Now in its sixth iteration, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series has become a permanent fixture in the European game charts. In the face of tough competition from EA Sports' polished FIFA series, PES has taken deep and rewarding gameplay and continued to develop the experience with annual updates. Last year's edition of Pro Evolution Soccer was the first in the series to hit Sony's PlayStation Portable, and despite answering the dreams of fans everywhere who wanted mobile PES action, it wasn't quite as playable or comprehensive as its PlayStation 2 counterpart. Thankfully, this year's version offers needed enhancements, while the master league mode makes its first appearance on the platform.
There's no doubt that Pro Evolution Soccer 6 (Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007 in the US) on the PSP plays a stunning game of soccer. It combines realism with a high level of playability, meaning that matches are authentic while still remaining fun to play. The game's sophisticated animation system means that players move in a very believable manner, even down to mimicking the characteristics of individual players such as Henry and Adriano. Under the control of the artificial intelligence, players are able to think both individually and as part of a team, meaning that you nearly always feel like you're in complete control of what's happening onscreen. You rarely feel like mistakes are due to lousy AI team-mates, and there aren't really any specific tactics that can be exploited, which means no shortcuts to easy goals. The result is a game that throws up accurate score lines and realistic situations, with players that actually look and move like their real-world counterparts.
This will be great news to long-standing fans of the series, as only a few concessions seem to have been made in porting the game to the PSP. There are some graphical glitches such as disappearing hair, while the lack of commentary is rather outdated these days--the only spoken audio you hear is after a goal. The game feels slightly easier than the previous version--a single player is often able to carve up opposition defenses, referees are more lenient when punishing fouls, and goalies present less of a challenge in one-on-one situations. Despite this, the game is quick and responsive, and above all it feels great to play.
While the game is definitely also easier than the PS2 version, this is likely to be a concession that's been made to balance the more difficult PSP control system. The D pad feels like a particularly imprecise method of controlling players, making the analog nub the lesser of two evils. Performing tricks is slightly cumbersome due to the lack of a second analog stick, forcing you to switch between the directional pad and analog nub to progress onto the more advanced moves. You can customise the controls to work around the lack of buttons, though. Also, Konami has now introduced a wider camera angle that lets you see more players onscreen, therefore giving you a better chance of directing a long pass to the correct person.
The backbone of the single-player experience is the master league mode, presented for the first time on the PSP. The master league adds basic team management to the soccer action, and while it's by no means a competitor to Football Manager, you'll find a level of depth that was missing from single matches. While the aim is still to win games and score goals, you also have to juggle business concerns such as player salaries and transfers. This is taken care of with an in-game currency, called P points, and you can choose to either take command of an existing team with high demands or build up a team of your own from scratch. While the master league is far from authentic when compared to real-life soccer leagues, it's still a feature that will take you weeks, if not months, to play through.
On the other hand, if you're more interested in short competitions or just single matches, then Pro Evolution can still cater to your needs. Individual exhibition matches can be customised to last between 5 and 30 minutes, and you can adjust the time of day, the season, and the turf to be used. Unfortunately, you can't change the stadium, but you can adjust the ball type from a choice of 10 official Reebok and Adidas models, as well as two unbranded retro-style ones. There are also six leagues to play through, including the top divisions from England, France, Italy, Holland, and Spain, as well as an international league in which you're able to combine national and domestic teams of your choice. In addition to that, there are seven national cup competitions relating to different regions in the world, as well as the Reebok and Konami Cups, which give you a choice of any team in the game.
While the single-player game is given a new lease on life thanks to the master league mode and the expanded cups and leagues, multiplayer is still the most enjoyable way to play. If you're lucky enough to know someone else with a PSP and a copy of the game, then playing against that person regularly will not only make you a better player, but its depth will provide practically limitless hours of entertainment. While the final score usually reflects the skill of the player and the quality of the teams involved, the game somehow maintains the feeling that anything can happen, which makes for some incredibly exciting games.
As it stands, the game supports ad hoc wireless connections, and while it can be a bit cumbersome to navigate at first, there's a lobby system for up to eight local players, although each match can only accommodate two people. Whoever plays as the home team sets the match parameters, such as game length and the number of pauses allowed per player. On the whole, the playing experience is good, but unfortunately the wireless games do suffer from some lag, even when players are in close proximity. The greater the number of players onscreen, the more the game begins to stutter. Also, the ball moves erratically in the air and trails the controlling player on the ground. While these issues aren't enough to ruin multiplayer, they're slightly annoying glitches and will probably bother hardcore Pro Evo fans.
Graphically, this year's game more than stands up to comparisons with other PlayStation Portable games. Player likenesses look sharp, and the player-specific animations make it easy to spot famous players at a glance. Although there are no crowds dotting the sidelines, the game has been endowed with a number of advertising endorsements. Notices from real-world sponsors such as Canon are dotted around the pitch and featured on replays, and while they might sometimes be a little intrusive, they give the game a feeling of TV-style authenticity.
With that said, the overall presentation is something of an issue. The menus are drably presented, punctuated with only a few songs that will quickly get on your nerves, and even a couple of spelling mistakes have made it into the final game, too. However, as you'll be spending most of your time playing soccer, these are all fairly forgivable. The lack of official licenses that has blighted the series in the past has only seen incremental improvements in this year's game, which is less forgivable. The international team rosters now include Argentina, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, but the English league only features Arsenal and Manchester United as official clubs. The other 18 teams have all been renamed--including Chelsea as London FC, despite the fact that it was correctly titled last year. While it's certainly not as important as the game itself, the lack of authenticity is an issue for soccer fans. It is possible to update team and player information manually, although this can take a considerable amount of time unless you own the PS2 version, have already done the work there, and can transfer the data via a USB link.
After taking its first tentative steps onto the PSP last year, this year's Pro Evolution Soccer delivers on most expectations. It now includes all of the major features offered in other versions of the game, and even more crucially, it plays a near-identical game of soccer. While the overall presentation is weak, and the lack of official team names and strips is a constant annoyance, it still plays a remarkably good game of soccer, and it's as indispensable on the PSP as it ever was on other formats.