Soccer video games have not changed very much since the the first 3D version of FIFA appeared on the 3DO almost 15 years ago. The graphics and models have gotten much better, and the licensed player names have improved, but the actual game-play has stayed (relatively) the same. The controls of nearly all modern soccer games go something like this:
- 1 button passes
- 1 button lob passes
- 1 button shoots
- 1 button is used to switch control to player closest to the ball
- 1 button is designed to be mashed as quickly as possible to make the above player run as fast as possible to or with the ball
- 1 of the above buttons is used to volley the ball from a pass
- Defense consists of the above running and switching of players, plus an abundance of slide-tackling
Of course there are other controls, many of which use shoulder-buttons and combos that are nearly impossible to remember lest actually execute in heat of the game. After the initial learning curve of each new game is completed, play usually falls into a rut where you use one or two "super-man" players who do nearly everything on the field, taking shots at the goal from a set of standard positions that you know have a high probability of getting you a tick on scoreboard. While this can be fun for a while, it's really not soccer at all, no matter what the Cockney accented color commentator would have you believe. The real problem is that the interface to the game (the gamepad) does not allow for the complex interactions that make soccer an interesting sport to watch and play. The games simply capture a shadow of what really makes a soccer match a great contest: the immersive nuances in the run of play.
Because of these limitations designers have created games that eshued nuance altogether. They place games in dark alleys with power-ups and weapons, or on mini-fields where the proper combo can launch 8 balls at an unsuspecting goalie. They make rarities in an actual game (like a bicycle-kick) into sought-after power-ups and special moves that replace tactics with gimmicks. Sure, they make the game fun to play, but they also pave over the actual game of soccer in the process. Sadly however, without a new way to implement the basics of the game, it seemed like soccer games had gotten just about as good as they could possibly get. The game could not get any more immersive as long the control scheme stayed the same.
On a tip from the weekly IGN Wii Podcast I picked-up Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii last week. The podcast (and subsequent reviews) told a very intriguing story about a new control scheme for a soccer game that could only be accomplished on the Wii with a Wiimote. To me, this seemed like it could be the answer to immersion problem. The reviewers described the game as using a "John Madden tele-strator"-like interface. Even though these descriptions made it sound like the game would be played in slow motion, I was intrigued enough to buy the game and see for myself.
When Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii starts for the first-time, you are thrust into a tutorial about the controls. This is appropriate because the controls are like nothing I have ever experienced before in any kind of sports game. All action on the screen is directed using the Wiimote and the Nunchuck, but not in any garden-variety way. Like other soccer games, you have direct control of one-player at a time. By pressing down the (A) button, an arrow appears on the screen. By controlling the length and direction of that arrow, you control the player. It might sound weird at first, but after a couple tries is appears to work almost flawlessly. Instead of mashing a button to run, pressing a shoulder-button for a step-over, and controlling the player movement with an analog stick, you (almost) effortlessly glide the controlled player through the defensive-line and into scoring position. All the way you are weaving, dribbling, stepping-over, etc, but these tactics come from intuitive flicks of wrist instead of multiple button combos. Shooting the ball at the goal comes from a flick of the Nunchuck. This itself is significant, as it actually separates shooting from passing and dribbling: something that most other soccer games get completely wrong. By separating shooting to it's own unique action, it becomes much harder to make mistakes in-front of the net. This should be welcome news to anyone who has played a soccer game in the past and has furiously yelled at the TV to "shoot shoot shoot damn it" only to realize they have been shttoing at all, but repeatedly telling the game to "lob" the ball back to the wing.
While improving the control of single player is welcome, in and of itself it is not enough of an improvement to warrant calling this game "revolutionary". You might be thinking: "Sure, you can shoot easier, but how does that offer more immersion and nuances than a gamepad? In fact, it seems like the gamepad might be more flexible and nuance than the Wiimote." If the improvements in single-player control were all that Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 had to offer, then these thoughts would be correct. however, it is the passing game truly sets this game above all that have come before it. In most other soccer games, passing the ball is relatively "magical" process. Since you can only control one player, you must rely on A.I. to direct the other players on where to stand and when to run for a pass. While some games offer a modicum of control of the player that will be passed the ball, going beyond single passes, one-twos or pass-volleys is nearly impossible. Those games take a full-field game of soccer, and crunch it down to a series of one-on-ones and one-on- two and match-ups. It's like a mini game of one on one basketball on a giant green field. However soccer is not basketball, and the makers Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii figured out a way to take the essential but seemingly simple tactic of passing the ball in soccer revolutionize it.
By pressing the (B) button on the Wiimote an second arrow appears. By clicking on another player, while pressing (B) you will pass them the ball. simple right? How is that revolutionary? Well, here comes the best part. Before you pass the ball, you can press the (B) button over more players. This does not cancel-out your first pass, it adds to it. Very quickly you will find yourself lining-up 3, 4 and 5 pass plays that result in shots on goal. If you press both (A) and (B) at the same time, you can direct players into one-two plays around defenders. You can even direct players to run for an open space to receive a leading pass. As far as I know, this has been essentially impossible, or at least improbable with other soccer games. I might have accomplished these feats a few times with all other games combined in my lifetime, but with Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii I can make them happen on every play. Furthermore set-piece passes can be set-up in much the same way. With other soccer games, a corner-kick was most likely a "prayer" pass while mashing the "shoot" button for a hopeful volley into the net. While you can still do that with this game, a bit more careful planning will lead you to directing a corner kick volley as pass to a 3rd player and possibly a 4th before swinging the Nunchuck for a shot on goal. The results are truly astonishing. All of a sudden you will find yourself using the entire field to play a soccer video game.
While offense is modeled amazingly well in Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, defense, while still good, doesn't offer the same significant level improvements. You can mark specific players, direct players to intercept passes, call an off sides trap, direct the goalie to come off his line, and call for slide-tackles. It's all fine, but simply not as immersive or enjoyable as offense. Some people might argue such is the nature of defense, and I'd tend to agree, if it was not for the nagging want to gain control a single players and go after those any bastard that tries to attack my goal! Still, defense if certainly not a deal breaker, and as far as staying with the intended game design, I could not think of a better implementation.
The game offers a slew of play options and modes. A wi-fi online mode is available, but the most enjoyable mode to me is called "Champions Road". This option allows you to select a team, and play in a series of tournaments of increasing difficulty. After every game your players increase in their abilities, and if you win, you get the chance to pinch the best players from the other team. In this way, you get to mold and form your team as the you play the game and immerse yourself in the details of team management. The significant immersion and nuance of on-field play, added to this addictive and interesting tournament mode, make this one of the best soccer games available today. If you even think you might like to play a soccer game, but have been put-off or frustrated by the controls of earlier soccer games, be sure to check this one out. Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii offers the type of innovative controls and game play that I expected from the Wii in 2006, but slogged through 2007 without finding. I'm happy to see that in 2008 developers are finally finding ways to move Wii's unique control scheme away from hand flipping mini-game gimmicks, and towards new and innovative methods to control and immerse the player into games that I once (mistakenly) thought had reached their apex.