"Xbox 360 is the home of next-gen football. Xbox 360 owns football." So said European Xbox boss Chris Lewis just over two months ago at the Leipzig game conference, where Lewis wasn't about to let slip a chance to rub Sony's face in the murky prospect of not having hi-def Pro Evolution Soccer or FIFA on the PS3 until late-2007. The message was plain: if you want high-definition footy now, you'll need an Xbox 360 under your TV. The joke, if Lewis was to be believed, was firmly on Sony. Yet now, as Pro Evolution Soccer 6 hits store shelves, it appears as if the punchline has gone a bit flat. See, Pro Evo 6 on the Xbox 360 isn't a poor game by any means. It's just that it's a better, more complete game on the aging PlayStation 2. Whoops.
Let's be clear about this: as sport-based video games go, and as myself and the other Chris will tell you until the cows come home, Pro Evolution Soccer is masterful. In the seven years since it appeared as ISS: Pro Evolution on the first PlayStation, Konami's series has consistently delivered a blend of brilliant ball physics, compelling and realistic matches and intelligent, strategic gameplay. For so long, it's been the thinking fan's game, in direct contrast to the glitzier but shallower joys of FIFA. Yet now, after dominating for so long, Konami is calamitously close to scoring a pretty major own-goal.
We'll start with the good news: Pro Evo 6 on the 360 is an absorbing game, and yes, when it comes to realism, it still edges ahead of an improving FIFA. It's still got a passing game that FIFA 07 can't quite keep up with, there's the same depth and variety in the gameplay that we've come to expect, and it does ball physics as well as any other game in the Pro Evo family tree. It's not as good a singleplayer game as Pro Evo 4 (still the best title in the series if you're playing on your own), and Pro Evo 5 retains its multiplayer crown. But Pro Evo 6 plays a more believable, organic and diverse game of football than any FIFA title that's on the market. Nudging the ball around midfield before finding a gap and sending your striker through on goal, hoofing a long ball over the back of the opposition defence, sending a bullet header into the top corner, scrapping in the six-yard box for possession and scoring off of your shin; just as in previous Pro Evo titles, all of these remain viable ways to score, and this is a testament to Konami's knack of creating games that actually feel like football.
There has, as always, been slight modifications to the previous year's efforts. Whereas in Pro Evo 5 it was the tackling that required extra care (at times, simply pressing an opponent could yield a free-kick), here it's the shooting that has become a little erratic, whilst meaty sliding tackles are now back in vogue, and can often go unpunished. The result? Lower scoring games than those in Pro Evo 5, and that's saying something. Infact, this occasionally contributes to the feeling that perhaps Pro Evo 6 is a little too realistic for its own good. The AI has gone up a notch, with the off-the-ball movement of computer-controlled players now tougher to compete against (but also more helpful when it's your players) than it previously has been. Mind you, multiplayer remains the best bit about the game, and can throw up some wonderfully tense match-ups.
So the gameplay, for the most part, has remained intact, and this is still a game capable of swallowing an entire evening whole. Why has the joke backfired in Microsoft's face, then? Because in many ways, Pro Evolution Soccer 6 represents a step backwards for the series. This is most obvious in its painful lack of features. Instead of striding into the next-gen party with a raft of new modes and trinkets, the Xbox 360 version of Pro Evo 6 has stumbled through the door completely stripped of a disturbing number of the features that came as standard in the year-old Pro Evo 5.
Co-op online play? Forget it. Instead, all you get here is a bare-bones online menu (you can choose whether to have national or club teams and decide the length of your match, but that's it. This is compared to the page-and-a-half of options you got when you took Pro Evo 5 online). Lag now occurs in both halves (as opposed to last year's game, where only one half would be laggy, and then only if you were unlucky). When stood next to FIFA 07's online mode (even on the 360), it's all a bit desperate. For the record, the PS2 version's online mode is an improvement. It's still a tad laggy, but at least you have more options and four-on-four matches.
The gaping holes in the Xbox 360 version continue offline. The PS2 version lets you save replays. Despite having a whacking great hard drive attached to the console, the Xbox 360 incarnation allows no such thing, and it's been about, ooh, ten years since we've been unable to save replays in a Konami football game. The PS2 version lets you choose from over 30 stadiums. The Xbox 360 version gives you access to a meagre eight (on that note, if the missing arenas appear on the Live Marketplace as downloadable microtransactions in the coming weeks, we're going to be jolly annoyed). Pro Evo 6 on the PS2 boasts an editing system with a depth previously unseen in any Pro Evo title. The 360 version has an editing system which, if we were being really kind, we'd describe as 'absolutely bloody prehistoric'. The PS2 version has an International Challenge mode, and lets you play 'Random Selection' games, where teams are randomly assembled from players all over the world. The 360 version - well, guess what? They're nowhere to be seen.
In short, Chris Lewis can yap on all he likes about Xbox 360 being the home of next-gen football, but there's no escaping one fact: that Pro Evo 6 on Microsoft's box feels rushed, and has significantly less content than the less expensive PS2 game. It even feels better to play on the PS2 pad. Thankfully, the Master League mode is just as enjoyable on either platform (and is certainly where you should be spending most of your time in singleplayer), though this hardly saves the 'next-gen' version in our eyes.
But at least both versions of the game fare well visually. Many Xbox 360 screenshots in the run-up to the game's release looked slightly underwhelming ("like an N64 game," sniffed one of our forumites), but the 360 version of Pro Evo 6 is actually very agreeable on the eyes, with the player animations as striking and convincing as ever. The PS2 title looks the part as well, if not as fantastic as FIFA 07. Less enamouring is the audio, where some hugely irritating menu music collides once again with some pretty turdish commentary from Peter Brackley and Sir Trevor Brooking. Shockingly, many of their phrases have simply been recycled from last year's game, and the delivery from both pundits has shown no improvement on last year's version either, though thankfully there's no longer any mention of "ding-dong battles".
In a nutshell then, that's Pro Evolution Soccer 6 - clever, gratifying and genuinely deep gameplay (though not quite as brilliant as Pro Evo 4 or 5), some very respectable visuals, typically lame sound, and two versions of the game that are worlds apart in terms of content. On a final note, we should add that the score at the bottom of this page is for the Xbox 360 version, though we'd add on an extra point or point and a half for the superior PS2 title. Here's hoping Konami releases a Pro Evo worthy of the 'next-gen' tag in the coming years.