in the penalty area the dive can win penalties, and while it's only successful in the minority of cases, it could be used to tip the balance of the game. We expect that discerning gamers will shun the new skill out of sportsmanship, but it'll be a real shame if faceless online players manage to win games by effectively employing the tactic.
Last year's online offering was fairly lamented by gamers, at first for being unplayable and then for being slow. It's therefore disappointing to see how little things have changed in the new version. Lag still affected many of the games we played, and while it's nowhere nearly as bad as the PlayStation 3 version, the problems still need to be addressed. The only game modes are ranked and player matches. Thus, the complete lack of online leagues and tournaments is restrictive when compared with many other sports games on the market. Aside from the somewhat patchy performance and lack of game modes, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 is also lacking when it comes to overall Internet functionality. There are no real-world score tickers, no news feeds, and no squad updates--features that the rival FIFA series has been offering for two years now. There are a number of very noticeable product placements for various Web sites, but this advertising-only arrangement has produced no content that's fed into the game. At a time when rival sports games feature an assortment of online multimedia updates throughout the year, Konami's complete lack of extras feels backward in comparison.
As usual, the Master League mode is the main challenge for the single-player mode. As well as being able to play through a series of proper football seasons, the Master League offers up basic management functions that include training and transfers. This year, players also talk to the media and do interviews, although as with every other part of the Master League, this pales in comparison to dedicated management games. While it's not really trying to compete with such games as Football Manager, many of the tasks feel like distractions from the main job of playing the league itself. Basically, the Master League is the same as it's been in previous versions. True, signing talent is an important part of winning, but it simply isn't in-depth enough to warrant spending lots of time on training and scouting. The main idea is to perfect your starting lineup, get your players in a decent formation, and play well on the pitch.
Presentation has never been Pro Evolution Soccer's strong point, and the 2008 version does little to break with tradition. The lack of polish used to be acceptable, thanks to the excellent playability of the game, but it's becoming increasingly unforgivable. The menu system is basic and unwelcoming, while the soundtrack tries to span genres but is awful throughout. The majority of teams also don't feature the official kits. This will be a familiar problem to fans, but Konami's selection is becoming increasingly schizophrenic. English Premier League teams Newcastle and Tottenham are now included, but at the expense of Manchester United and Arsenal, who are out since the last game. We assume that Newcastle was included thanks to star striker Michael Owen adorning the cover of the game, but the same theory doesn't apply to Christiano Ronaldo and Manchester United (who are named "Man Red"). There are only 15 stadiums, and although Mark Lawrenson is now onboard as a commentator, his contributions are as frequently inaccurate as his predecessor's comments. However, the Xbox 360 version does have some bonuses over the PlayStation 3 iteration. Firstly, it runs in 1080p, whereas the PlayStation 3 doesn't even support this display mode and is jerky even running in 720p. Secondly, you can use a Live Vision camera to scan logos and faces into the game, although the results are somewhat low-res in the game.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2008's graphics are all over the place. The Xbox 360 version has the appearance of an upscaled Xbox game, but apart from fewer jagged edges, there's little to show off the new console's power. It also looks more washed-out and less sharp than the PlayStation 3 version of the game. There's little in the way of detail or incidental effects, such as true cloth deformation, video walls, or goalkeeper head protection. On the other hand, certain player likenesses, such as the aforementioned Christiano Ronaldo, are very realistic. We also like the fact that the referee can be seen on pitch, although waiting the few seconds for him to blow his whistle for free kicks is detrimental to the pace of the game.
Ultimately, the success of Pro Evolution Soccer is a paradox for the game's designers. It's difficult to improve on the standard that was achieved with the fifth version of the game, but the designers could certainly start by introducing some next-gen features to the Xbox 360. Konami has tried to make subtle changes to the gameplay, some of which are successful and some of which are not. However, what the game really needs is new modes, features, and online offerings to warrant the upgrade, as well as bring it in-line with other Xbox 360 sports offerings. It will be quite a task, but next year's game needs to deliver all this and more if it's to retain its massive fan base.