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If I'm honest, it has been a while since I decided which of the two major football game franchises was superior. For me, the question is 'does the PC version of the latest Pro Evolution Soccer release continue in its forerunners' footsteps by both pushing the boundaries and exposing EA's latest Fifa offering as over-styled, superficial and ultimately soulless?'
The main strength of Konami's series has always been the emphasis on realism and longevity rather than razzle-dazzle and instant aesthetic appeal. In fact, the focus on gameplay has meant that, although I've loved them all eventually, I've found transitioning into the last three Pro Evo releases a strange, disarming experience, with each new game feeling significantly different to the previous. With the pre-release hype surrounding the supposedly revolutionary 'Teamvision' A.I. and other gameplay tweaks, I expected (and hoped) that the new Pro Evo would also take me on this now familiar journey.
With PES 2008, however, the initial strangeness is missing. Despite all the talk, it feels surprisingly familiar and, with only minor alterations to elements like the Master League and Edit mode, the most obvious changes this time around appear to be a graphical overhaul and the inclusion of a few ways of showing off the aesthetic enhancements.
The graphical enhancements have made it bloated and annoyingly sluggish, even on a top notch system.
For the first time, I find myself asking of a new Pro Evo game whether mostly superficial changes justify splashing out - and I'm simply not convinced that they do.
Although it is difficult to spot any impact at first, over time the 'Teamvision' A.I., which adapts in response to your playing style, proves to be an interesting, if not exactly revolutionary, addition. Also on the positive side are: better close ball-control, increased player strength and physicality, more realistic commentary, improved replays that show more build up, better attacking awareness and run-making from computer team-mates, and significant improvements to the look of players, shirts, pitches and the crowd.
The tinkering, however, has also created weaknesses. Firstly there are a few 'minor' annoyances: goalkeepers now regularly spill shots, it's way too easy to dribble for long distances, human opponents can win penalties by diving (and the camera angle for facing penalties is ridiculous), the improved, 3-D crowds are made up of about four blokes repeated again and again, the music is terrible, the title-menu is unintuitive and clunky, and the enhancements to players' faces are offset by the fact that they make the classic mistake of regularly opening their mouths, which (true-to-life) leads to them looking ridiculous.
Then there is the ever-thorny issue of team licenses. Although there are technically more fully licensed leagues in PES 2008 than previous versions, English and German fans are likely to be disappointed, with Spurs and Newcastle the only licensed Premiership teams and Bayern Munich the sole Bundesliga inclusion. However, one advantage of Pro Evo, of course, is the dedicated online community of patchers who will no doubt produce a variety of add-ons to counteract some of these restrictions.
Even if it has borrowed a small leaf from EA's book, PES 2008 is still much better than Fifa '08.
While the pros and cons mentioned so far pretty much balance out, there is a serious problem with PES 2008 which makes me far less enthusiastic about it than I'd hoped to be. In short, the graphical enhancements have made it bloated and annoyingly sluggish, even on a top notch system. The controls feel less responsive, the menus are slow and cumbersome to navigate, and the replays and in-game videos just slightly chug. The game is a paradox: a deliberately slimmed-down, arcade-like approach which in the end actually lumbers more, not less.
Only relatively high-end machines will get maximum benefit from the spruced up graphics (as always, ignore the 'minimum spec' and treat the 'recommended spec' as the minimum), but for those with a slightly more modest setup, the 'improvements' simply make for a slower experience.
Don't get me wrong; even if it has borrowed a small leaf from EA's book, PES 2008 is still much better than Fifa '08. The hurdle on which it ultimately stumbles, however, is its failure to be significantly better than its predecessor. If you don't own Pro Evo 6 and you have a high-end PC, you'll probably love it - if either of those is not the case, like me, you may well feel let down.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: