Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 Preview - 28/08/2007

Find out if the best just got better with our early look at PES08, Konami's super-popular football simulation.

Let's make one thing clear. I’m not a footy fan, though the fact that I play PES6 almost every day is a testament to the accessibility and overall quality of the franchise. As they say in any footy conversation, (of the virtual variety of course) ‘if you want licenses, look to FIFA’. That still holds true with Konami’s latest game, whose licenses only include most international teams, including England, Brazil and Portugal, and a few obscure club leagues. It’s a shame they didn’t strive to get any Scottish or English clubs, (who are still regrettably named London Town FC or Merseyside) as that’s where their audience mostly lies, but if your decision to buy the game is swayed by this, see the above quote for reference.

It’s not just the licences that remain unchanged-the graphics look remarkably similar to last year's version. Some excused PES6, on account of it being Konami’s first foray into next-gen territory. With the series second 360 outing in 3 years, you would’ve thought the developers should have gotten to grips with the hardware by now. Yes, there is a bit more dynamism to the players, with kits flapping convincingly in the wind and grass stains adorning those who go to ground. Hair and sweat will swing and pour (respectively) as players cavort around the pitch, but the game is still a long way from the almost cinematic quality of FIFA. When comparisons with even the PS2’s level of visual quality can be made, than maybe it’s time for Konami to shift gears.

However, PES’s graphics have never equated to the amount of work the developers actually put in to each version. For perspective, see the other quote that crops up in the generic digital footy argument: ‘you don’t judge the game by its looks, but by the quality of the game underneath’. It’s clear, upon giving the game a go, that subtle improvements have tweaked the game to provide a fluid and tighter experience. The ‘arcadey’ feel that most footy purists seem to loathe is mostly caused by a lack of animations, making players perform the same looking moves each and every time. The FIFA series has been condemned for goals that look similar each time you score. This has been improved, with PES08 offering loads of new animations, making games play out more dynamically and naturally. The results of a 50-50 challenge won’t be shown twice; depending on the speed and strength of your player, you could go to ground in a mass of tangled limbs, bring down your rival with an utterly necessary two-foot, studs-up challenge, or miss the ball entirely. It’s the sheer variety of gameplay in PES08 that makes each game feel less stiff than last year's version.

Rather than treating their game to a complete overhaul, Konami have instead chose to expand and tweak the 3 majors of football; passing, dribbling and crossing, (I would’ve swapped the latter major for shooting, but they haven’t really given that a big enough tweaking). Last year's version had gamers complaining about the speed of play. One-touch passes were too tame, with the ball twittering happily along at the speed of a carefree London jogger. In order to combat this, players had to stop the flow of play, (like a deadweight London levy) to control the ball before passing it on with enough speed to avoid it getting intercepted on the way. Not true this year; if your players have the talent, (and to keep it feeling like a simulation, some won’t) you can play the game at your speed. Zip the ball around Argentinean style, if you’re feeling particularly exotic.

Dribbling has also been revamped, with loads more tricks at your disposal. Timing, as well as a certain cocky manner, will be needed to beat a player with the use of a trick however. Dribbling calls more on strength and speed. The player on the ball will be slower than the bloke chasing after him, so even if you give the ball to C. Ronaldo and have him carve a tosspot-shaped hole in the defence, you may have to watch out for defenders catching up. This has been present in most footy games for a while, though it seems much more prominent this time around - defenders without a ball between their feet will obviously move their legs a bit quicker. The overall balance of speed requires players to think about the ball they play, and who they play it to.

Crossing has been improved dramatically from last year's version, which all too often had inaccurate balls flying in from all angles. You can play the same type of balls as last year: low crosses, high aerial balls, or quick whips into the centre, but the majority of the time an attacking head will meet the ball. However, this can be infuriating for a defending player who has had the better chances all game, only to have 3 quick crosses go in at the last minute. Konami will have to make headers less potent if they want to keep PES08 as balanced as possible. Frantically defending the by-line like Duncan Ferguson’s lawyer does not a great football game make.

Sure, everything that’s been said, (improved passing! Fluid gameplay mechanics!) sounds like the type of traditional rhetoric that pervades all PES previews, but the game really does look and feel tighter in all departments. It’s not a complete overhaul, and sure, upon booting up the game you may even feel slightly disillusioned at what seems like a lack of anything new, but step back for a while. Let the changes bury their way into your subconscious and you’ll find it increasingly hard to revert back to Pro Evos of old - surely evidence of the subtle but effective improvements Konami have made.

One of these so called ‘effective subtleties’ lies not on the pitch, but in the various options and features scattered around the locker room. Gaining experience from their football managing sim series, the touchline is more key than ever, (to cotton you on to this fact, there is even a neat little shot of the bench whenever you pause the game). As well as being able to set the team's mentality, players they should mark and positions they should be in, you can also assign the computer to manage your team for the length of the game. Like a little Steve McClaren gremlin pulling the strings from behind a certain Swede, it’ll substitute players according to fatigue, position or quality - a handy feature for those not bothered about some of the more tactical elements of the game.

The AI has apparently been given a good going over, with players recording and storing your most frequently used moves. Deploy the same techniques over and over again and they’ll figure out a way to stop you. Although it all sounds a bit revolutionary, don’t be fooled, fellow gamer. This feature is worded, so it just sounds like more of the common rhetoric developers spout off to make their game sound deeper than it actually is. The feature has been in most footy games for years, and is just a more convoluted way to say: ‘hey, our players don’t spin in a circle for 90 minutes!’ Of course the majority of games contain problem solving AI, it's what makes them fire guns, drive cars, or in this case, tackle you.

Although we haven’t yet had the chance to see how the various cups and tournaments, as well as the master league play out, we assume it’s a big departure from last year's less then definitive vision, (just look at the screenshot of that girly-looking player with the microphones shoved under his face). Could this mean an improved transfer system, or player mentality being affected by the pressure of ravenous reporters?

If you’re reading this preview merely to find out what features have been given the biggest sparkly makeover, the edit mode is a good place to go. It’s been blown apart this year, from the ground up as if to say: ‘look, we haven’t got the dosh to buy you a fully licensed game, but here, make it for yourself’. Anything from player height, to kits, to names of stadiums can be altered. Although it just won’t beat that ‘official feeling’, it certainly beats playing as Tyneside in Magpie stadium.

With Fifa08 winning the graphics war, and PES08 still trumping the competition in terms of gameplay, it seems the footy game war is being fought from pole to pole. Will we ever see a footy game that pleases our eye and tickles our thumbs simultaneously? I can’t answer that, but I can direct you to the best footy game you're likely to see, sorry, PLAY this year.

A modest improvement on the best football series ever. Not a lot has changed, but does it need to? We’ll see if the various tweaks warrant a 50 coin price tag in the full review next month.

Predicted 92%

- Ben Griffin