If you're looking to play this year's Pro Evolution Soccer, you could do worse than check out the PC version. Judged on its own merits, it stacks up well against the console equivalents by looking sharp and playing well, especially if you have a couple of Xbox 360 joypads. However, compared to other sports games, Pro Evolution Soccer is struggling to keep up with the times. The presentation is unpolished, with poor online functionality, mediocre commentary, and few officially licensed teams. More importantly, practically no new features have been added to last year's game while the online gameplay is buggy with frequent lag and disconnection problems. Ultimately, PES 2008 plays a great game of football, but it's starting to seriously fall behind its contemporaries in terms of features.
If you're a newcomer to the series, you'll be impressed at how well Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 plays. It captures the realism of the sport almost perfectly but, most importantly, it also remains eminently playable. Thanks to a combination of exquisite control, superb animation, and worthy artificial intelligence, it's highly replayable in single-player, but it really comes into its own in multiplayer. With that said, series veterans may wonder what exactly Konami has done to improve the gameplay in the past year. Aside from making minor tweaks to the animation and AI, it's fundamentally unchanged from Pro Evolution Soccer 6.
The biggest upgrade to 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 fluid 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 where you can still play 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.
In terms of features, the PC version is broadly the same as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 iterations. Unfortunately, it lacks some of the cool new game modes from the PlayStation 2, including the world tour and the community mode. The latter mode allowed up to 16 people to compete in cups and tournaments on a single console. Instead, what you do get is the usual match, tournament, and cup modes, which up to four people can play simultaneously as long as you have enough controllers. There's also the master league, which forms the main challenge for the single-player mode. As well as allowing you 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.
The online offering is built to offer two-player ranked and unranked matches over the Internet. The retail build of the game was lamented by fans for lagging too much, and even though Konami quickly issued a patch, it's done little to remedy the problems. It's nowhere nearly as bad as the PlayStation 3, but a fair bit of slowdown affects online performance even when you have a decent connection. We also encountered a high proportion of disconnections. While some of these could have been down to the users, it was indicative of a patchy and unpredictable service.
Aside from the somewhat patchy performance, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 is severely lacking when it comes to overall Internet functionality. There are no real-world score tickers, no news feeds, and no online leagues--features which the rival FIFA series has been offering for two years now. There's no voice chat either--just a text interface for typing in pre-match messages. Even worse, the only games you can play are single matches. The complete lack of online leagues and tournaments is restrictive when compared to other sports games on the market. It's also worth noting that the online registration process locks your copy of the game to your Konami account for online play. This means that if you ever want to sell your copy of the game, the next person will be unable to play online unless he or she has your registration details.
Presentation has never been Pro Evolution Soccer's strong point, and the 2008 version does little to break with tradition. 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 United and Tottenham Hotspur are now included. But this is at the expense of Manchester United and Arsenal, who've been 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 frequently inaccurate.
In terms of graphics, the PC version looks even sharper than its PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts, running well even on modest systems. We had no problem cranking the detail and resolution right up to the maximum settings on an 18-month-old test machine, with no drop in overall performance. Certain player likenesses, such as the aforementioned Christiano Ronaldo, are very realistic. However, the game offers little in the way of incidental graphical effects, such as true cloth deformation, video walls, or goalkeeper head protection. 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 truly new features to build on the excellent playability. 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 are new modes, features, and online offerings to warrant the upgrade, as well as bring it in line with other PC 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.