Anyone not familiar with the Pro Evolution Soccer series has either been living under a rock or has never played a football (soccer for our American visitors) game before. Ever since its ISS days on the Playstation it has been regarded as the best footy game available. That remains true today, even with numerous competitors trying to go one better. So, while PES4 still rules the roost, are these yearly updates really worth it?
Upon starting your first game you may find that things feel a little out of control. As with all new games in the series, the few changes that are made make a veterans' first play a little disconcerting. Shooting in particular takes a little while to get used to. Most will find that their shots will need a little more power to threaten the keeper, but as with all good games, a little bit of prolonged play makes everything fit in place.
Free kicks now offer you the option of a second kicker, who can strike the ball after a step over by the first kicker, or strike the ball after a lay-off. While nothing revolutionary it does offer some variety to free kicks and can produce some great goals.
Other new additions include an always present referee, who this time can play the advantage rule properly (almost) and doesn't blow for handballs every two minutes. The referee's also seem a lot stricter than in previous games. Constant harassing of an opponent with the X tackle will more than often result in a foul. On the whole the refereeing is very good, although there is still the odd insane decision that leaves all players baffled. There is also the rather infuriating (especially when it happens for the first time) disallowed goal after you have started your celebrations. I'm sure a few unfortunate controllers will be slung into a wall after a dance celebration in your mates face is interrupted by him shouting "Off-Side, Off-Side". Too smug a grin could result in some controller-to-mouth incidents.
The Master League returns and is harder than ever. Playing against Five-Star opposition is challenge enough, and probably won't ever be completed by the majority of gamers, but the PES shop will let you buy a Six-Star option. This is solely for those of you who want to die early. Any mistakes will be punished; anything other than total concentration isn't good enough.
It is clear to see that the developers have tried to improve the presentation of the game over the previous instalment. The menus have been smartened up while remaining functional, but the biggest change comes from the in-game graphics. While not quite in the same league as the FIFA series in instant wow factor, player models have been improved significantly since PES3. Almost all of the most famous players can be recognised, although a few look more like their unknown brother than the real thing. The series has always been known for its great animation and PES4 is no different. New to this version are a variety of off the ball incidents and a few rather shocking looking goal celebrations. There is however a rather annoying blemish that can at times hurt the gameplay. Slowdown rears its ugly head more than you would like, being especially evident at corners. It appears to be dependent on the stadium, so wont be noticeable in every game, but a bad case will hurt your timing. The newly added on screen ref is a nice touch, but if his removal had helped reach a steady frame rate I think we all know what we would prefer. One point to note is that here at Pro-G we have noticed that the game seems to play smoother in 50Hz mode rather than 60Hz. This may be our eyes playing tricks on us, but we certainly feel the slowdown is more apparent when playing in 60Hz.
Commentary is, to put it bluntly, still a shambles. On occasion you will feel that it is doing a good job, but it constantly fails to keep up with play and bombards you with inappropriate comments or analysis of the game. Elsewhere the sound is perfectly respectable. Crowd effects are good and the classic PES style music is back in full force.
Playing alone, particularly in a Master League can be great fun, but competitive games need to be played against human competition. When a game can produce raised fists, jumps for joy and various outrageous celebrations one minute, only then to make the very same person throw his controller away in disgust a few moments later, you have a special game. A vast majority of your life could be spent playing PES4 against friends. Few other games get you so involved that you simply can't stop playing. A loss must immediately be countered with a win. A series of defeats must be finished off with a declaration of your opponents cheating ways and how the game is unfair, followed by a few hours sulking, vowing never to play that damn game again. Your addiction is too strong though, and your mates' smug grin has to be annihilated from his face for good. Those of you who get addicted might as well only have one game in your collection as PES4 is the only game you will be playing for a long time.
Aside from the slowdown issues there are few major problems with the game. Control is still digital and does feel a bit restrictive; fully analogue movement would have been nice, but it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay, so we can't complain too much. Receiving players do still tend to stand looking at the ball, rather than make a run towards it, but effective use of the super-cancel (R1+R2) can reduce some of the frustration, although it does require some practice to use effectively.
If you fancy a break from normal matches the challenge training mode can provide a few hours entertainment and the standard training is there for newcomers to the series. There is certainly a lot to do in PES4, but it is missing something that could have levitated the game to an absolute must have, even for those of you clinging onto previous instalments of the series. Online play would have been the icing on the cake. I'm sure everyone knows by now that the forthcoming Xbox version of the game includes Xbox Live support. This will undoubtedly be a very good thing, but PES was designed for play on the Dual shock controller. Online play, combined with the best controller for the game would have been a match made in heaven. For many people a tricky choice will have to be made between the version that offers the most intuitive control scheme and the one that offers the chance to play people from all over the world.
Anyone that is a big fan of the series probably hasn't waited for this review before making the purchase, and they probably won't have been disappointed. There are bound to be a few people that prefer how things were in an older game, but PES4 offers enough changes to make it a very worthwhile purchase. It does take some time to get used to, but once it clicks endless hours of fun (and misery) follow. FIFA, TIF, Club football and others all want the magical ingredient, but PES keeps it locked away, year after year. It is hard to express what makes the game so good. It just feels right.