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ISS Pro Evolution 2 (PSX) Review


Released in Europe this March, Konami's ISS Pro Evolution 2 is the sequel to ISS Pro Evolution which itself was released in North America and Europe about a year ago. Programmed by Konami's KCET team, ISSPE2 (also known as 'Winning Eleven 2000 U23 Medal heno Chousen' in Japan) improves upon its brilliant predecessor in almost every aspect and sets the standard for soccer games to come.

Presentation/Graphics - 98
It's amazing that with two vastly more powerful consoles on the market a game on Sony's dying 32-bit warhorse manages to outshine many games on the PS2 and the DC. Sure the graphics aren't nearly as crisp and clean as those in Fifa 2001 for the PS2, or Virtua Striker for the DC, but in terms of the animations, stadiums, and the meticulous attention to tiny details, ISSPE2 excels far beyond what you'd expect from a PSOne game and outshines many DC and PS2 sports titles.

The greatest aspect of the graphics is the animations. Both ISSPE and MLS GameNight featured brilliant animations not only for the outfield players but also for the goalkeepers. Thankfully, KCET didn't rest on their laurels; instead, they've almost doubled the amount of animations and the results are spectacular. Take, for example, the simple act of heading the ball; by my count there are at the very least 7 different heading animations all depending upon when and where you chose to head the ball – a regular strong defensive header forward, a flicked on backwards header, a glancing header, a glancing header downwards, a driven header downwards, a diving header, and an off-balance header - complete with flailing arms! The catalogue of animations is truly astounding. New animations have been added to dribbling, to shooting, tackles, fouls, and goal celebrations. Best of all, the transitions between the animations are as smooth as ever and the players never end up looking like robots as in Fifa 2001. The goalie animations, that were already brilliant in ISSPE, have been improved with goalies now being able to make diving saves with one or two hands outstretched, several different animations for punching the ball, over and underhand throws, new animations for scrambling to recover a bobbled shot, and animations for fouling outfield players! There are also tons of subtle, off the ball, animations that add character such as players holding their hands to their heads when they've missed a scoring chance, defenders hanging their heads in shame when they've allowed a goal, players stumbling when they've lost their balance, goalies screaming at defenders when they've made mistakes, players in the wall jumping up when a free-kick flies overhead and a few of them turning their heads to see where it goes. Even the context specific goal celebrations have been improved, and many times on goals scored from crosses you see the goal scorer immediately running over to, and embracing, the player who assisted on the goal!

The player models themselves have been modified and all the players have shed a few pounds and gained a few inches in height. This change allows for more subtle differences between the player models and it's now even easier to identify players just by looking at them. Jan Koller now has broader shoulders to go with his towering height, while Christian Vieri looks much more powerfully built than in ISSPE. There are also other subtle details such as Batigol's headband which add individual flair to the players and really help you recognize them. You can also now assign the captain of your team and, of course, he wears the captain's armband. The kits have also been improved and you now have long AND short sleeved jerseys depending upon the weather.

Almost as staggering as the animations, are ISSPE2's brilliant selection of stadiums. ISSPE2 features fifteen different stadia from around the world (compared to Fifa 2001's paltry four stadia) such as the Olympia Stadion, the San Siro, Ajax's Amsterdam Arena and many others. The stadiums aren't licensed and so they don't have their real names but they are all instantly recognizable. The stadia are brilliantly modeled and some of them, Stadium Australia and the Amsterdam Arena in particular, are breathtaking. Each of the different stadia also have different pitch textures and structures immediately surrounding the pitch, and it really does wonders for the authenticity when you have River Plate hosting Vasco de Gamma in Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

All in all, despite the PSOne's inherent low resolution, ISSPE2 is a gorgeous game and really pushes the limits of what's possible on Sony's withering gray box. The only thing keeping me from giving the game a 100 is that in 4-player mode there's a tiny bit of slowdown during corners, in the rain, when there are more than 12 or 13 players on screen at once – it doesn't detract from the gameplay a great deal but it's still something that could have been ironed out.

