By now you've probably read our PS3 PES 2008 review, in which we slammed the game for its frame rate and slowdown problems. And you've no doubt headed straight to the bottom of this page to see if we've given the Xbox 360 game a higher score. So what do you think? Surprised? Don't be. PES 2008 on the 360 is better than on PS3.
We take no pleasure in this dire situation. In an ideal world, we should be praising both games for their HD sheen, next-generation graphics and extensive online-enabled features. Unfortunately PES 2008 on both systems fails to excel in any of those categories. But at least you can play a smooth-running game of football on the 360.
To be fair, the first thing we did when the PES 2008 on 360 arrived in Pro-G HQ was play a two-player game under the exact same conditions as we did with the PS3 game. So we set up exhibition match between Newcastle and Barcelona at the game's second stadium, the Estadio Da Luzii, with the weather set to rain and the camera fixed in the wide view. Remember, this is in 720p, using a HDMI cable on a 55 inch Sony Bravia TV. The game ran like a freshly picked peach. While we did notice the occasional bit of slowdown it wasn't nearly enough to affect gameplay. We did notice some anisotropic filtering (where a line appears that divides texture quality) but this is only barely visible when the ball moves quickly and over a long distance. Verdict? When the ball is in play the game runs absolutely fine. No need to stick to certain stadiums, turn off the stadium effects or change the camera view - every game we played was smooth enough not to get in the way of the footballing fun.
That's not to say the 360 version is perfect. Like on the PS3, goal replays and entrance scenes are a frame rate purist's worst nightmare. While the crowd fares a little better than the PS3 game, it still looks absurd for a game on a next-gen console. And the player faces are still as hit and miss as ever. On the one hand you have an almost photo-realistic Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane and on the other you have a bemusing likeness of Frank Lampard and Dimitar Berbatov. And just like in the PS3 version, the 360 game's graphics are distinctly average. In a wide view (the view any serious PES player plays in) the game looks poor compared with the same view in FIFA 08. Perversely however, where FIFA's graphics get worse during player close-ups, PES 2008 gets better. Player animations are again superb, with nice additions like players waggling their fingers, throwing their fists about and holding their hands up while challenging an opposing player. Shooting, passing and tackling animations are, as is expected with PES, flawless. But you just can't get away from the feeling that the game looks like last-gen PES with a HD lick of paint.
PES 2008 feels like the beautiful, classic PES we've all grown to love over the years. The best football game engine the world has ever seen has undergone a few, subtle tweaks, but nothing has been implemented that will fundamentally change the way you play the game. PES fans will instantly feel at home and it'll not take you more than half-an-hour before you're spraying cross-field passes and splitting the opposition's defence in two with killer lofted through balls like a Brazilian master. We've heard a lot about the new Teamvision system, a sophisticated AI that adapts to how you play to stop you running riot. Well we didn't notice the computer adapting to our play style. On the hardest difficulty level, the game is very hard, as you'd expect. But my tried and trusted tactic of playing long balls out to wingers who then cut inside for cool finishes seems to work just as well as it always did. An over-hyped learning AI notwithstanding, it's a definite improvement on last year's disappointing Pro Evolution Soccer 6, that's for sure.
It's harder to tackle. Pressing the dribbler with A gives away fouls more often, and slide tackles need to be absolutely spot on, or you'll get a red card from the totalitarian refs. Players keep hold of the ball much easier, and feel like they carry more weight. It's much easier to go past players now and you can get away from defenders once you've done them like a kipper much easier too. Unlike in the last game, fast players are actually fast. Chelsea's Andrei Shevchenko has super pace, unlike in real life, and is really useful for bursting into the penalty area. Pace is now a much bigger advantage than it was before. In PES 6 players moaned about how overpowered Brazilian and Inter striker Adriano was. Well, in PES 2008 anyone who's half decent is just as lethal.
The engine has also been changed so that the camera view doesn't always change when the ref is giving out a card, or you get fouled and take a quick free kick. This is a lovely touch that ads to the pace and flow of an average match, but one thing that does annoy, however, is having to wait for the ref's whistle before taking free-kicks. It causes unnatural and annoying stops in play, and seems absurd considering the tweaks Konami has implemented to help the game flow.
The keepers have been altered too. In the last game, lots of goals were scored because keepers parried shots into the paths of onrushing attackers, something that drew a lot of complaints from PES's vocal fanbase. It was as if every keeper suffered from a dose of Paul Robinson syndrome. While you'll still be able to score goals in this way, it happens less. Keepers are better shot stoppers too, but will flap a bit on crosses. Keepers in PES 2008 are more Jose Reina than Petr Cech. We have to say it's an improvement.
The commentary is hugely improved. In fact, it's the best ever in a PES game. We've now got John Champion and Mark Lawrenson casting their critical eye on proceedings. Love them or hate them, the commentary is well up with play, with Champion doing a great job of sounding genuinely excited if there's a chance. There's also some insight into the teams, which, while irrelevant, help ad authenticity to the action. Champion will mention that the team has moaned to the press about having two training sessions a day in the build up to the game. Pointless, but nice. I've always turned the commentary off in every PES game I've played, until now.
