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Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 Review

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Besides perennial irrelevance on the world stage, there are three things us football fans from the Third World can look forward to each year: decrepit stadium seats, cheap-looking replica jerseys and a bootleg copy of the latest installment in the Japanese Winning Eleven video game series by Konami Tokyo.

Despite the splendor and sheen of EA Sports’ vaunted (read: fully-licensed) FIFA series, it has never been a secret among serious gamers that Winning Eleven has always been the more compellingly accurate virtual representation of our sport. Now boasting a cult-like international following that falls somewhere in between Star Trek and Chuck Norris, the ’08 brainchild of video game designer Shingo Takatsuka was released recently to much fanfare and frantic anticipation.

The result is simpler than an offside decision involving Mark Viduka: it is the single greatest sport video game on any console since Super Tennis on the Super Nintendo. (The exception, of course, being any Football Manager game released during that period. I have since sworn off the latter time-effacing contrivance; it seems I have developed a fondness for clean underwear, meals and women.)

It wasn’t until I moved to Montreal four years ago, over a decade since I first explored the limits of my temper managing Espinas, Iouga and the rest of the original Master League misfits, that I first found myself purchasing the fancy complete-with-manual Western edition, Pro Evolution Soccer. Despite a much more serious title, little differed between the two versions, PES offering slightly faster gameplay along with the absence of an overly-enthusiastic Japanese match commentator screaming “shoootoh!” upon witnessing any attempt at all on goal.

While waiting for this year’s release, I had the opportunity of sampling FIFA 08 to satisfy cravings for the kind of confidence and reckless abandon on a football pitch I never could quite muster around real people. Surprisingly, as someone who had all but dismissed the series’ playability since 1997, I was wholeheartedly impressed. Matches no longer resembled a weird amalgam of women’s soccer, pinball and that crazy volleyball-like affair using hacky sacks. The graphics were stunning, the pace was realistic, players with the ball no longer sprinted like the infected from 28 Days Later. You could even muck about as Ronaldinho on a practice pitch while you waited for games to load. The problem? A seasoned grasp of the knowledge needed to perform all the game’s controls could require an accredited diploma from Electronic Arts.

I’ve always thought of the FIFA series as an idealistic prototype car too intricate for anyone to drive. Indeed, FIFA 08‘s manual reveals no less than eleven-and-a-half pages of instructions to memorize in order to perform the dizzying array of moves and trickery available. As usual, the designers apparently attempted to make use of every combination of buttons possible on one controller, leaving you once again resigned to the analog stick as your only means for movement.

A very brief open letter to EA Sports: if you’re over the age of 21, which a lot of us actually are, and still like playing video games, the only way you like to use the analog stick is as a metaphor for your penis. I don’t need the Rainbow Flick, just give me the directional buttons option please.

All things considered, FIFA 08 is an admirable effort, the first football simulation worthy of even being compared to PES in years. But something just wasn’t right. I quickly found myself longing for retro minimalist menus, for English club names like Wearside or West Midlands Village, for players who have to instinctively hop when forming lines in front of a free kick no matter how short or low. Which brings me, quite tardily, to PES 08.

It is testament to the game’s crack-like addictiveness that I have stopped no less than six times while writing this article to continue my inaugural Master League campaign. It really is that good. Everything you loved about past versions remains: simple controls, aging stars enjoying recurrent Indian summers and, of course, the greatest venue never built, Konami Stadium. The arcade quirkiness about the game is also omnipresent; goalkeepers still play like they were CGI’d by René Higuita. The graphics on match day are beautiful, yet not as meticulously compiled as FIFA‘s. In my opinion though, PES player faces always tended to show a more distinct resemblance to their real-life inspirations. What has improved most, however, is the actual gameplay.

The latency between the press of a button and the execution of command that wreaked havoc on previous releases no longer exists. For the last few years, one couldn’t help but feel the game’s rapid-fire playability was sacrificed somewhat to accommodate sharper visuals. Now, control is so natural, one feels free to dribble like they used to playing International Superstar Soccer. (Nintendo heads will recognize.)

The venerable Minanda is still spearheading the exceedingly aforementioned Master League squad, although currently, at age 36, he is seen sporting a shorter and most mature new haircut. The Master League mode itself is considerably more engaging than in the past; you now have more to ponder than the speed of Burchet vs. the softer touch of Espimas. Why the players’ names recently all changed by exactly one letter, however, is beyond me. The music is still terrible, best described as an all-inclusive resort DJ spinning at a birthday party for the 12 year old daughter of the exuberant Japanese talk show host from Lost in Translation.

This year’s Ronaldo Award (given to the player who most defies his programmed statistics to become untouchable when possessing the football, an honor the chubby Brazilian was awarded virtually every season) is bestowed upon Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

The only negative comment I feel compelled to share seems rather petty when considering any of my last few paragraphs: PES 08 showcases some of the worst officiating since the Italian Football Federation fined Juventus. At least two or three times a match, the referee will get an obvious decision horribly wrong, leaving you wound tighter than Castolo’s cornrows. Just yesterday, I lost the World Cup final to the Netherlands on a laughably given corner. An innocent attempt to make the game authentic? Perhaps, but unnecessary regardless. The same might be said for the inclusion of the possibility to dive; no good can come of this, and some friendships might never be salvaged.

Usually, I like to think of a witty way to end my articles, but not tonight. My friend and arch-nemesis Fanous, who has been pestering me for a mention in this article all day, awaits at the Camp Nou Catalonia Stadium with a Milan squad he has been tinkering with for over twenty minutes. I could go on, but right now I’m too excited to think of anything else to say. Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 is the real deal. Harigato, Takatsuka san, harigato.

Theme Music: Sam And Dave – Hold On, I’m Coming

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