The second word of "Pro Evolution Soccer" proves to be more appropriate with each passing year, thanks to incremental updates that never go beyond slowly evolving Konami's winning formula. True, the series has long offered deep and rewarding gameplay, but the lack of innovation has become increasingly apparent of late. The tweaks that Konami has made to the match engine have produced a more refined game, but there's not a hint of the revolution attempted by EA Sports in most annual FIFA updates. There are also only a handful of new features, chief of which are eight-player online support, an increase in the number of licensed teams, and an international challenge mode.
It will take you quite a few practice games to adjust to the new playing style of Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007 (known as Pro Evolution Soccer 6 in Europe), which is even faster than last year's game. One of the more noticeable improvements is in player animation, with polish added to the already astounding movement. There's more tangibility in the way they interact with each other and the ball, and collisions and tumbles better reflect the physical nature of the game. Pro Evolution Soccer is a game that rewards real-world tactics, and the lifelike movement of the players only adds to this suspension of disbelief.
In terms of playing the game, Konami has made a number of tweaks that certainly make this the tightest Pro Evolution Soccer yet. It's now easier to dribble the ball while running, with players keeping it closer to their feet. However, defending players are much more effective at relieving you of the ball, and they're certainly favoured in one-on-one situations. As a result, you have to adapt your game toward making quick, short passes that are accurately directed to the intended player. You should definitely be facing the recipient when passing, as indirect passes often end up short or off-target.
Konami has also created an even larger gulf between the star players in the world and everyone else. Players such as Henry and Adriano are lethal at cutting swathes through a defence or outpacing nearly anyone down the wing. Teams like Inter and Brazil are unstoppable if you can combine a possession game with the use of the radar at the bottom of the screen.
Picking out players with a crafty through ball is now the most effective way of getting on goal. Previously dependable tactics, such as running along the goal line and pulling the ball back into the box, are now met with defenders ready to clear the ball away. Goalkeepers are now much better at deflecting powerful shots over the line, as opposed to spilling them in front of goal. And for the advanced players among you, there are around eight new moves including tricks, feints, and turns. In short, it's the most rewarding game of Pro Evolution Soccer yet, and even though EA Sports is chasing hard, this year's Pro Evolution game just edges out FIFA 07 on gameplay.
That's not to say that the game is perfect. In last year's game the referees were extremely card-happy and it hindered the pace of the match, but this year's game has swung too far the other way. Blatant fouls frequently go unpunished, and teammates are now eager to slide in for hard tackles when they're not under your control. It never resulted in a penalty kick during testing, but we've occasionally been punished with a yellow card as a result of a foul made on our behalf. Time your strikes right, and attackers are now much more eager to take volleyed shots if they're on the end of an accurate cross, but as in real life, only the best strikers can mix flair and accuracy. And while it was always difficult to score free kicks, it now seems nigh-on impossible unless you're using the world's best free-kick takers.
What's most surprising is how different the PlayStation 2 version is to its Xbox 360 counterpart. Whereas the "next-gen" version runs at a somewhat sluggish pace, the PS2 game is blisteringly fast and undoubtedly the more fluid game. The differences extend off the pitch as well, with the PS2 version allowing you to extensively edit player and team information so you can update rosters throughout the season. Many people like to save their goal replays to a memory card, and while this has been omitted from the 360 version, it has thankfully remained on PS2. Of the extra gameplay modes, the memorial match keeps track of wins, losses, and average goals between friends, while the international challenge pulls together three European and American cups of between six and 32 teams. Finally, Konami's online service lets you play games with up to eight players over the Internet, which trumps Xbox Live's support for only two players. On the other hand, the PS2 version lacks the Xbox 360 game's Teatro Blanco and Antlion Colosseum stadiums, although it does have more stadiums overall.
As always, the thrust of the single-player game is the long-term challenge of the master league. This mode adds basic management demands and financial considerations as you control a team through your career. Although your main aim is obviously to make a success of your chosen team, you'll have to concern yourself with player salaries, which are paid using the in-game currency earned by scoring goals and winning matches. Opting to have players age will also mean that their skill will decline over time. Konami also hosts online tournaments as part of the master league, although opting in to this mode prevents you from using real-life players in the league or creating your own custom teams. This is to create a more balanced online playing field, so if you want to use the real-life starting line up for your team, you'll have to opt out of online play. Compared to FIFA 07's online competitions featuring real-life fixtures, Pro Evolution looks a little twee in comparison, but it's good to see Konami supporting those with online-enabled consoles.
In fact, with lag-free online play, the multiplayer game is something that will keep you coming back to the game for a long time to come. There was no absence of people to play in the week of release, and the lobby system allows you to mix with different people and talk to them through a text interface. Each player also has a ranking card that gives information on league placement, in addition to displaying the number of games you've won or lost. Online players are grouped by language and the platform they are playing on. The only problem is that many players would quit out of matches halfway, and the interface is clunky--waiting for matches takes a painstaking number of minutes at the best of times. We'd like to see some additional game modes aside from single matches, but the game was completely lag-free in our experience, and it's the most fun you can have other than playing with friends in the same room.
If you don't have a network-enabled console, there are still a few other leagues and tournaments to hold your interest beyond the master league. The single-match mode lets you set up the conditions for a game between you and up to seven of your friends (as long as you have two multitaps and eight controllers), while the random mode will generate teams, stadiums, and weather settings by chance. The international challenge offers a selection of three European and American cups, and you can set up custom leagues and cup competitions featuring your favourite international or club teams. As you progress through the master league you're also able to spend points on new players and staduims, and even play around with adding new hairstyles and goal celebrations to your players.
While Pro Evolution Soccer 2007 offers official teams and kits for Argentina, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, the game is still a long way from boasting official rosters for every team. While the majority of player names are now correct, the only two licensed English Premiership teams are Arsenal and Manchester United. Significantly, Chelsea has now been renamed to "North London" after being an official team in previous games. While you can edit as much of the data as you like, it's something that continues to blight the Pro Evolution Soccer series with little sign of improvement. In fact, presentation on the whole is poor, with bland menu systems accompanied by incredibly grating elevator music. The commentary continues to be delivered by Peter Brackley and Sir Trevor Brooking, but it's virtually unchanged from Pro Evolution Soccer 5. The game is nowhere near as strong as FIFA in this area, with generic statements repeated on a frequent basis.
This year's Pro Evolution Soccer offers a great playing game of football on the pitch, but the series' presentation and gameplay options are now overdue for a major revamp. While Konami has kept fans happy with incremental updates for many years now, it has been able to do so in the face of little competition. However, with EA Sports' game looking increasingly match-fit, the somewhat flabby Pro Evolution Series needs to get back in shape for next year's return.