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ISS Pro Evolution /
MLS GameNight (PSX) Review


While EA's Fifa series has continued to sell by the bucket-load over the past few years, the number one choice for videogame soccer purists has been Konami's International Superstar Soccer series. The most recent incarnation, Winning Eleven 4, was produced by Konami's KCET team and released almost two years ago in Japan. The game was released in Europe under the title ISS Pro Evolution, and despite being hailed as the greatest ever soccer game by the gaming press, it received less than stellar sales figures. Finally, the game has come to our shores as the original ISS Pro Evolution by KCET, and also as MLS GameNight which was modified by Saffire to feature the MLS teams rather than European club teams. While both may lack the glitz and glamour of titles in the Fifa series they offer the deepest and most realistic portrayal of soccer ever seen in a videogame.

Presentation/Graphics - ISS Pro Evolution : 95 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 94
One of the most amazing graphical aspects of either game are the excellent player models. Evolution features no official license but has pseudo-real names such as in Striker Pro 2000. However, unlike Striker Pro 2000, if you can't discern the real life counterpart from the fake name, you can easily do so just from looking at the player. For example, 'Owenn' in the game (based on Michael Owen) has the exact same build as he does in real life – he looks 5'8”, compactly built with short brown/black hair. Features unique to each player are present, from Zinedine Zidane's bald spot, to Edgar Davids and Henrik Larsson's dreadlocks, the programmers even paid attention to George Weah's unique white boots! Of course, the gurus at Konami didn't just stop there, the players even move like they do in real life. Thus, Tony Adams lumbers around clumsily, while nimble Ariel Ortega moves with graceful poise and pace. GameNight does feature an official MLS License, but the guys at Saffire haven't rested on their laurels and they have made each MLS player look like his real life counterpart too. Soccer games have been a long way behind the times when it comes to player models, but finally Konami has delivered two games that really allow you to identify the players from just a glance. In fact, I'd venture to say that the player models are almost as good as those found in the PC version of Fifa 2001!

Both Evolution and GameNight also feature the best animation in a soccer game to date. From ball control, to headers, to spectacular volleys; the animation is top notch and incredibly realistic. There are also some wonderful little graphical touches that are missing from most other games, such as Goalkeepers making a difficult save and then berating their defenders for leaving the shooter open, players raising their arms to claim corners and throw-ins, and players rolling for several yards on the floor to exacerbate the severity of a foul. Konami's two new games also feature context-specific goal celebrations, similar to those found in Striker Pro 2000.

Evolution features 10 different stadiums, such as Wembley, the Olympia Stadion and the San Siro. All are modeled superbly and are instantly recognizable. GameNight features 12 different stadia for each of the 12 MLS teams, however they're not based on the real stadia. In fact, many of them are just simple modifications of the European stadia in Evolution, and the Columbus Crew Stadium is really Old Trafford. This is probably the only major let down of either game graphically.

Presentation/Audio - ISS Pro Evolution : 50 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 55
While both games excel in the graphics department, they're a huge letdown aurally. Evolution features commentary by Martin Williams and former England international Terry Butcher. To put it bluntly, they're both horrible. Since the pseudo-real player names are pronounced how they are spelt, they sound almost exactly like their real life counterparts i.e. “Bekhem, Keene and Coal.” This is an ingenious way of getting around the copyright problems of not having a FIFA license, however this doesn't redeem the horrible play-by-play. Williams hardly gets excited at all when a goal is scored and neither does Butcher. To make matters worse, Butcher's comments range from the completely obvious to the completely asinine. After winning a game by a score of one goal to nil, Williams asked Butcher what he thought of the game, to which Butcher replied; “Well Martin, the one goal was important wasn't it?” Unfortunately, GameNight's commentators aren't any better. In GameNight you can choose to have the commentary in English by Bob Lea, or in Spanish by Louis Tapia. Unfortunately, Lea is as jacked up on Prozac as both Butcher and Williams. He seems to find announcing a goal only marginally more exciting than announcing a throw-in! Of the three sets of commentators Tapia is the only decent one, greeting each goal with a customary scream and he seems to get excited often. However, he still can't match the intensity and excitement of Striker Pro 2000's Jonathon Pearce, nor the authenticity and vocabulary of John Motson and Mark Lawrenson in Fifa 2001.