Presentation/Audio - 65
Unfortunately, KCET didn't put nearly enough work into the commentary as they did the graphics. Terry Butcher returns, but Martin Williams has been replaced by Chris James. In the end it doesn't make a difference because both of them sound like they're falling asleep and they don't speak that often. Occasionally Terry will jump in with a comment pertinent to the play at hand, but the commentary still isn't a patch on Jonathon Pearce and Ron Atkinson in Striker Pro 2000. What have been improved, are the selection of crowd sounds particularly during international matches. The crowds are much more boisterous and there are a lot of team-specific chants and noises. For example, when you play Brazil you can hear the Brazilian fans chime in with Samba beats, while playing Holland or Norway you hear crowd chants along with the cowbells. I even heard a rendition of Elmer Bernstein's 'The Great Escape' by the England fans towards the end of an England match! These crowd noises, much like the stadia, really add to the atmosphere of the matches. The crowd also react appropriately to the action on the field, with jeers for bad fouls, and the crowd noise increases as teams go on the attack. The only problem I have is that the atmosphere is like a World Cup match for every international you play, with both sets of fans making equal noise. However, when I play an exhibition match between England and France at Wembley I'd expect the England fans to make a lot more noise than the French. The home-field advantage doesn't factor a lot in videogame soccer, and for once I'd love to hear a stadium go deathly quiet (apart from the small contingent of away fans) when an away team snatches the lead near the end of a match.

The menu music is your typical dance/techno fare, although the music accompanying the intro sequence is very catchy, regardless I can't help but feel that KCET once again dropped the ball with this aspect of the game. Sure, sound doesn't usually improve the gameplay experience to a great extent, but it does wonders for the immersiveness, and soccer matches have a unique and powerful aural atmosphere that deserves better representation in videogames.

Interface/Options - 95
The major modes of play in ISSPE2 are the same as in ISSPE: Match Mode (exhibition), League Mode, International Cup, Training Mode, Options and Master League. Just as in its predecessor one of the best aspects of the game is the Master League, which has now been expanded.

In ISSPE the franchise-like Master League consisted of one 16-team division comprised of European club teams. KCET have now added 8 more teams (including two South American teams) and a second division. The featured teams are Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds, Arsenal, Chelsea, Juventus, Inter, Lazio, Fiorentina, Milan, Parma, Roma, West Ham, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Monaco, Marseille, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, River Plate, and Vasco de Gama. The inclusion of mediocre West Ham is incredibly puzzling, and I would much rather have seen Deportivo, Schalke, PSV, or Boca Juniors featured instead.

There are 8 teams in Division 2, and 16 teams in Division 1. You start in Division 2, and as you've probably guessed by now you have to finish in the top two in Division 2 to get promoted up to Division 1, while the bottom two teams in Division 1 get relegated down to Division 2. The club teams in each division can be chosen randomly by the CPU, or you can allocate the teams yourself.

The rosters for both the club and international teams are accurate up till about Euro 2000. This is a shame because you still have Alan Shearer captaining England, Luis Figo is still with Barca, Aimar is still playing for River, and Batigol isn't yet playing for Roma; to mention a few of the disappointments. Thankfully, the authenticity in the player models, team formations, strategies, and the way individual players behave more than make-up for the dated rosters. Just as in ISSPE players and teams behave just like their real-life counterparts; when you play Brazil both Roberto Carlos and Cafu terrorize you down the wings, while Zidane and Davids dominate in Juve's midfield.

KCET have also obtained a F.i.f.a. license so the majority of the players have their 'real' names, however this is really a non-factor because if you couldn't figure out who 'Bekhem' and 'Owenn' were in ISSPE then you're not going to be able to appreciate an official license anyway. Well, perhaps Youri Djorkaeff is a bit relieved.

Finally, 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. You can also now make substitutions at the end of halves and whenever there is a stoppage of play – as opposed to ISSPE where you had to announce the substitution before the stoppage of play occurred. Also returning is the Edit Mode where you can adjust the player's names and attributes, and you can also create players and assign them to teams. You can also now buy created players for your Master League team. The ability to save replays also makes a return, however I just wish the replay buffer was longer because the intricate build-up to goals is often just as impressive as the finish.

