UK REVIEW--Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer was already looking a little stretched last year, and the 2008 edition takes the series to the breaking point. Instead of improving on last year's game, it offers no noteworthy new features. Some of the smaller gameplay tweaks make the game more enjoyable to play overall, but an equal number are frustrating and feel unnecessary. Most critically, the game features an unacceptable level of slowdown in both online and offline play. It makes you wonder what Shingo Takatsuka and his team have been doing for the last year, and it's bound to infuriate the many people who've been waiting for a PlayStation 3 version of the game.
The biggest upgrade for 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 styles of play, though defenders still feel a little bit superhuman in their ability to resist attack. Overall, the game feels more flowing than last year, but rather than feeling revolutionary, the improvement just feels like a return to the series' earlier glory. 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 by pulling shirts and outmuscling each other over the ball. It adds up to a more natural-feeling game this year, and one that still plays an accomplished game of football. Anyone who hasn't played Pro Evolution Soccer will find that this is still a solidly playable experience, but long-term fans may wonder what Konami's done this year to take advantage of the PS3 platform.
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 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.
Luckily for Konami, most players won't have the patience to stick with the online mode to find out if this is the case. The PlayStation 3's online offering is completely unplayable due to unacceptable lag and frequent disconnections that affected every single game we played. Players skip animations, balls jerk around in the air, and it's impossible to time sliding tackles, which means that a patch is critically needed before the game even begins to reach a playable level. Konami has issued a notice saying that it is aware of the problems and that it is working toward a solution, but at the time of release it's simply unfinished.
The poor performance of the online mode can theoretically be fixed, but 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 squad updates--features that the rival FIFA series has been offering for two years now. There are a number of very noticeable product placements for various Web sites, but this advertising-only arrangement has produced no content that's fed into the game. At a time when many other rival sports games feature an assortment of online multimedia updates throughout the year, Konami's complete lack of extras feels backward in comparison. It's also worth noting the online registration process, which 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. To our knowledge this is the first time this has happened in a PS3 title, and Konami's UK office declined to respond to enquiries over why the system was implemented.
The issue of slowdown isn't restricted just to the multiplayer portion of the game, either. Played in standard 720p (the game doesn't support 1080p), the single-player game is noticeably jerky whenever the action centres around either goal. It doesn't affect the game as much when running in standard definition, but it's bound to annoy fans of the game who remember a similar problem when previous versions were run in 60Hz on the PlayStation 2.
As usual, the Master League mode is the main challenge for the single-player mode. As well as offering you the ability 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. Although PES 2008 isn't really trying to compete with games such as Football Manager, many of the tasks feel like distractions from the main job of playing the league itself. Essentially, the Master League is just the same as it's always been. 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 them in a decent formation, and play well on the pitch.
Presentation has never been Pro Evolution Soccer's strong point, and the 2008 version does little to break with tradition. The lack of polish used to be acceptable thanks to the excellent playability of the game, but with fundamental frame-rate problems, a lack of genuinely new features, and the increased power of the PS3 hardware, it's becoming increasingly unforgivable. The menu system is basic and unwelcoming, the soundtrack tries to span genres but is awful throughout, and the majority of teams don't feature the official kits. This last problem will be a familiar one to fans, but Konami's selection is becoming increasingly schizophrenic; English Premier League teams Newcastle and Tottenham are now included, but at the expense of Manchester United and Arsenal, who are out since the last game. We assume that Newcastle was included thanks to star striker Michael Owen, who adorns the cover of the game, but the same theory doesn't apply to Cristiano 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 as frequently as inaccurate as his predecessor's.
PES 2008's graphics are all over the place. The PlayStation 3 version has the appearance of an upscaled PlayStation 2 game, and apart from fewer jagged edges, there's little to show off the new console's power. There's not much in the way of detail or incidental effects such as cloth deformation, video walls, or goalkeeper head protection. On the other hand, certain player likenesses, such as the aforementioned Cristiano Ronaldo, are very realistic. It's worth mentioning that you only really get to see them up close during replays, but replays are the worst victim of the game's heavy slowdown. We also like 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 next-generation features to the PlayStation 3. Although it's bad enough that it doesn't differ from its predecessor in any noteworthy way, the technical problems and laggy online mode combine to make cause serious gameplay issues. Hopefully some of the flaws will be fixed with future patches, but as it stands right now, PES 2008 is essentially an incomplete game.