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Pro Evolution Soccer 4

I used to play football for Kenilworth Working Mens' Club (as good as it got for me), and every now and again this kid used to turn up and referee. A kid. Refereeing. Which is quite obviously incorrect. If you like football and you're young enough, you play - even if you're rubbish. Which is why I've never understood footy management games.

On your PC, you can score goals for your country even if you're rubbish and/or old. Why would you want to spend hours pouring over stats when you can pick the ball up, dribble past a few defenders and stick it in the top corner of the net? Why? And don't talk about realism, because since Pro Evolution was converted to the PC last year, that argument is a fallacy.

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The good news is that on early inspection, PES 4 actually improves things. Hard to believe if you've played and loved the game, but it's true. Cosmetics have been brushed up, with some brilliant animations and a few annoying ones (putting the ball down for a corner? No thanks...). Plus, there's now an on-screen referee who does very little (apart from ignoring the stupid handball rule that was introduced in Pro Evolution Soccer 3).

PES 4 also includes three officially licensed leagues (Dutch, Spanish and Italian, but sadly not the English), an improved Master League campaign and a recognisable figurehead in the form of Thierry Henry. But this is in danger of sounding like a FIFA preview. PES has never been about the lip-gloss - it's about the way the game plays.

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And once again it looks like Konami has got it spot-on. If you've played PES before, you'll know it's extremely difficult to explain why it's such a good game. In the same way that you can't tell someone how to play the game well (you just have to learn it for yourself over time), it's extremely hard to get down in black and white the subtle improvements
that have been made.

Simply, the game feels more balanced, more exciting and slightly faster, with more end-to-end play. The real magic comes in the way you lose yourself completely for ten minutes, the way you stand-up and run round the room after a particularly brilliant goal, the foul language that accompanies every game like a foul stench, and the fact that no other game has ever come close to playing like a real game of football.

In PES 4, it's easier to play controlled passes, pull-backs from the byeline work much better and your other players seem more aware of where you are and where they should be to get the ball. Throw-ins are still hugely annoying though, and it's still extremely hard to score from a direct free-kick. However, there's more of an emphasis on dribbling, something that was missing from the previous version.

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Game Of Two Halves
There are still a few things we're not happy about though. It's hard to believe that a bunch of programmers that can code the best game of football in the world can't spare five minutes to knock up a dedicated PC interface. It's harder to create a custom team than it is to dribble straight from kick-off and score.

Then there's the questionable morale system, which overly punishes you if you go a goal or two down in a match. More sinister is the fact that PES 4 on Xbox is going to be online-enabled, but to date there's no word from Konami about the PC. It makes no sense - games like this don't work so well on the PC because a PC isn't a social beast, unlike a console and a sofa. If online code is up and running for Xbox, there's only one reason why Konami won't get it running on the PC as well. We'll withhold judgment, but we're going to be unimpressed if online play is pushed as a console exclusive.

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