Gameplay - 98
Prior to playing ISSPE2 I honestly wondered how KCET could change their magnificent Winning Eleven 4 game engine that was used in ISSPE and MLS GameNight – it was so much more complex, realistic and rewarding than any other soccer game before it. However, somehow KCET were able to improve almost every aspect of ISSPE's gameplay and the results are incredible. There are 5 main areas of the gameplay that have been reworked: ball physics, control, shooting and passing, AI and tactics.

Unlike the Fifa series, both ISSPE and MLS GameNight featured separate physics for the ball and the players, which resulted in much more realistic gameplay. KCET have now tweaked the ball physics and the ball seems to float in the air a little less and there are also greater variations in the way balls deflect and ricochet off other players. As a result you have more realistic goalmouth scrambles, and there's also greater variation in the ball's position relative to the player and this has massive ramifications upon shooting and passing. Knockdowns from headers are also easier and this sets up more variation in goal scoring and playmaking.

The gurus at KCET have also tweaked the control to give you a much greater degree of movement in dribbling. One of the problems I felt with dribbling in ISSPE on the hardest settings against the CPU and also against human opponents was that dribbling past players involved mostly 90 degree cuts and turns. Now you can go on more mazy dribbles past defenders – but only if you have the skill and right players. Furthermore, when dribbling past players in ISSPE you were almost always forced to go to the outside, but now with the improved dribbling guys like Rivaldo, Figo and Zidane can turn defenders inside and out, and it's refreshing to be able to cut to the inside of a defender, especially in the box. However, dribbling is still a very hard skill to master and you can't take on an entire team with one player - a la Fifa. Rather, the improved dribbling allows you to take on one or two defenders and open up space for other players. You also now have total control of players when the ball is in the air, and this leads to far more jostling for position and makes winning headers in the midfield slightly easier. The ability to freely move while the ball is in the air, combined with the greater degrees of freedom of movement both lead to more spectacular goals as it's easier to position your player relative to the ball to perform exactly what you want. So now if you're uncovered at the back post and the cross comes in you can decide if you want to wait for it to come waist height and then volley it, step back let it bounce and half volley it, or dive at the ball and head it.

Lobbing the ball is no longer a double tap of the shoot button, now you just shoot the ball but push backwards on the d-pad, and the height of the chip is dependent upon how long you hold the shoot button. This change has its benefits and its drawbacks. It's now much easier to perform one-timed lob-shots; however, it's also harder to lob the ball when you're coming at the goal from an angle. The stop and cut-back move (run, stop, backwards + sprint) has been simplified, and it can now be performed just by sprinting with the ball in one direction, and then reversing your direction of movement while still holding down the sprint button. This allows you to use the cut-back maneuver successfully in different areas of the field and not just near the corner flag.

Tackling has also been revised, and now the shoulder barge/blocking tackle (X button) is also a shirt pull when you're behind a player and you can be called for a foul without bringing a player down. This serves to help balance out the speed differences between players and the players' strength ratings becomes more important. For example, Michael Owen may still be very quick on the ball, but he's also not very strong and if you can manage to nudge him or hold him back without the referee blowing his whistle you can slow him down and take the ball off him. This also makes big men like Jan Koller and Niall Quinn more useful because even though they may not be very fast they're hard to dispossess without fouling them, especially when they have their backs to goal.

The triangle button still rushes the goalie out to close down the angle, but now goalkeepers can commit fouls and even be sent off! This really forces you to use caution when rushing the goalie off his line because if he leaves too early, or too late, it can end up costing your team.

