Pro Evolution Soccer 4

How do you follow up on the closest approximation of real life football yet? If you're Konami, you take it one step further.

PS2, Xbox, PC

By Alex Wollenschlaeger

Walking past my office, a colleague poked his head in and asked who was winning. Feyenoord and Real Madrid were at each other's throats in a passionate game, with the situation tautening as the end of the match approached. And then he saw the controller in my hand.

Videogames are easily obsessed over, but it's sports games that draw in the really nutty. And in football sub-genre, it's Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer that sits atop the heap of coulda-beens. Sure, EA's FIFA series usually comes out on top in raw sales numbers, but it's the unblanched features and performance of Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka's series that draw in the bleary eyed masses who let out mortified cries at the mention of the series.

Pro Evolution Soccer 3 proved that the series has it where it counts, but with Pro Evolution Soccer 4, Konami Tokyo has sent a shot across EA's bow. Pro Evolution Soccer 4 is still a punishing game to get to grips with, but that doesn't mean that you won't have fun while doing it. And for those to whom renaming every single misnamed player in the game is seen as a necessary step to undertake before the first kick-off, the Pro Evo series is still the place to be.

The first time you take to the pitch, you'll notice a handful of new additions. Besides the necessarily upgraded visuals, there's a more obvious addition: a referee. Yes, after spending way too much time without a visible authority figure on the field, Konami have added that most loved/hated - depends on the call, doesn't it? - figure in football. The referee is a hard man, but a fair one. He does seem to blow for unnecessary roughness a touch too avidly, but when he allows for advantage and you place one in the upper right corner, you'll be happy that the developers have seen fit to upgrade his AI.

The referee helps ensure that the game flows well, which is assisted by the new dribbling system. While it's not the easiest of techniques to acclimatise to, once you have it wired you'll be sidestepping and spinning with the best of them. The animation is good enough that you'll be able to just watch the players' feet as they run to make sure you strike the ball at the right moment, and when you do net one you'll know that it was down to your increasing skill and not because of some random fluke.

Likewise the passing and striking systems are beauteous once mastered, with the manual control system allowing you to direct play more to your liking. The free kick system is upgraded and works well, though there is the odd occasion where the path the ball arcs through is seemingly arbitrary. But there's a definite sense of achievement when you reach a point when, through raw skill, you can position a free kick nearly anywhere you want.

But this is all rather complicated, and, honestly, most likely rather overwhelming for newcomers to Konami's series. The tutorial modes go a long way to bringing the uninitiated up to speed, giving you a chance to perfect your ball control, striking and passing skills. For some these preparatory steps will be an absolute necessity, as the game's AI will not hesitate to take you down at the mere glimpse of daylight.

The on-pitch depth is echoed by the reams of stats available to all the players in the game. Like a good murder novel, the more you scratch the more you find and if that's the sort of thing you're after then Pro Evolution Soccer 4 will have you enraptured. You can follow nearly every physical attribute and skill of the hundreds of authentic players that make up the real and almost-real teams and use their developing skills to your advantage as you put together your dream squad.

Before you even knock the ball off the spot, though, you'll already find yourself buried in numbers as the all-important team formation and strategy is plotted out. New Pro Evo players have the advantage that while this is an important step when taking on your experienced live opponents, going against the AI with stock settings still allows you to struggle through to a victory. There are, however, umpteen customisation options for you to tweak to get your teams lined up exactly how you want, You can set each player's strategies individually or simply tack on the most enticing default formations and strategies.

Of course, a major attraction of both the Xbox and PC versions of the game (sadly missing from the debut PS2 release) is the online play and functionality. Xbox Live facilitates full online matches, and allows for one-against-one matches against players anywhere in the world, while the PC disc kindly offers LAN network play as well as online via TCP/IP. Online play in PES needed to be perfect and it's as close as you could hope; attention to detail such as minimising the amount of time players have to change settings and even how many times you can pause the game, as well as a decently engineered World Rankings system. But the Xbox Live thrills are dampened somewhat by the lack of any private tournament set-up function, and irritatingly frequent lag glithces. There are also some other minor gripes that do spoil things a little, and it is a shame that Live is not perfect (outperformed by FIFA on almost every count) - but the overall effect is generally still pretty good.

Whether you're thinking of picking up the game merely to spend some time in the exhibition matches or you have an empty memory card on hand to capture each glorious moment through the Master League mode as you lead your chosen team to victory, Konami's game provides the best football experience yet on a home console. Whether you'll be able to extract the pervasive worth depends on whether you're willing to put time into mastering the game, but for those who do, Pro Evolution Soccer 4 simply cannot be beat.

Graphics Sound Gameplay Depth Presentation OVERALL
8.0 7.0 9.0 10.0 8.0 9.0

Football games have been a mainstay arena for videogames almost since their inception and it's been thrilling to see the virtualisation of the sport come of age in such a magnificent manner. If you're a football fan, you simply can't go wrong with Pro Evolution Soccer 4. Yes, the learning curve is a little too perpendicular for our liking at times, and Xbox Live misses the jackpot, but it's well worth it once you start to find your rhythm. There's more depth than a lot of players will ever see, but it's comforting to know that it's there and it works.

PES4 takes home a trophy, but by improving online and perhaps addressing the learning curve just a little, Pro Evo 5 should be aiming for the treble.

Video Coverage
(See Latest Videos & Video FAQ Here)
Pro Evolution Soccer 4
Direct feed - Hi-Res Intro Sequence (640x480, 1.6Mbps)
1.31m 17.2 MB WMV
Pro Evolution Soccer 4
Direct feed - Attract sequence gameplay (640x480, 1.6Mbps)
1.27m 16.5 MB WMV
Pro Evolution Soccer 4
Direct feed - Replay Honour (640x480, 1.6Mbps)
1.30m 17.0 MB WMV
Pro Evolution Soccer 4
Direct feed - Pre-Match Excitement (640x480, 1.6Mbps)
1.39m 18.8 MB WMV

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