Review by james2

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the King has entered the building"

Better late than never, eh? Pro Evolution Soccer 4 came out way back in October, almost six weeks after this reviewer lost 3-2 to a guy from (Ahmed, if you're out there, I've been training for a re-match!), and to be honest it's only been since January that I've actually ‘cracked' the game and begun to love it like a son. This is by far the most changed edition in the history of the series, it took absolutely ages to try and nail down a fair strategy so not to get hammered 4-0 at every opportunity. To be fair, the usually reliable training mode was a let down. In PES3, we were taught to close down the opposition and how to slow down an attack, so you could let players run back and effectively swarm the ball carrier. Not so this time; we're simply told to ‘guess' what the opponent will do next and try in vain to stop him. Don't know about you, but I'm not exactly sure what Ronaldinho will do in the next 30 years of football, let alone the next 3 milliseconds.

The usual bishy-bashy music is back but with far more rhythm and rock behind it, which makes having the volume up on the TV bearable at least and the crazy colour scheme for the menu screens also returns with a vengeance. Staying true to tradition, the commentary is piss poor and warrants frequent use of the mute button on your remote control or scrolling through the options screen to turn off the babbling buffoon and his sidekick, Trevor Brooking, for good. I've nothing against the legendary Brooking, just his performance here is both shocking and dire in every sense of an Alan Hansen analysis.

Master League mode, arguably the cherry on top of a very delicious cake, has been further refined and although there aren't as many options to customize the way things materialise through the course of a season, like the computer controlled team's activity in the transfer market, the whole thing plays far more sensibly. For example, you will have to fight for scraps when in the lower Division 2 as the players bearing any sense of talent and skill will be reluctant to drop down out of the limelight. Not that you'll have any money to spend to acquire players though, as when in the lower league money is seriously tight. When starting a new game, you can choose whether to start with the standard no-hopers such as Eddington and Huygens from the last games and try to build a team around them, you can start with the standard team sheet so your team will feature all of the correct players, and lastly your team can consist of the no-hopers but sign three players, regardless of whether they want to come along or not. The downside to this is you'll have to play well to keep them, looking for promotion in your first season and then for silverware. Their contracts can only last for a maximum of 5 seasons and you can only re-negotiate once they finish, so losing a star player for nothing is a very realistic possibility.

Luckily, as you play more you earn PES Points, which can be spent in the aptly named PES Shop. Here you can buy classic players to add to the selectable teams or buy in the Master League, and you can also buy an option to alter the number of points (or finances) that your team starts off with in the aforementioned Master League. Of more importance is that you can buy the team selector, so when starting the league you can choose which teams go into which league, so if you want to start in the top division then so be it. What's better though is how you can set things up; with their only being four leagues you have to merge a few countries, with me I have a full Premiership with the newest sides (West Brom, Norwich and Crystal Palace) in Division 2 along with my side, Rangers and Celtic plus Boca Juniors and River Plate from Argentina. That means merging the Spanish and Portuguese, Italian and German, Dutch and ‘other' teams, a short collection of sides from European countries such as Spartak Moscow and Olympiakos. But that's my way; it's entirely up to you.

The cream of the crop, within Master League, is the WEFA Cup (WEFA standing for Winning Eleven Football Association) which is in effect the UEFA Champions League. By coming high in the rankings, top six usually if my memory serves me correct, you qualify for the tournament and play against the other top six teams from the other leagues. Just when you thought the other leagues were obsolete, eh? Of course, true to life, the best money is to be had in the WEFA Cup, and having a good run in the tournament will supplement your transfer budget significantly.

Of course, it's not off the pitch where Pro Evolution Soccer 4 excels, as we all know. On the pitch, several tweaks have been made and it's these that gave me a bumpy ride into actually loving the game for all that is good. Play is so much faster than before; before you know it, defence becomes attack, the opponent is swarming all over you and within 7 minutes you're down 3-0. The whole premise has changed once again; without leaning as far into slowing down play as before, you have many things to worry about. Opponents never stand still, they always move where you least expect and so you know watch the radar a lot more than before. You have to be far more clever when slowing down attacks as simply running close to the opposition will result in them moving quick to find space before dinking the ball over your player, trying to accelerate away, passing backwards or even holding onto the ball and trying a trick or two to make it past you. They're cheeky little buggers this time round.