The third aspect of the game that KCET have tweaked is the shooting and the passing. While the basic controls for shooting, passing and crossing still remain the same, the dynamics are very different. ISSPE was one of the first games to acknowledge that players did indeed have a preferred shooting foot and a weaker foot and this had ramifications upon how successful you were when shooting. However, once most gamers honed their shooting skills (which, to KCET's credit, took several weeks, and for some, months) it was a tad too easy to line up 35 yard rockets into the top corner when given the space. Furthermore, many of the top players in the game (Shevchenko, Ronaldo, and Roberto Carlos in particular) were far too accurate with both their weaker foot and with the outside of their stronger one. To compensate, KCET have made shooting and passing much more difficult. In real life, from 35 yards out Michael Owen couldn't hit the side of a barn using his left foot and he wouldn't strike it well with the outside of his right from that distance either – and this is now reflected in ISSPE2. Overall, shooting success is dependent upon five factors: time, space, preferred foot, the exact positioning relative to the ball, and of course the attributes of specific player you choose to shoot with. These increased factors lead to two consequences--firstly goal scoring, especially from outside the box, is a lot more difficult. You now need to work the ball around even more to create space, and when you do have space and time you need to have the skill to execute. Secondly, in tandem with the increased control over the players and the improved ball physics, there is an even greater variety of goals that can be scored. In ISSPE there seemed to be almost unlimited ways to score, but there are so many goals and spectacular plays in ISSPE2 that could never be performed in its predecessor. From spectacular mazy dribbles past three defenders and the goalkeeper, to corners flicked on at the near post to the middle of the box and spectacularly volleyed home, to spectacular dipping half-volleys from 25 yards out – the possibilities are endless. But what's more impressive are the number of truly ugly, garbage goals that you can score in ISSPE2 like frantic goalmouth scrambles ending with a toe-poke into the net, keepers missing their punches to the ball, long range shots that get deflected off a defender's back and go looping over the wrong-footed keeper, headers hitting the post and then going in off a defender's backside, mistimed volleys that go down into the turf but end up bouncing over the goalie who anticipated a clean shot. It's these ugly, randomly chaotic goals that are the most life-like and will have most gamers in awe.

Much like the shooting, passing is even more dependent upon the foot used, and this has ramifications upon setting up plays and more importantly covering players. For example, if you want to cover the CPU's David Beckham just do what Carragher and Lizarazu did this season; stay tight on him, and don't let him get the ball on his right foot because he can't do anything with his left, and he's not the kind to take players on and dribble past them.

KCET haven't rested on their laurels when it comes to the AI either, and when you turn up the difficulty to the max the players are a lot smarter on both sides of the ball. Your teammates move into space even more effectively, the give and go is a lot more useful and as such it's easier to create more flowing passing moves. There's also a lot of variation in individual player AI depending upon a player's offensive awareness rating, and players with high awareness ratings such as Batigol have incredibly intelligent off the ball movement. The CPU teams are much more dangerous offensively and solid defensively. On offense they are a lot tougher to dispossess; rushing the ball carrier and using similar pressure tactics are futile as CPU players will simply step around tackles or quickly dish the ball off to a teammate. They are also more aggressive when attacking and often push more men forward to capitalize on turnovers and other mistakes. Player specific behavior styles are even more prevalent and guys like Figo, Overmars and Rivaldo are a real bitch to mark--not only do they dribble well, they make full use of fake shots and step-overs, and when they're on their game they are very hard to contain. Defensively, the CPU players cut out passes and close passing lanes even more effectively which means that through passes have a lower success rate. The defenders and goalies rarely fall for faked shots, so you can no longer fake a shot when one on one with the goalie and see him flop to the floor.

Finally, the tactical aspect of the game as been improved. In ISSPE only two or three of your squad members would have random attribute changes (as indicated by different colored arrows next to their name), now almost every member of your squad is affected by status/attribute changes and consequently each match requires careful shuffling of the starting line-up and formation changes. This, in tandem with the increased individual player AI, leads to one of the best aspects of ISSPE2 – individual match-ups. Do you play a 3-5-2 and pray Berger can keep Figo quiet, or do you try to play Repka (who may have a ratings boost for this game) out of position on the left wing to do the job? Or do you switch to a more defensive 5-3-2? What's equally amazing is that the CPU chops and changes players and formations just as much as you. Substitutions and tactical changes by the computer are far more frequent, and sometimes you'll experience the shift in possession in the game before you realize the CPU has changed its formation! Consequently, yet another dimension is added to the gameplay as tactical savvy just as important a requisite to success as skill.

