The bitter battle between fans of the two next generation consoles can at times be a nasty exchange. Supporters of Microsoft's Xbox 360 take great pleasure in pointing out, at every opportunity, the PS3's failings - the lack of exclusive triple-A games, the high price and the late ports. The PS3 camp claims a more powerful console, HD movie playback built in and the ability to fit more on a Blu-ray disc compared with a DVD. But one thing that PS3 and 360 fans alike must admit is that developers are, on the whole, finding it hard to get to grips with Sony's console. Some have pointed out the complexity of the system, while others speak of issues with the way the console handles memory. Either way, we have seen some very high-profile PS3 games that have suffered from slow-down, less than impressive graphics and glaring drops in frame rate. Unfortunately nowhere is this more apparent than in Pro Evolution Soccer's debut on the PS3.
Put simply, the game suffers from horrible slowdown and drops in frame rate that happen too frequently to ignore. The first thing we did when we booted up the game was start a two-player exhibition match between Newcastle (one of two licensed English teams, the other being Tottenham) and Barcelona. We randomized the stadium and the weather effects. It turned out we played in Estadio Da Luzii in the rain, in the wide view of course, and this is what we experienced.
Whenever the ball gets more than a few feet above head height, you'll notice the frame rate drop to worrying levels. Goal replays are a jerky mess. The game will slow down to what feels like a snail's pace whenever more than half of the players are on screen at the same time. There's quite significant and frequent tearing too. Perhaps you can get used to the slowdown, if you play long enough. But the annoying thing is that when the game inexplicably and implausibly slows down, it puts you off your timing. Well-timed sliding tackles turn into dangerous lunges, and, with the new super harsh refs, usually result in a red card. Split second decision making and well-judged shots are made almost impossible when the penalty area is crowded because the game engine suffers a stroke. PES has always had issues with slowdown, but I'm sad to say that PES 2008 on PS3 is the worst for it in the series. Quite frankly, this isn't the next generation, silky smooth, high-definition interactive experience PS3 owners were promised when they handed over their hard-earned cash.
We were so shocked by the slowdown and frame rate problems that we dropped the resolution from 720p to standard to see if it had any effect. All it did was take the HD sheen off proceedings. Then we tried using the AV lead the PS3 comes bundled with to see if that helped. The only difference here was the graphics looked even worse than they do normally. Stunned, we plugged the HDMI cable back in and put the resolution back up to 720p just to give the game one, last chance. PES has given us so much pleasure down the years that it at least deserved that. We set up a game just as before, in the rain, in the same stadium and with wide view, and we experienced the same problems again.
While we did manage to improve matters a little bit by turning off the stadium effects, knocking off the commentary and playing without weather effects in a different stadium, we can't be expected to game under these conditions just to get a playable match experience. It's simply not on. And yes, the game was installed on the PS3 hard drive, before you say anything. Suffice it to say, whatever way you play PES 2008 you'll instantly notice its glaring technical performance flaws. Could this be why we haven't seen a PS3 demo of the game?
Even if you discount these issues, graphically the game is 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. The player faces are superb, despite the odd hiccup. Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is spot on, as is Newcastle brute Alan Smith, Barcelona sensation Lionel Messi and Spurs goal getter Robbie Keane. Player animations are again superb, with nice additions like players waggling their fingers or throwing their fists at refs when a decision goes against them. 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 PS2 PES with a HD lick of paint. And while you won't really notice it until you see a frame rate crippled replay, the crowds look terrible - a pixelated shambles from a by-gone era.
Phew. That's a lot of negativity about the latest iteration of a series I absolutely adore. It can't all be bad, right? Well, when you do manage to get a period of smooth play, you'll love it - it feels like beautiful, classic PES. 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 X 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. You can get away from players once you've done them like a kipper 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. The engine has been changed so that now 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. 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.
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 gaols 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 L1, L2 and R1 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 should have concentrated more on getting the game running properly on PS3 than putting in dodgy new features.
Speaking of dodgy new features, there are a few more in the game. Penalties work the same but from a new angle. The camera is positioned by the foot of the keeper if you are saving a penalty. 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. You can scan your face into the game via the PlayStation Eye 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. You might have seen some screenshots of what looks like players talking to the media. This is just window dressing for the Master League, which despite a menu re-jig is essentially exactly the same as before.
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 with a fully fleshed out edit mode.
What's most disappointing about PES 2008 on PS3 is that if it wasn't crippled by its technical problems, it would one of the best Pro Evolution Soccer games ever made. It would certainly be an improvement on last year's next-gen 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. PES fans have been doing this for so many years, that they even forgive the odd bit of slowdown, too. But, I'm afraid to say, PES 2008 on PS3 is unforgivable.
PES 2008 on PS3 is for a next-gen console but it is not a next-gen game. You cannot ignore the fact that, for whatever reason, this is a poor effort from Konami. PES executive producer Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka himself has said that he was "shocked" at the PS3 slowdown and that he doesn't have a clue why it's happening. Unfortunately this won't cut it for gamers who have forked out hundreds of pounds for a PS3, a platform that is supposed to be the most powerful console in the world. Slowdown and poor frame rates are so last gen. It's amazing to think that some scientists have replaced supercomputers with PS3s, and an experienced game developer can't get a football game to run without having a heart attack. It is with a heavy heart, a heart that has been in love with Konami's brilliant football series for longer than I can remember, that I cannot recommend PES 2008 on the PS3 over FIFA 08 on the same console.
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.