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PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 6 (PSP)
Doesn't time fly in a Pro Evolution Soccer world? Minutes ago it seemed like the PES automatons had only just purchased version 5 of the titular "better than Fifa" footy smash and already Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is here to kick a similar amount of Electronic Arts' arse. Greeted with grandiose cheers from the PES faithful who regard the game as flawless (despite the occasional flaw) and a large "bah" from a minority who hate the way Konami incessantly tinker with the game mechanics in each subsequent version (look you bunch of monkey's - why fix something that isn't broken?) a sixth incarnation was always going to be difficult to improve upon the revered brilliance of prior Pro Evo escapades - especially on the PSP.
PES5 certainly proved fallible. With no Master League or Cup competitions the game featured a distinct lack of challenge and the longevity usually associated with the yearly fixture. Coupled with an extremely mind-numbing loading time the pick up and play nature of the PSP was severely undermined. Both Burnout Legends and Grand Theft Auto proved more appealing as appropriate PSP titles to play on the toilet. PES6, therefore, has a hell of a lot to live up too. Not only does it have to re-obtain its position at the top of the PSP gaming league, it now seems even further away from challenging the mighty Amiga classic, Sensible Soccer, for the title of "best football game ever made… ever".
To borrow an old footy cliché, Pro Evo 6 is a game of two distinctly differing halves. It will annoy and impress in equal measure, but eventually carves out a desired victory after much blundering and flabbergasting - pretty much like the current Liverpool squad. Saying that, there is plenty here to admire! Most importantly, the two essential bugbears of long-term challenge and long-winded loading times are eradicated by some inspired Rafa Benitez tactical substitutions, which cover the limitations of and much improve upon the earlier PSP Pro Evo release.
The inclusion of a Master League system (and various other cups) is a welcome, if not superb, addition from Konami. Whilst some will be disappointed that the Master League lacks the ability to develop players, (making it pointless to transfer young players into the squad in the hope of building up their skills) it pretty much has all the other necessary features, such as buying and selling players, gaining promotions, etc. that have been part and parcel of the franchise since PES1. The Master League demands a larger investment of your time in building a team featuring the likes of Pele, Van Basten and Cruyff (Johann, not the whelp known as Jordi) that makes it far more challenging and interesting than the drab single
season play of PES5. Furthermore, considering the Master League has limited affect on other facets of the game it's difficult to see why Konami didn't include this feature in PES5, unless it was simply a rushed release for the spanking new handheld platform.
Indeed, the increased gaming components of the Master League have no ill effects on the in game graphics, sound or presentation. The graphics are as fluid as you'd expect of the PS2 version (only a slight case of slow-down occurs when things get busy at a free-kick) with the players lovingly composed and detailed - all heading, chesting, passing and volleying the ball as if you're watching the real thing on Match of the Day. It's exquisite stuff, especially on a handheld machine. Equally a number of the PS2's cut screens remain giving the footy action a little more heightened character. Sequences of the referee handing out bookings, linesman flagging players off-side, wonderfully rendered replays after scoring a goal or a near miss, players running off to be subbed and the perfect moment when an irate player throws his toys out of the pram after a nonchalant tackle and begins a shoving contest, are all present and correct adding to the overall atmosphere expected of a football match.
More impressive still is that with top-notch graphics and the addition of a Master League system the long loading times of PES5 have been impressively overcome. It's odd that with still more content than the previous release this happens to be the case, but now the loading time is swift and merciful, passing in a nanosecond rather than enduring like the seven-year war. This makes the game a virtual pleasure to boot up and the efforts of Konami's techies should be commended for getting even more out of the PSP this time round. Of course, this means that certain other aspects of the PS2 version have been left back in the changing rooms sulking in Carlos Tevez fashion, in order to maintain such swift loading dynamics. For instance, there's only one type of stadium to play matches within and the in-game commentary is lacking (except for an occasional "it's a goal" comment). Yet, for the smaller capacity of the PSP to its big brother, the reasoning behind some sacrifices needing to be made is a legitimate one. The wanton meanderings of Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking talking bollocks in the match commentary are a small mercy to be dropped by the developers - making the gain of the Master League even more worthwhile.
So far so sounding like the Brazilian World Cup champions of 1970 then! Unfortunately, some piss-poor defending of Ashley Cole proportions soon brings PES6 back down to Earth with a bump. Not everything is as Carlos Fandango as Konami would like. The main concern is with the unnecessary tinkering to the games mechanics (perhaps as a nod towards the word "evolution" in the title) which, at first, sucks the big hairy one. Konami have obviously set out to improve the way the game plays - why else tinker? - but for some, it will be regarded as an unforgivable intervention to an otherwise lively and exciting franchise.
