PES 4 - First Impressions

9-Ball

Youth Team
A a former brit living in the USA, I arranged to obtain a copy of PES4 for the PC, a couple of weeks prior to the official date of release, being lucky to know someone with Konami connections through my work. Unfortunately my copy came without the box and manual so I'm in the dark a little re: controls and details, aside from the little I could find online, mainly about the PS2 controls. It pushed me to order a 2nd copy which should be arriving today.So, I've been sitting here whittling away hours playing, gathering impressions and comparisons with PES3. Having just found out my wife is pregnant ( ) I now find myself browsing every gaming and PC tweaking forum on the internet so I thought I'd while away a few minutes with my first impressions of the game that might interest those yet to get the game and perhaps others can add in theirs, alongside any new discoveries we find. I also have a question or three that some may help with, but I'll get to those later.

PES 3 and PES 4 - the differences
I'm mainly surprised at just how different this version feels. I first played PES 2 on the PS2 and quickly grabbed PES3 on the PC when it arrived last fall, happy to see it finally be released on the premium gaming platform. PES 3 is a dream, in my view. It was nearly perfect with only small issues and problems. Yes, that handball thing was silly sometimes. Yes, the advantage rule was very poorly implemented. Sure, online play was absent and would have been nice but the strong AI (at least on 5-star level) made up for it, just. Of course, the team/player names issue was irritating and the Master League, while fun, was crying out for a more 'legitimate' format. All of these were irksome but no show-stopping problems. The gameplay was smooth and intuitive and free and nigh-on-perfect. So, what's changed?

- Handballs
seem to have disappeared, completely, and while that removes the irritating factor, it might have worked better to retain them as very rare occourences.

- Advantage Rule:
now seems to be implemented almost perfectly. Regularly in-game the ref. will wave advantage and let play go, even after sometimes terrible tackles. I've even seen a played get booked 20 seconds after a bad foul and advantage was played. This is a neat touch and adds more to the flow and feel of the game than one might imagine.

- Online play
of course, now it's in. Not had opportunity to try it yet and it seems likely that living in the NE of the USA, I'm going to have trouble finding online opponents, but we'll see. In the highly unlikely event that anyone reading this lives on the upper East Coast of the US and would feel like hooking up for a game or three sometime, just shout to that effect.

- Referees:
Aside from the major Advantage rule tweak, the main change to me seems that the referees are more lenient. More fouls are called than in PES3 but far fewer cards are shown. Playing on 5-star level for 3 weeks now, I've yet to have a man sent off and rarely see yellow cards. They may now be too lenient which is an issue. There also seems to be less distinction between their level of strictness than in PES3. The referee is now visible on the pitch and while it's a small thing, again, it adds to the realism. Occasionally he will block a pass or have a ball deflected off of him - nice touch.

- Team/Players & Names
more league teams, nearly twice as many in fact. National teams appear to have 95% correct player names. Club teams are pretty much the same as with PES3 with the addition of nearly accurate squad lists for the English Premier league and Bundesliga. I believe I read somewhere that Konami had negotiated fully licenced team info from the Spanish and German leagues and possibly the dutch. While the lists are far more accurate than PES3 in places, they're nowhere near at accurate as one might hope. Of course, as with PES3, patches from the community will fix this and I'm downloading Wolf's 1.5 patch as we speak, from File Front.

- Master League:
appears to be much the same - the slimmed down and slightly more efficient GUI makes navigation more easy but otherwise it's the same format (albeit with more teams) and while it's still addictive and fun, one hopes that next year's update will result in fully licenced leagues from all 6 major European leagues alongside the major Brazillian and Argentinian club sides and the top 4 or 5 from all the eastern european leagues and the ability for career play within those leagues and major euro competitions. Add in the major international events within that and you have a dream of a game. If Konami could finally fully licence this game it will kill the FIFA series. The tactical options remain near identical, although file management is handled a little more efficiently here with saving and loading of formation sets being smoother. Transfers, while I've not dealt with this too much, feels much the same as PES3. Overall, the ML remains the main long-term draw and for all its short-comings it's still a lot of fun.

- Graphics & Sound:
I'm in the somewhat priviledged position of having a state of the art PC and so can run this and all games on highest settings at highest resolutions. For me, the game looks very good, for the most part slightly better than PES 3 and runs very smoothly. I need to turn Vertical-synch ON to remove occasional tearing and I understand many find this. Since this is absent in most titles these days, it appears a coding shortfall, but no major issue. So, where in-game graphics are similar and perhaps a little sharper, player animations are near identical in terms of being very smooth and natural and there appears to be a wider range of animations. Some players have distinctive appearances and animations that basically match their real-life counterparts - not to the level some of the pre-release blurbs suggested, but it's there and noticeable.