Both Evolution and GameNight feature various crowd sounds and a few chants, however I felt Striker Pro 2000's general crowd sounds and chants were more atmospheric and effective in creating the aural atmosphere of a packed stadium.

Interface/Options - ISS Pro Evolution : 93 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 93
Both Evolution and GameNight have almost identical menu screens. The main options are Match Mode, League Mode (or Custom League in GameNight), International Cup (Cup Mode in GameNight), Training Mode, Options and Master League (MLS Season in GameNight). Match Mode is your basic exhibition mode while the League Mode is a league comprised of 32 International Teams. Cup Mode comprises of 6 different Cup Competitions; the International Cup (the World Cup), the European Cup (European Championships), the Asian Cup (Asian Championships), the African Cup (African Nations Cup), and the American Cup which is a hybrid of the Gold Cup and the Copa America. In Evolution the sixth cup is a generic 'Konami Cup' while in GameNight it's the MLS Cup. While the various league and cup competitions will keep gamers busy for a long time, the real star of both games comes in the form of the Master League in Evolution and the MLS Season in GameNight.

Evolution's Master League is basically a franchise mode involving 16 of Europe's top club sides. The sixteen teams aren't officially licensed but it doesn't take a genius to figure out which ones they're supposed to be. The teams are; Manchester (Manchester United), Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Turin (Juventus), Parma, Rome (Lazio), Amsterdam (Ajax), Marseille, Inter, Milan. Barcelona, Madrid (Real), Munich (Bayern), and Dortmund (Borrusia), and Monaco. These teams and squads aren't changed from Winning Eleven 4 and are close to two years old, so Veron is still at Parma, Vieri is at Lazio, and Pires at Marseille. Regardless of the out of date rosters, the backbones of those squads are still present, and when you play Turin with Zidane, Del Piero and Davids it still feels like you're playing against Juve.

On the surface this may seem like just any old generic European Super League, yet the genius comes in how the player controlled rosters work. Regardless of which team you choose you begin with the same generic roster of horribly poor players. You then gain Player Points from victories and ties to use in purchasing better players. You get 10 Player Points for a win (as well as 3 in the team standings), and four for a tie. This brings great importance into off-field strategies as well, as you have to determine how you should spend your hard earned points. Furthermore, you can play continuous seasons, and the game tracks goals AND assists!.

The MLS Season mode is a season mode featuring the MLS format (league then playoffs), and it also shares the Player Points feature. However, since the team you start with isn't generic, Saffire have increased the values of players to compensate.

There are a plethora of pre-game options, such as setting the length of halves, the weather conditions, time of day, stadium, difficulty and kit clashing. The game also features a nifty edit mode where you can adjust the names of the players to their 'real' names, and you can also create players and assign them to teams. Both games also allow you to save your goals to memory card.

Gameplay - ISS Pro Evolution : 98 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 97
It's hard to describe in words how incredible the gameplay is in both Evolution and GameNight. I've been playing soccer games for more than 15 years, from Emyln Hughes Soccer, to Kick Off, to Sensible Soccer, to the Fifa series and previous ISS games. Now while there have been many excellent live-action soccer games over that period nothing comes close to either Evolution or GameNight. For the first time, you really feel as if you are playing a simulation, rather than an interpretation, of the beautiful game. There are four main components that set both apart from any other existing soccer titles: the shooting system, the passing, the controls, and the AI.

Both titles use a shooting power bar to control the power of the shots. The longer you hold down shoot, the higher the power bar goes and the more powerful and higher the shot. The power bar fills up very fast and it will take most gamers quite a while to get used to it. It's also important to note that the shot bar fills up faster with different players. So taking a shot with Nicholas Anelka is easier than with taking one with a non-scorer like Lee Dixon.

However, the power bar isn't the only controlling factor behind the shooting. The shot also depends on what foot the shooter strikes the ball with, and even which particular player is taking the shot! It's refreshing to finally see a soccer game acknowledges that soccer players have a stronger foot and a weaker foot, and this makes a tremendous impact upon the shooting. Some players, such as Michael Owen, rarely use their left foot and for that reason if you're forced out wide to the left and have to shoot, Owen will often try to hit the ball with the outside of his right foot resulting in a shot that curls away from goal. If the angle is just right he may hit it with his left, but it won't be as powerful or as accurate as if he struck it with his stronger right.