The first problem is PES6 plays so much slower than previous PES incarnations. The ball often moves as if dredging through quick-sand, making quick passing to players in space take eons. This allows for the opposition to get back into defensive positions, preventing the counter-attacking play synonymous with prior PES entries. Gone is the cut and thrust of an attacking dynamic, replaced with a more languid system of contained and technical build-up play. The lack of zip and liveliness, once the life-blood of the PES franchise, is much missed and the more defensive aspects, whilst presenting a more realistic perception of football, is not as instantly engaging. Indeed, with the success rate of through balls (especially the much used flighted through-ball of PES5) also reduced in scope the game play, at first, leads to a one dimensional strategy of maintaining possession, getting the ball wide and chucking in crosses for strikers. Whilst this is less of an issue with better teams, attempting to play a Master League season with the bog-standard Master League team (featuring the usual suspects of Minandina, Castolo, Espimas, Valery and the like) is a real chore. Normally the bog-standard Master League team is a decent challenge now, with the slower pace, it's bloody infuriating.
What really annoys, though, is the pointless re-calibration of the shooting button. Previously a skill in judging the length of time to hold down the shoot button to configure the power of a shot, PES6 features a now ridiculous power gauge. A slight tap of the button is all that's required - any more and the ball is likely to end up in the stratosphere. Gone is the skill in judging the power of the shot and, indeed, at first shooting is a pain in the backside. Barely do your strikers see enough of the ball, due to the more defensive nature of PES6, and now when they do get a sight on goal, the ball is more often than not blazed over thanks to the non-instinctive shooting system. Highly annoying!
The tinkering has provided some improved gameplay aspects; passing requires more skill and heading has improved greatly on PES5. But, along with poor use of the PSP controller to include all of the technical skills from the PS2 version (at least half-a-dozen of them could be dropped for a more instinctive game), PES6 seems over-complicated where once simplicity was the bastion of common sense footy play.
However, your enjoyment and appreciation of PES6, in the long-run, will depend on the capacity for patience and adapting to these gameplay niggles. Like the Liverpool team of late, a stumbling start to the season, but by the end a late surge up the league table and Champions League and FA Cup victory highlights some enduring longevity. Invest some time in learning the new footy mechanics and strategies involved in wining matches and it's unlikely you'll remove the game from the loading tray anytime soon. Yes, it truly is great fun and does slowly become instinctive given time. Eventually you'll work out when to play through balls at the right time, when to pass the ball sideways, when to mug a few players off with the abundance of tricks available and, essentially, learn how shoot properly without blazing the ball over the bar. From a one-dimensional strategy the game soon opens up into a host of ways to play and score, which is Pro Evolution Soccer at its best. PES6 is still the excellent game it was, albeit wearing a slightly different skin. Once you've got the hang of the more slow build up play and configured ways to get behind opposition defenders, PES6 is like seeing an old school chum for the first time in a good couple of years and popping down the pub for a pint. Friendship re-acquainted - bliss.
For some (the impatient among us), the niggles will be too much and childish complaints along the lines of "it's not PES4" are likely to ring out. Along with other irks the morons with over-expectations like to allude to, such as a lack of in-game commentary and player licences (which you really can't blame Konami for), certain fans will be throwing their PSP across the room and into a bedroom wall in a fit of blood-boiling rage. In the long run, of course, these are the fools missing out.
PES6 is the Alan Hansen of football games - solid, dependable and intelligent, happy to play the ball sideways and backwards to maintain possession, but sometimes lacking in pace and flair. You can't help thinking that if Konami had kept the PES5 game engine (which is faster, simpler and more fun) and merely added the Master League system and superior loading times, this review would be hailing a new king of the football simulation. As it stands, PES6 continues the tradition of wonderful football games that Konami have become revered for without nearing the heights scaled by the best of the franchise - the mighty PES4 on the PS2. This is still hugely excellent stuff, once re-adjusted to the annoyingly tinkered gameplay, and considering PES4 isn't available on the PSP, PES6 is a considerable must buy purchase.
Overall - Miles better than Fifa, but not a patch on the simplicity of PES4 (or the mighty Sensible Soccer for that matter), Pro Evolution Soccer 6 does reign supreme on the PSP