With FIFA 04 being my last venture into the EA franchise, I always felt and maintain that PES pretty much matches FIFA in terms of looks and outpaced it in player animations. The stadiums and particularly the crowds are a little patchy but you rarely noticed this outside the pre-game intros. On the downside, I do miss the inclusion of a 1600x1200 resolution option to see more of the pitch and wonder if any of the skilled community modders know of a way to add this in sometime? Still, at 1280x1024 the game looks great. Another new unlockable feature is the inclusion of a 'birdseye' camera view (for 700 PES, heh) that brings the view high above the pitch reminding one somewhat of the old Anco Kick-Off series. I tend to play in this view as it shows more of the pitch, clearer passing angles, without losing too much in atmosphere or fine control. It works well.

Sound is notably improved from PES3, particularly in terms of crowd noises. This is most noticeable with the Italian and Spanish crowds. The commentary remains goofy and often poorly synchronised but is a slight improvement on PES 3 and doesn't disrupt the action.

The only dissappointment in terms of presentation is the game's general menu interface. While it's slimmed down and more user-friendly, it looks blocky and ugly even compared to PES3. It's indicative of the console-port and the PS2 drastically poorer graphical display, but it would have been nice if they'd spent the relatively short man-hours on improving this aspect. Wolf's patch improved this for PES3 so maybe it will do the same here.

- Technical:
Running the game on a P4 3.6ghz with 2 gig of 3800 RAM and a Radeon x800 Platinum and an Audigy 2 sound card, alongside a USB-converter and Sony PS2 gamepad, I've experienced no technical issues at all, except for the aforementioned occasional screen tearing that is fixed by implementing Vertical-synch. The game runs very smoothly on the highest settings and resolutions and the loading times and noticeably lower than with PES 3. I've also installed the game on my LAN's second system, a P4 2.4 ghz with a Radeon 9200 and 512 mb RAM and it runs equally smoothly there on the same resolution and supports a Logitech Wingman (single analog pad) without issue.

- Gameplay:
The most important of all, of course. At first, things feel more notably different to PES 3 than one might expect, at least to me. Where the play feels a little more 'free' and natural, it may also seem a bit loose by comparison to PES3. At first, this was a bit offputting and disappointing but a few hours in it seems to come together. The few relatively small (but significant) gameplay tweaks take a little while to become acclimatised to. The most notable things found thus far are as follows:

Player speed - seems to have been tweaked to favor the non-ball carrier, i.e. even with the same sprint choices, it's notably harder to get away from a defender on the wing or behind the defensive line. At times the sprinting functions seem a little 'underpowered' and while this may be more realistic it does take a little getting used to. I think I prefer it by now, for the realism, since it's rare to find a player who can tear away from his marker down the wing, however, it does bring in to focus another big change -

Player stats - now seem to be far more important and have a significantly greater effect on the player's abilities. This is most notable in terms of speed, acceleration and shot control/power. This is a good thing, in my view, but it makes for slightly sluggish feelings at times, in the first hours of play. Some of the stats seem a little off here and there, with some of the world's top players feeling a little 'underpowered', but this is easily tweaked if you so desire.

Shooting and power - a common criticism of last year's game was shot control, one I never agreed with. It strikes me this has been addressed and perhaps too strongly. Shots now often feel somewhat under powered. Where in last year's game it seemed easy in those first hours to blaze a shot over the bar, it's now the opposite, with it being very easy to under-hit the ball straight into the goalie's arms. One-timer shots directly off a pass are more effective and typically more powerful. It generally is more difficult to score, likely as a result of many of the gameplay changes here, which is no bad thing, but some may find the shooting a little sluggish also, at first, and this may also be related to the seemingly 'dampened down' stats. The shooting system remains pretty much the same, for the record.