The player's positioning is all important as well, so if you're running parallel to the goal and decide to shoot, the player will have to curl his foot around the ball, and as a result the shot will have more swerve but less power. Heading and volleying is also position dependant, rather than simple single or double taps in Fifa. If the ball is coming at you waist height then you do a volley, if it is head height you do a header and if it is head height and behind you, you perform a bicycle kick. This positioning also makes jockeying for position an important aspect of the game. In Evolution and GameNight, not only do you have to react to the cross and move into position, you also have to beat the defenders to the ball. You can also execute a chip by double tapping the shoot button, and the longer you hold the second tap the higher the ball will go.

So what does this advanced shooting system do for the game? Firstly, it makes practically any kind of shot that you see in real life possible. If you want to rip 25 yarder with the outside of Roberto Carlo's left foot curling into the far right corner - you can. If you're one on one with the keeper and want to place a delicate chip over him – it's possible. You can even dribble around the on-rushing keeper on breakaways! The possibilities are endless. Secondly, the shooting system really adds a true skill element to the game. Shooting is not easy. Unlike the power bar in Fifa 2001 for the PC, Evolution and GameNight's power bar moves a lot faster and you need quick reflexes to get an accurate shot off. Add to that the positioning, the specific shooter, and the requisite time and space, and you get the best shooting system I've seen in videogame soccer.

Evolution and GameNight's passing system is just as dynamic and flexible as the shooting. There are three basic types of passes--the short pass, the lob and the through pass. The short pass is your regular vanilla pass; however, the lob pass uses a power bar just like the shooting. This allows you an incredible degree of freedom in your passing and you can spray yard balls in any direction and distance you want. When you're close to the 18 yard box the lob button becomes a cross. However, unlike Fifa 2001 the cross doesn't automatically go the striker in the area. Instead, a single tap will send the ball to the far post, a double tap will drop the ball around the penalty spot, while a triple tap will drive in a low cross. However, the best pass in Evolution and GameNight is the through pass. Anyone who's ever seen or watched soccer will tell you that about half of the time a pass doesn't go directly to a player, it goes slightly in front so he can run onto it – this is the through pass. When you combine these types of passes with the mind-blowing AI you get a game that flows just like real soccer. Passing is no longer modulated, it's dynamic. You don't have to pass it right to another player as in Fifa, instead you can pass it into space for him to run onto. Sure Fifa 2001 has a through pass, however it's not as useful, nor are the players smart enough to have movement like this.

The third aspect of KCET's game engine that makes Evolution and GameNight so realistic is the control scheme. At first the controls may feel a tad bit loose compared to the pinpoint precision control in Fifa 2001. However, that's done intentionally as KCET realize that soccer players can't sprint with the ball at their feet and suddenly stop on a dime, nor can they make 45 degree turns at high speed while dribbling either. This makes dribbling a real skill, and unlike Fifa where you mostly rely on extravagant 360 spins and rainbow flicks to go past opposing players, both Evolution and GameNight force you to use tight ball control and subtle changes of pace to pass players – just as in real life. However, this doesn't mean that neither game features special moves – far from it! Yet, unlike Fifa's party tricks, KCET included moves that you see more often in real life. For example, one of the best moves is the simple give and go pass. Another great move is the fake shot/pass; the shooter shapes to take a shot, but at the last minute he drags the ball over to his other foot. This is an awesome move, and you can even do it on one timers! There's also a great step over and an awesome stop and drag back useful for creating space for a cross near the corner flag. Another great move is the dummy – where you fake receiving a pass, and let it run through your legs to either run onto it, or let it run through to another player. You can also push the ball slightly ahead of you as you run.

However, the real star of both games is the mind-blowing computer AI. Your computer controlled teammates will move into space, make overlapping runs, support you when you're in trouble – it's almost as if they can read your mind. On the other side of the ball, the opposition AI is just as impressive with defenders and midfielders cutting out lazy through passes, creating slick passing moves. Goalkeepers are amazing as they come charging out of net to close down the angle. Matches never feel pre-scripted or monotonous as they do in Fifa. Every game is dynamic, and you experience the ebb and flow of the game as the 90 minutes tick away. You have matches where the battle is in the center of the midfield for most of the game, and it takes a moment of inspiration to break apart a game. Sometimes the computer has the upper hand and you spend most of the match under siege, other times the tables are turned and you'll be camped out in the opposition's half, passing it around, probing for an opening.