Ah the music. The music in PES has always been bad. But the music in PES 2008 is quite possibly the worst I've ever heard in a video game. Konami has attempted to copy EA Sports' style of having the artist and song name flash up on screen, but has completely botched it. In PES 2008, the name of song will display along with the genre of music, from electronica to drum and bass, in a small box on the top right of the screen. But it's nothing to be proud of. Let me give you some sample lyrics from a piece of original music in the game (you have to imagine this with a Status Quo-type punk rock riff): "Football, soccer, football, soccer, football, soccer, all around the world. Football, soccer, football, soccer, football, soccer, Greatest game of all!" One of the first things you'll do in PES 2008 is head straight for the game settings to turn off the background music. It'll be one of the best decisions of your life.
Diving. Yes, you can dive in PES 2008, by pressing Left Trigger, LB and Right Trigger together. This new feature has split fans right down the middle. Konami say it's reflective of how football is in real life. But nobody likes diving, right? It's cheating. So why allow you to cheat in a game? In a match, there's no point diving unless you're being pressed in the box and you think it might make your shot hit row Z rather than the back of the net. Anywhere else and you'll get booked for it. In our multiplayer games in Pro-G towers, we quickly added no diving to house rules. We suspect when the online servers go live this weekend, a lot of people will do the same. Our view? We reckon Konami's time would have been better spent improving the game's graphics.
Speaking of dodgy new features, Konami has taken the bizarre option of changing the position of the camera when you are saving penalties to the foot of the keeper. The process of taking and saving a penalty is the same - pressing the correct direction on the d-pad and shoot, but the new perspective is very disorienting. I'm not really sure why Konami changed it - it felt fine to me before.
Another poorly implemented new feature is the ability to can scan your face into the game via the Xbox Live Vision camera and map it onto a user-generated player. Sounds good in theory, but it doesn't work too well. I tried it and had a real hard time getting anything even remotely life-like, despite more face-moulding options than you can shake a hair-dryer at.
And the Master League has undergone some underwhelming tweaks. You might have seen some screenshots of what looks like players talking to the media and signing autographs at training. Don't be fooled. This is just window dressing for the Master League, which despite a menu re-jig is essentially exactly the same experience as in Pro Evolution Soccer 6.
Fans of the Premier League will be disappointed to learn that Konami is still yet to prize EA Sports' unflinching grasp from that elusive exclusive license. The two licensed teams here are Tottenham and Newcastle, replacing Arsenal and Manchester United. So yet again we have London (Chelsea), North London (Arsenal), Man Red (Man Utd) and Merseyside Red (Liverpool) battling it out for the England League title in plain kits that look like Lycra. The feeling here is less disappointment, more a depressed resignation. Some transfers haven't made it into the game either - Danny Murphy is still at Spurs when he should be at Fulham, and Lassana Diarra is still at Chelsea when he should be at Arsenal. But again, we can live with this, especially now that the 360 version has a fully fleshed out edit mode.
In the PS3 review we said that the most disappointing thing about PES 2008 was that if it wasn't crippled by its technical problems it would one of the best Pro Evolution Soccer games ever made. Does that make the 360 version one of the best PES games ever made? As someone who has played every Pro Evo game Konami has brought to the UK, I'd have to say yes. Some will baulk at the more arcade feel to the game, and how dribbling and passing has been made easier (in direct contrast to FIFA's more considered play), but for me it's hit a sweet spot. And others will say the 360 d-pad is terrible for playing PES (which it is), although this has never really bothered me since I always use the analogue stick both on the Sixaxis and the 360 pad. Of more importance is the fact that Konami hasn't embraced next-gen gaming in any way shape or form with PES 2008. The graphics are distinctly last-gen and the game is almost identical in terms of modes and features to Pro Evolution 6. Looks like Seabass has earmarked next year's game for that. Third time lucky eh?
But PES 2008's gameplay is a big improvement on last year's effort. PES fans can forgive the poor graphics, the God-awful music, the embarrassing presentation and lack of licensed teams because the core of the game is so mind-bogglingly brilliant. Some gamers have called for a complete overhaul of the game, as legendary PES executive producer Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka has confirmed will be in place for 2009's game. But for me, I love PES's gameplay the way it is. The feeling of satisfaction you get from scoring a goal in PES, be it a tap-in at the end of an Arsenal-esque 20-pass move or a Frank Lampard scorcher, is unlike anything in gaming. It's about as close as us mortals are going to get to that uncontrollable burst of emotion professional footballers experience week in, week out. The most important thing is that in PES 2008 you can still get that beautiful feeling.
The online servers for the game just gone live, and are currently suffering varying degrees of lag across all systems. Check back next week for our thoughts on how this year's game fares when played over the internet and hopefully, when Konami has implemented a patch.