Passing - perhaps the biggest change, in some way. A single tap of the X/pass button does the same as in PES3 however a longer press of the button passes to the further away player in the held direction. In the first hours this can result in many lost passes and interceptions but once used to the system it adds a small but useful layer of control. Through-balls are now a little less effective at times, with the defence a little more intuitive in its ability to pick them off. Lofted through-balls however, particularly on the diagonal, feel more effective and more realistically so. Advanced players make more and smarter forward runs that can be hit to great effect. Forwards also seem to have a slightly higher chance of controlling a lofted forward ball especially with their back to goal. After the first few hours, the passing begins to feel more like PES3 than at first, with the few small and positive alterations. Also, I get a sense that the manual right-stick passing is more beneficial than in PES3. Again, it feels more realistic, overall. It also brings into focus another notable tweak:

Defensive AI -
Seems much improved. The AI defence moves well as a unit and covers gaps well. Overall, as above, it feels harder to score, at least on 4 and 5 star difficulty. There is also, of course, a new unlockable 6-star difficulty that I've yet to try. I may not be particularly good at the game compared to many, as I'd typically win 85-90% of games on 4-star and 60% on 5-star in PES3, but the game does seem somewhat tougher to be, without feeling unfair. By the same token -

Offensive AI -
In smaller ways, also seems a little sharper. Forwards make more and more noticable runs into effective areas. It can be tricky to time passes to them and you'll likely witness more offside decisions but again, this adds to realism. A well timed and angled lofted pass can cut open a defence in dramatic ways.

Goalkeepers -
A possible problem this, in that they seem a little less sharp than in PES3, making occasional odd errors in position, etc. Overall they're about as tough to beat but they don't feel quite as 'right'. On the upside, in a small but nice touch, they will sometimes (not often) be left rooted to their spot if you hit a hard and well timed/aimed shot past them. On one occasion I watched with a grin as a keeper was stuck on his feet as a 20 yard rocket hit his top left corner, only to topple backwards onto the ground and smash his fists into the pitch. There are lots of nice little animation touches like this with the players feeling more emotive generally, both in the 'cut-scenes' and in-game. I've also seen defenders fall in a badly timed tackle and punch the ground in frustration as the forward streaks forward - not often and not to the point of becoming silly or irritating, but when it happens and when you notice it, it's a nice touch.

Headers -
notably harder to pull off headers inside the box, on goal. Defenders have a more realistic advantage in defending their box and it is harder to score from headers generally, particularly corners. Headers in free play however are a little easier to perform and control and you're a little less limited in terms of effective heading directions. Players will attempt more difficult angled headers more often and sometimes successfully. Forwards chesting down an oncoming ball with their back to goal also works effectively.

Free-Kicks -
mainly similar to PES3 but the control feels a little tighter and a few more options such as a 1-2 on the kick and laying off to another man to shoot. This feels improved over PES3, generally. Also, oddly, unlike free-play shooting, shots feel a little more powerful AND easier to keep on target.

Curving -
I'd read about this on another forum for PES3 and sometimes it seemed to work, but I'm near certain now that moving the right stick during the shot bar's progress and after a shot is let go has a notable and occasionally (player dependent) dramatic curving effect on the shot and longer lofted passes. It's a little tricky to pull off but does seem to work well with the right players. I managed to hit a 30 yard free-kick with Roberto Carlos for example and curved the shot from well outside the right post to about 4 meters outside the left that had the goalie moving quickly to the right then diving hopelessly to the left. Sadly it missed but it looked neat and once mastered could be very effective. This also works well in open play, again, with the right player.

Fouls & Cards -
As mentioned above, fouls are now called a little more often (sometimes irritatingly) but it feels about right. It's also harder to obtain cards, especially a red, which also feels a bit more accurate.

Tactics -
This aspect feels very similar to PES3, but I get a sense so-far that players follow particularly the attack/defend directly a bit more thoroughly. For example, having my right winger (Aimar) with a forward arrow on attack and low defence focus setting had him making numerous speedy dashes down the right looking for medium-long passes. This is a small tweak but adds to the game.

Penalties -
The same as PES3 to all intents and purposes.

Throwins -
A little more 'free' than PES3 which is no bad thing. It's possible to hit the close men with a simple tap and direction, or a through throw with the triangle or a free control throw with a press of the pass button and direction. Generally feels a bit sharper.

Corners -
The same as PES3 but the power bar fills notably more slowly.

Conclusions:
Overall, despite some early reservations, I'm leaning towards seeing PES4 as slightly stronger than PES3. I have a sense that with more gaming hours this may grow. There's still that feeling that with the licencing and some other format tweaks it could hit near-perfection. There's a risk that much more gameplay tweaking might do harm overall, and a lingering feel that the changes the game needs for PES 5 are more in terms of league format, team licencing, accurate name/team details, stadium improvements, perhaps management complexity and detail, a sharper Online interface and possibly netcode (from what I've read, not experienced), menu look and friendliness and as with all games, user mod/tweakability. PES 4 is nearly the perfect football game and what it lacks is 95% OFF the pitch, not on.


9.
 


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