What's more amazing is the different AI logic for different teams and different players. If you play Manchester United then expect Beckham to send in teasing crosses from the right, while Giggs will try to take on defenders down the left. If you find yourself a goal up against United with 20 minutes to go, expect the computer to sub on Sheringham and Solskjaer for Cole and Yorke! In GameNight, expect the bulk of Dallas' offence to carried by Jason Kreis, while El Diablo is the man for DC United. This player and team specific AI is also pertinent to national teams. Brazil play a beautiful passing game, while Norway will tend towards the long ball. This is the first soccer videogame I have ever played where I have actually been afraid of a specific opposing player. If you play Inter in Fifa 2001 and Ronaldo gets the ball it's no different than if anyone else gets it. On the hardest setting in Evolution when Ronnie gets the ball you'll quake with fear as he'll burst pass you with his pace and dribbling skills. The same applies for free kicks and Beckham and Mihajlovic are two of the best in the game. This type of player specific AI does wonders for the realism of the game, and even though Evolution doesn't have a license it feels far more authentic than other licensed titles.

What I've just described barely scratches the surface of what these games offer. For example, you can also run special plays such as calling big central defenders up for corners, call counter attacks, offside traps, or attacking presses. You can also make custom formations and customize player positioning to create an almost infinite amount of tactics and save them to memory card – like my 2-1-3-2-2 (!) formation that I use with the Czech Republic. Furthermore, you can also assign defensive and attacking logic to each player and select man-marking targets, and also change attacking logic on the fly. The level of depth in both titles is astounding. Both games are an absolute blast to play, the sense of elation when you work the ball around to create an opening and score a well deserved goal is unparalleled. They also rank with Championship Manager 99/00 as some of the most addictive games of all time. The game engine so deep that you'll find something new every time you play.

A final point that shouldn't be ignored is the multiplayer aspect of these two games. Both GameNight and Evolution are the best 4-player sports games ever. Every Friday my friends and I get together to play videogames, and for the past two months Evolution has easily displaced Smackdown and even the amazing Virtua Tennis as the most played game.

As for differences between Evolution and GameNight; the latter has a slightly higher default speed (although that can be adjusted), and the player ratings have been juiced up a little so long distance shots are a little easier. However, it must be pointed out that GameNight lacks even a pseudo-license for the international team rosters and this hurts the gaming experience. For that reason I give GameNight a slightly lower score, however, both are excellent titles that really blow away any soccer titles on the market.

Replay Value - ISS Pro Evolution : 95 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 95
Both Evolution and GameNight offer great season modes, along with several international tournaments, and even when you've managed to win all of them on the hardest settings you'll still come back just because the game is so darn fun to play. Factor in that both games are amazing with 2-4 players and you have two games that really are a steal in terms of the replay value they offer.

Overall - ISS Pro Evolution : 97 / ESPN MLS GameNight : 96
The European title of ISS Pro Evolution is the most fitting for KCET's game engine as that's exactly what it represents: an evolution. Not just of the ISS series, but of the genre of videogame soccer. These two games really represent a paradigm shift. No longer do soccer gamers have to be content with an interpretation of soccer, now they can have a true representation of the sport. Like all great games it has a learning curve, and if you were to pick up the game and play for a few minutes you may be forgiven for thinking it was merely an add-on to ISS 98. However, the more you play the more realize the genius of the game engine, and my hat is off to KCET for being the first to make a truly accurate live-action soccer simulation. Neither game is perfect, for example there are no injuries and the audio is poor; however, there isn't a game available that compares to the overall realism and just plain fun offered by both Evolution and GameNight, and that includes Striker Pro 2000 for the PSX and even Fifa 2001 for the PC. Of the two games, I rate Evolution slightly higher because I prefer the European Club teams over the MLS ones, and I think GameNight loses some luster because it doesn't even have the pseudo-real names for the international rosters. However, both are incredible, and if you buy one live-action soccer game this year, make it either ISS Pro Evolution or ESPN MLS GameNight.

By: Lavan Chandran 11/8/00

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