However, with all these tweaks and improvements, the most amazing thing is the incredible sense of balance that remains within the game. Yes, you have more control over dribbling and how to score, but now defenders and goalkeepers are smarter and more aware. Goalkeepers can now commit fouls, but that doesn't mean you have a 'keeper sent off every other game; rather, it occurs rarely and only when the situation arises. You have greater freedom of movement when the ball is in the air, but CPU defenders and attackers are now more aggressive in the air. The attacking and defensive bias is now semi-automatic and that eliminates confusion in four-player matches, as does the ability to choose between semi-automatic and manual player switching. Injuries (of which there are two degrees of severity) are now present, and while you can now intentionally attempt to injure another player the referees are more strict about late tackles and tackling from behind. Everything is so balanced, and there's nothing gimmicky about any of the additions and tweaks – they've all been carefully implemented to ensure that the gameplay is more realistic but still balanced and fair. Furthermore, despite the fact that the individual changes are often minute, there are so many of them that the game is indeed a true sequel. After my first 5 minutes of play the game seemed more like a minute upgrade to its predecessor, but after a few weeks you just keep discovering more and more about the new engine, and it's almost impossible to go back to ISSPE and MLS GameNight. Just playing ESPN MLS ExtraTime on the PS2, which uses the same WE4 game engine as Evolution and GameNight, I was stuck by how game seemed so archaic compared to ISSPE2; the defenders were too stupid, the shooting too easy and the game so much limited and easier. ISS Pro Evolution 2 is indeed a lot tougher than ISSPE; ISS veterans will be able to step in and play at the hardest setting but won't be able to dominate like they once did. However, those who've never played ISSPE may find the learning curve too steep for their liking and Fifa fanatics need not apply.

No game is perfect, and as breathtaking as ISSPE2's gameplay is, there are still improvements to be made – I'd like to see throwing stats for the goalkeepers, perhaps even greater control over the dribbling, the ability to select throw-in takers, and even more tactics and special plays. However, ISSPE2 is as close to sports gaming perfection I have ever experienced and multiplayer mode (especially with four players) is even more intense and the increased emphasis on tactics and match-ups adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay.

Replay Value - 98
I gave the original ISSPE and its Americanized cousin, MLS GameNight, both scores of 95 in replay value. In retrospect that was perhaps too low, especially since prior to picking up ISSPE2 I had been playing both religiously for almost a year and if I hadn't picked up the sequel I still would have been playing both. I honestly think I will be playing ISSPE2 for just as long as its predecessors – even once you've won the expanded Master League and all the international tournaments, you can always come back and just play simple exhibition matches as, just as in ISSPE, no two games are ever alike. With all the tweaks and the improved AI it will take ISS veterans months to master the game, and for newbies it will take even longer. The game unbelievably addictive and you'll find yourself sitting there in front of your TV for quite literally hours at a time. As I've mentioned before, 4-player ISSPE2 is absolutely unbelievable--the amount of teamwork and team strategy involved in two vs. two games is astounding.

Overall - 98
Despite my immense praise of ISS Pro Evolution 2, I have one major problem with the game: I wish Konami had chosen to release the game in North America. Unfortunately, they didn't and in order to play it you'll have to import a PAL copy from Europe, along with a PAL PSOne and a multi-system TV. Otherwise, this game is absolutely incredible in almost every aspect. Not only is it incredibly realistic and complex, it's a blast to play and it's the best videogame representation of a sport I've ever experienced. This game is a true masterpiece that can be appreciated by anyone who has at least a passing interest in the sport of soccer, and yet it has enough depth to satisfy hardcore futbol fans. Gameplay-wise it is peerless and the laughably inferior Fifa series doesn't even warrant a comparison; to do so would be like comparing 'Citizen Kane' to 'Dude Where's My Car?'. Once again I raise my hat to the geniuses at KCET as they've conjured up yet another masterpiece, and I can only imagine how amazing Winning Eleven 5 (the next installment of the ISS Pro series, out now in Japan) must be….

By: Lavan Chandran 5/30/01

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