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Pro Evolution Soccer 6

The best football game money can buy

Regular Xbox World readers will be all too aware of the controversy surrounding this year's PES. Much like the mid-to-late 90's Man Utd, the series has been dominating for years but, for the first time, our preview code suggested the empire might finally be starting to crumble on a wave of complacency. Had EA and FIFA - nicking PES' ball physics for the first time - sneaked up on the blindside and with a big mountain of dirty Chelsea-style cash, finally emerged victorious in the game title race? Judging by that preview code it certainly looked like it. Alex rightly dished out a mere 4 Anticips - unprecedented for our favourite franchise - and we worried.

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THE TABLES TURN
The sort of worry we'd normally save for going into a 50/50 challenge with Joey Barton and Ben Thatcher. So, when we slapped this month's review code on, we were hoping, praying, to see PES show its bouncebackability. Things weren't promising when we heard a j-pop/funk intro tune to make you weep real tears. Nor when it became apparent that the real test - PES 360 vs FIFA 360 - wasn't going to happen thanks to FIFA code not arriving on time.

But after hours and hours and hours of PES 6, if the tables are turned, it'll be a massive upset. Because PES 6 is brilliant. What strikes you first is the amount of polish. Playing in hi-def, it's beautifully crisp, animations are smoother and more realistic than ever, with both the aesthetic and gameplay benefits they bring, and pitches and stadium shadows make for the most convincing theatre of dreams yet.

It looks great in low-def too, although it does follow Konami's heritage of not really pushing the graphics envelope as far as you'd hope. If you watch Fight Night Round 3 from a distance, and maybe squint a bit, you might think it was a real match on telly. There's no danger of that happening here - there's still a cartoon quality to the players. Far more important though is the succession of refinements, fine-tuning and behind-the-scenes AI wizardry that has made PES 6 the pretty much near-perfect simulation of the Greatest Sport Ever on Planet Earth.

THE SPIRIT OF FOOTBALL
The details are there. But it's not just the new feints they've packed in, the better animations, the signature moves of the world's best players and the change of pace that have advanced the model. It's the overall impression. Nothing else captures the spirit of football like PES 6. It's the best balance of letting you put together Arsenal-style moves but also creating a busy, bustling, congested midfield that reinforces the fact that the biggest sin in football is giving the ball away.

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Working the ball forward is exactly that. It sounds tough but no one is going to roll over and let you play one-touch slick football at your leisure. The defensive side of the game has been upped, with slide-tackling being brought firmly back into the frame, and referees are far less whistle-happy than in PES 5. (They'll even make the odd wrong decision to bring a Uriah Rennie simulation into the frame.) Tackling is also easier, and since the pace has been slowed since the last outing, keeping possession and picking your passes is more important than ever.

As mentioned, then, there are plenty of defensive improvements but PES does give you the tools to deal with them, with closer controls, a series of feints and dummies and even the ability to dribble backwards. Gaining ground and building up moves is a tougher learning curve but hardly an unfair one. Your players now make more intelligent off-the-ball runs and look to unsettle back lines and now short-passes in the final third aren't all executed with Carlton Palmer accuracy. Okay, the odd strange ball and weird decision from your players are still in there, but the overall effect is to create a more competitive, deliberate, realistic and considered game than before.

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