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Pro Evolution Soccer 4

Despite Leeds Utd wallowing in Championship mid-table mediocrity, my passion for football remains constant, bordering on a psychotic obsession. Anyone who doesn't support a team can't understand why fans stay in on Saturday afternoons watching Ceefax, or spend hours in the pub discussing tactics, transfers, goals and gossip with their mates.

So, it's with this in mind that I state the following - Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer 4 is the best footie action game ever made. Fact. Anyone who disagrees is simply wrong, has never actually played PES4 or is an EA Sports representative. Even though the latest version of the game is by no means perfect, no other soccer sim comes within a Cantona karate kick of its glorious net-bursting magnificence.

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Grass-roots
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why PES is such a superb representation of the beautiful game, but the magic definitely starts with Konami TYO's
very Japanese philosophy of always being 'truthful' with the behaviour of the ball. Unlike other titles that concentrate on the player models and likenesses first, then work on how to introduce the ball later, PES begins with the ball physics and then builds the rest of the game around the realistic movement of the leather sphere.

As a result, you get uncannily realistic and unpredictable football matches, packed with skilful midfield build-ups, spectacular long-distance shots, dashing runs with close-control, deft chips and frenetic goalmouth scrambles.

Pro Evolution Soccer 4 has numerous improvements since 2003's first iteration on the PC. Competing with the megabucks of EA's FIFA title for the official licences has always been a problem for PES, but even though it still lacks the all-important Premiership signatures (Merseyside Blue = Everton, for example), there are licences for the Italian, Spanish and Dutch leagues. Some of the teams are badly out-of-date, however, so slapper-fan Rooney is still at Everton, and slap-headed Zidane is still playing for the French national side.

In any case, you can usually scour the Net for a home-made update patch soon after release to get access to the proper names of clubs and players
(I like www.pesleague.com). In total, PES4 now gives you access to over 180 club and national sides, and 4,500 players, including those cool unlockable 'classic' teams, for players such as erectile dysfunction publicist Pelé.

Other cosmetic changes include an on-screen referee, improved commentary from Brackley and Brooking, no more handball decisions, the ability to set up your own custom league and various additional cut-scene animations - some good (players squaring up to each other after a bad foul), some pointless (putting the ball down on the corner spot).

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Injuries to players now result in them being carried off the pitch for treatment, which adds moments of great tension to important games, as you nervously await news of your player's health while your team is temporarily reduced to ten men. Seconds later, the magic sponge will either have done its job, with the player returning to the match, or leaving in an ambulance with his teeth in a plastic bag.

Intelligent Beckham?
However, it's in the actual gameplay where you notice the real improvements over PES3. More motion-captured animations has resulted in smoother and pacier action, with quicker reactions and turns from players, better first-touches and flick-ons, more accurate passing and through-balls, and specific skills for certain stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo's step-overs. Improved AI means that players are now less likely to blindly chase the ball into the corners of the pitch too, and instead look for space and produce more intelligent off-the-ball runs.

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