Around a year or so ago I would have been perfectly happy to get rid of my PS2 had it not been for one game, or rather, series of games. The Pro Evolution series was single-handedly responsible for me not selling my PS2... well, that and my kleptomaniacal tendencies. At that point in time, should PES3 have simultaneously appeared on Xbox as PS2, that baby was gone (Vice City had shot the GTA load as far as I was concerned). But it didn't, and I'm pretty sure that a lot of new console sales in Europe during Christmas '03 were swung away from the Xbox because of the lack of Pro Evolution. In Europe in particular, Football is important, and the bottom line is that for most people, once you've played Pro Evo, you never want anything else for your 'fix'. A bit like crack really. Or silk sheets. Or Twiglets. Now whether Konami made the decision on their own, or whether Microsoft had something to do with it, Pro Evolution 4 has arrived on the Xbox, albeit a month after the PS2 version, and not only that but it has a new trick – online play – which can't be boasted by the PS2 version. Other than that the game is almost a carbon copy of the PS2 version that we have already reviewed and loved.
For those that have not played a Pro Evo game before, I should explain a little about the game. What we have here is football - pure and simple, eleven men on eleven, a ref, two goals, and one ball. If you ever watch football, you will know what is and what isn't possible at any given moment on a football field. In PES4, everything you see and do is realistic, with nothing in the game that you could point at and say is humanely impossible. Not only that, but in (virtually) any given situation it's possible to do anything that you could envision Beckham/Figo/Zidane/Ronaldo/Henry or any other footballer doing. Wanna score a 45 yard screamer? Well, look elsewhere - you might manage it once in a blue moon, but it's not going to happen even 0.1% of the time. If you've never played a PES game before you won't be able to pick up the pad for the first time ever and start scoring straight away (although there’s a new noticeably easier “easy” setting), but with a little patience, the game will have you playing football like you see it on the telly. And I do mean like on the telly, apart from the obvious graphical difference between a game and the real thing, the quality and style of football that you can play could well have been lifted straight from a live game. There are options to play friendlies, a number of cups and leagues, or the Master League, the main meat of the game for the PES veteran; whereby you take a team of rubbish players and buy new ones with the trappings of your successes in leagues and cups over several seasons, the idea being that you eventually you find yourself winning the biggest competitions with your team of superstars, a mode imitated this year by FIFA with its career mode.
PES4 only allows you to control a single player at a time on the field (no FIFA-style controlling off-the-ball runs), but switching between players is done with a simple tap of the left trigger. This function is often performed automatically for you (intelligently too - you're rarely found controlling a player that is being left behind the action), with the amount of automatic switching configurable. Players move as they would in real life, and are prone to mistakes if you try and make them do something too tricky. Essentially at any moment in time, your controls are telling a player what to do, but it is up to their own skill level (and a bit of luck) as to how that comes out. For example, if a player is running left to right, and you press up and pass, the player will attempt to make a pass in that direction immediately, a skilful player might flick it off the outside of their left boot straight to your striker, a less talented player might hit a wayward pass two yards behind your striker with the inside of their right foot. What the player will not do is turn themselves to the intended direction and then make the pass - it's your fault if they make a wayward pass, as you didn't turn them in that direction before attempting it. The more difficult the pass, the more likely it is to go astray, and it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Actually, not too much goes astray in reality, but the difference between a good pass and an average one can quite often be the difference between getting a sight on goal or being shut out by a defender.
Graphically, the game is as good as or better than any other in existence at time of writing. While paused in play, PES4 looks better than FIFA 2005, but not by a lot. When the players and ball start moving and interacting it's obvious that the animations are a country mile better than on any other series of game. The Xbox translation has made some of the pitches look a little fuzzy and pixelly, although I think that's only down to the game running in a higher resolution than the PS2, and rapidly ignored along with a few other rough edges introduced by the sharper view. PES4 has licenses for several European leagues, although nowhere near as many as FIFA (not to mention the sponsors licenses for the proper team kits), and the English Premier league is one of those missing. The teams are all there, but under different names (my club, Crystal Palace, are in there as Crisisbless... yeah, laugh it up). All these typographical inaccuracies can of course be corrected with diligent editing, but as always there’s a heck of a lot to do. The game features the usual crowd cheers (although the crowd isn't quite as reactive as I'd like, it would be nice to get a lot more noise if a player goes through on goal, ditto for close shots), and commentary throughout the game by Peter Brackley and Sir Trevor Brooking, although it's not the best in game commentary I've heard it's far from insightful, and actually often close to moronic, but then, maybe that’s just more realism coming through...
I have a few other gripes too, the first being the set pieces - free kicks are definitely easier to score, but it doesn't feel like I've had enough input into how well they are hit. For non-shooting free kicks, corners and even throw-ins, there is no way to control what is going on away from the free kick taker - players are a bit static when you'd want them to make a timed run - set pieces have been made a lot more interesting in FIFA 2005. As usual for PES, penalties are also a bit non-dynamic you pick a direction and hit shoot, and the outcome is based upon skill of the controlled player and luck - hitting the post seems so unfair, and I'd prefer to know that my penalty miss was at least a little bit my fault. The Xbox controller S is more than adequate to play the game with, but the d-pad doesn't feel as 'right' as the PS2's dual shock does – certainly not as responsive for quick switches in direction.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the Xbox version features online play. I don't know the who or how or why this came into being, suffice to say that it was exceedingly unexpected, but the answer to more than a few prayers – mating the online gaming service that I have a big love for with the greatest football game ever made. It's almost a match made in heaven... almost. The Xbox Live component of the game feels very tacked on, undoubtedly a problem exaggerated by the fabulous Live integration of Halo 2 that I have spent so much time with recently. The feeling starts with not having a “Live Aware” friends list in the single player game, leaving me feeling a little disconnected, although not something I can mark the game down for quite yet as enough other games miss it too. The problems are really in the poor match making and world ranking systems. At the end of any game you gain ranking points based on your result, win, lose or draw, although there is no explanation of how these points are worked out and games results are voided if one player disconnects, meaning that many cheating bastards have taken to quitting games when they go behind (not realizing that they'd get points if they just saw out the final whistle). There's no way of setting up online tournaments or leagues either – single matches only, and should you wish to abuse the system you could just keep playing the same person all day long and keep earning points. The other problem with the online play is that the quality of play can vary – I'm not enamoured with the game's ability to cope with lapses in network condition. If you are the challenger, then the opponent's Xbox seems to act as the host of the game, meaning that they get a perfect version of the game while you may get a less than optimal experience with a noticable lag between pressing a button and something happening on screen. Having said that, a lot of the time it is like sitting on the sofa with your opponent, and it's still a whole load better than any other football game online, more than ideal for some friendly competition and banter with a distant mate.
At the end of the day, PES4 is the best football game about by a good margin, and now it's available on the Xbox. It plays, looks and feels a country mile better than its nearest competitor. It's still got some room for improvement, especially in the online play department, but I have to praise Konami for putting in Live play when they could have just shrugged and ignored it. For anyone that hasn't played a PES game before, it's almost a no-brainer - armchair football doesn’t come any better.