Seeing the 6 on the end of Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is actually quite scary. I can remember playing the first game in the PES series as if it was yesterday, and the years in-between have simply flown by. Konami's approach with the series has certainly been one of slight tinkering rather than all-out revolution, but changes from game to game have been no less significant. With FIFA 07 making huge strides in the right direction, is more tinkering going to be enough this year?
Die-hard fans may well scoff at the thought of the mighty PES being challenged by FIFA, but in all seriousness, this year the gap is closer than it's ever been. Still, it only took a single game with PES 6 to realise that FIFA still has some work to do. There has always been the argument that PES is too hard for newcomers, but with FIFA's numerous tricks and other advanced controls, that argument is now harder to make than ever before. The only real drawback for casual players is the lack of many officially licensed teams.
This year's PES has once again changed things, but nothing drastic. PES 5 players will appreciate that the refs are now a little less whistle-happy, and no longer blow up for a foul when your player happens to brush another. This change alone makes games in PES 6 flow far better than in 5. In fact, that pretty much describes what PES 6 is like; it simply flows very nicely indeed. You can even perform quick free-kicks if you hit the right buttons in time, getting the game moving again without everyone getting into position.
Shooting has been tweaked and now requires even better timing. Hit a shot while your player is off balance slightly, turning, or with the ball on his wrong foot, and you'll more often than not see the ball fly over the cross bar, and almost out of the stadium. The controlled shot modifying button (R2 button on PS2 and RT on 360) is even more useful this year, and careful use will result in a larger percentage of your shots hitting the target.
It might just be my new found love for headers, but crosses from the wing seem like one of the most potent attacking weapons. Attackers seem far more powerful then I remember from previous games, and really push through defenders when trying to get a header in on goal. R2 is once again the key to this, allowing you to position your player for the header, and if you time your moves correctly some real high quality goals can be scored. Screaming down the wing requires you to use the new technique for fast running, so don't despair if you find the defender catching you a little too easily. Medium run has now been mapped to R1/RB, and tapping this button will help your player reach top speed.
PES is a series that is argued about almost as much as it's played, and PES 6 will be no different. It always takes a while to adjust to the changes made in the latest iteration, and some people simply prefer things as they were. With PES 6 I see the changes as being positive across the board, making the game far more enjoyable than the often infuriating stop/start matches in PES 5. You do have to have a little more patience than in PES 5, forcing you to pass the ball about while waiting for space, and star players no longer have such a big impact, but unless you're Liverpool that's not such a bad thing.
As ever, PES only really comes into its own during multiplayer matches (the computer AI in single-player is as annoying as ever). This year the game supports 4v4 online play on the PlayStation 2, and lets you play against PC players, although there are some teething problems with the latter. The lobby system is pretty complex, and more than a little confusing at first, but it's a damn sight better than the overly simplistic, lobby-less 360 version. Despite its online supremacy, the 360 game only has support for 1v1 matches, and has a quite awful online menu system.
How matches play online varies dramatically from game to game, but tests surprisingly found matches on the PlayStation 2 to suffer the least from lag. I'm yet to play a perfect game, so such a thing might never happen, but the Xbox 360 game suffered from laggy controls far more frequently than the PlayStation 2 version did. It's sad, as the voice chat on the 360 helps add to the atmosphere, but when your timing is completely off the game becomes a whole lot less more fun.
Other differences between the two games are shockingly plentiful. On the game modes front the Xbox 360 version is lacking everything bar a basic Cup mode, League mode and the ever present Master League mode. On the PlayStation 2 you can edit pretty much everything (360 limits you to player names and stats), there's a new International Challenge mode, an excellent quick-play feature for multiplayer matches, memorial matches (so you can keep track of performances against friends) and generally better menus. Neither game will win an award for menu design, but some of the design decisions in the 360 game are scandalous - having to go to the options menu to set your manual/automatic player switching is totally dumb.
On the pitch both play similarly, but the 360 game seems to have more weight to it. Players seem to barge each other around with more frequency, and games feel a lot more physical. Widescreen support on the 360 is also a first for the series, and it adds more to the experience than you might think. With your view no longer confined to a small square section of the pitch (radar aside), you can pass the ball better and time through balls with more accuracy. I couldn't say one version plays better than the other, but there are definitely slight differences. The d-pad on the Xbox 360 pad is less than ideal for PES, so you're better off using the analogue stick. Hardcore fans won't like it, but it's not as dreadful as it sounds.
Being the first time the series has graced a next-gen console, we were all hopeful that we'd be treated to some splendid next-gen visuals. Sadly, Konami obviously thinks that widescreen, high definition and slightly improved stadiums and player models is all it takes. Played on an HD display there is a huge gap between the PlayStation 2 and 360 versions, but it doesn't look next-gen. Slowdown is actually worse in the 360 version, and while the stadiums look better, you only get eight of them.
After each game you'll notice differences too, or, to be more accurate, you won't notice them. The post-match stats pages that the PlayStation 2 offers are nowhere to be seen in the 360 game, so analysing performances isn't possible. Another popular feature missing from the 360 is the ability to save replays. While the game's manual claims you can do it, you most certainly can't, which is a real shame.
Audio work is as bad as ever, with commentary on both systems that's so bad it would have been better left out of the game. The lack of licensed music in the same fashion as EA manages for its sports games means that the menu music becomes annoying very quickly, and crowds often sound dead. Compare this to the splendid audio in the latest FIFA and it's obvious that Konami needs to improve this area considerably next year.
What matters most is how PES 6 plays, and both versions play very nicely indeed. Unless you spend most of your time playing alone, you won't be disappointed by either version, as when played with a group of mates most of the missing features from the Xbox 360 game aren't significant. If you really want to play online though, or the game modes are important to you, the PlayStation 2 game is by far the better choice. This year Konami can just about be forgiven for short-changing Xbox 360 owners, but next year's game better be next-gen.