The computer seems to thrive on trying to outwit your tactics throughout a game than just sitting there being taken advantage of. Playing a narrow tactic will usually see the computer team playing down the flanks, bringing on wingers during substations and literally pumping the ball into your box at every opportunity; if you let them. Wide tactics see the opponent playing more central, dinking balls into the gap between the midfield and defence (which is where a defensive midfielder comes in handy), dummying runs and keeping possession. It's fascinating to watch and great to play against, only when you've mastered how to play.

Before, possession wasn't essential. In PES 3 I had my game down to an art form. Attack quickly with short passes, draw defenders out with wingers, shoot from inside the box at all times. Then pull everyone back behind the ball, don't worry about play down the flanks and fight to win every header. I won every single game; it was easy, but never boring. This time round, my tactics had to be re-written. I tried to battle on, but never got anywhere. You have to keep possession at every opportunity, play short passes, make the correct runs etc, just like in real matches. The through ball is far more effective than before, when placed well you can split a defence in half, but then there's always the keeper to beat.

Goalkeeper's intelligence has been overhauled, and you won't any longer be toying with the man between the sticks. They make runs at the right time, punch when under pressure, catch when needed to and don't lunge into tackles. The way you can throw one off balance by shimmying quickly is amazing, often sending them tumbling the wrong way or sliding straight into you. Running around them is far more realistic, they try and close the gap rather than running back to goal or straight to you, which makes one on ones far more tense and exciting.

For me, the down point in PES 4's superior gameplay is the one-two move. Unlocking defences has never been better, a move over 5 yards of turf is highly effective and can change a game in seconds. But what annoys me is how short the runner will gun it. Taking control, of a winger, for example, and passing in field to a striker, I would expect the winger to bomb it down the flank until near the defensive line so when you pass back he's clear of the defenders and can whip the ball into the box. What happens instead is he stops short by a few yards, so when you pass the ball he's too busy performing his slowing down animation to speed back up and receive the pass.

Long passes are more effective thanks to players being more physical. They can actually hold their own now, and although this doesn't mean you'll win every header, you'll at least have a damn good chance. Perhaps that physical edge is lost in and around the penalty area, with players going down a touch easy, but many would argue that this feature stays true to the realism of real football.

Staying true to the series, we still have the usual modes of play. Exhibition mode allows you set up your own friendlies, league mode lets you take a national or domestic side into a season or half yet stripped off al Master League options, and cup mode allows you play either the regional championships, the infamous World Cup or Konami's Cup, customisable of course.

Editing the game could never be easier, either. You can edit clubs right down to the sponsors on the shirts, change their stadium and remodel strips. There's even an option in the PES Shop to unlock animal heads to use for players, so Wayne Rooney can finally have his deserved Gorilla face. Just joking, Wayne, I'm not jealous that you earn more in a week than I do in ten years and play for the biggest team in the world. Bastard…

Of course, again staying true to form, the edit mode is essential to the game thanks to Konami failing to secure full licensing. Merseyside Red, anyone? How about West London White? Add to that the wrong stadiums (Fulham's ground is far more Highbury than a no roofed, three tiered South American stadium), out of date kits and rosters plus questionable player likenesses, and the old girl reveals her weakness. The most annoying thing I've found is in the Master League, though. Players now have progression charts, so some are more talented than others and when they play games, according to their graph they gain points. But Konami being Konami, they're all screwed up. Arjen Robben, arguably one of the biggest talents to grace the game, has an average graph so his stats never grow to be as amazing as they should be. And there's no way to change this, either. All graphs are strictly un-editable, meaning you have to play with what you've got. This isn't right at all, and the fact that changing stats don't carry over to the Master League is downright annoying.

Luckily for us, there's people out there determined to make a ‘scene' for PES the same as that for Football Manager, and option files are floating about at sites such as PESFan which have all the correct strips, rosters, stadiums and stats, as well as specialist files which change all of the teams for the full English outfit, right down to Football League 2. But I still feel that this should be standard, oh how I would give for a game as good as PES but with all the options from This is Football, the graphics and depth of leagues from FIFA, the database from Football Manager and the extra's of ESPN NFL 2005, I've talked about it many a time. But for now we'll have to make do with the masterpiece that is Pro Evolution Soccer 4, which is definitely no bad thing. Even without online play.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/16/05

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