Pro Evolution Soccer 3

Oh, come on, Ref!

In the PES vs FIFA debate, I was firmly in the PES camp for the longest time, and if memory serves, it started with the release of Pro Evolution Soccer 3.

You might think that a football game with referee Pierluigi Collina's striking image (and signature) on the front cover would be a strange choice to attract football fans to your game, but Pro Evolution is, like Collina, for the thinking man. If you want a kickabout, play FIFA. If you're going to play football, Pro Evo is waiting for you.

At least that's what one would argue, back in the day. How does PES3 fare after all these years?

Fond Memories

Which mechanic belongs to, or was introduced by, which Pro Evo game is somewhat hazy, having played so many, but as a game that gets an iteration every year, the general way things work mostly stays the same.

Two main generalities spring to mind with PES: the football requires some thinking, and the teams you're familiar with probably need editing. Extensively.


Where FIFA had the licenses for players and teams to be faithfully represented, the entire Pro Evo series had to pick and choose and beg and plead for licensed teams. International players were usually given names and faces, but for everyone else, whether you were at a decent team or not, would likely be subject to intentional misspellings and vague general likenesses. And as for the clubs themselves... Oh boy.

The first thing you did on PES was to play a quick match to get used to how it performs. After that, you'd hop into the edit mode and get to work. You'd no longer need to play as 'Merseyside Red' once you renamed them to Liverpool, and if you had the skill, the patience, or were following a guide to doing so, crafting the Liverbird to stick on the flag would be done soon after.

For the PlayStation 2, this was a reasonably in-depth image editor, with layering, rotation, scaling and all sorts. Sadly, despite my best efforts, this fantastic depiction didn't save in the emulator and is now lost to history. Back when PES3 was out, this would have been the even more complicated, even more, colourful club crest, and yes, I would do this for a great many clubs - the entire Premier League, at least.

The kit editor was limited but had a wealth of templates to get creative with, and while it often meant sacrificing details, you could get some cracking results. I forget which PES it was, but I was dead chuffed with my rendition of the England kit with the blue cross on one shoulder. It just took a while to figure out how best to capture it with what templates and colours were available.

Fun Times

Players were also editable, of course, but not wanting to spend hours doing so - I've a game to play, after all - I hopped into a friendly match to see what the actual gameplay was like. I hadn't played PES3 since PES4 came out. Why would I? So there are fifteen years of rust to shake off and tactics to relearn here.

Football games strive for realism, and that often means paying attention to way football games are shown, as much as the physics of the sport itself. From camera setups to commentary teams, PES aims to make itself look like a game on the TV. The HUD elements will get much, much better as the series go on, but it's a start.

Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking can be heard for the English speaking audiences (I'm sure one of the PES games allowed you to change the commentators, should you want to hear excited Spaniards or something, though maybe I imagine that), and they do a passable job.

There are a lot of pauses as one audio file is stuck in front of another, and it gets samey after a while. They've got to find a balance between being detailed enough to give the feel of football, but generic enough so that the clip can be played over all sorts of player action. And then Peter will shout 'Number 3!' because Igor Bišćan isn't a licensed player.

The licensed players are clearly the ones where all the focus has been put, with Edgar Davids' eyewear and Del Piero's hairstyle showing the attention to detail, but they do stick out against most opposition. You can argue that you don't really see any detail in-game, sure, but the series would allow you to change individual player's boots at some point, and you can bet that made a difference to how it felt watching a game play out.

Further Frustrations

We're finally into a match then, after all my waffling, and it's clear that while the animation of the players is certainly nice, it's also not really masking the very video-gamey nature of what's going on. Players have analogue movement... to a point. They can pass long, high, fast, through gaps... if you can manage it. They'll jab in a foot or slide to intercept... if you can ever time it right.

The long story short is that PES3 is a bit of a bulky experience to go back to. It's not a slog, it's not sluggish, but it's got a little bit of heft, and you've got to keep that in mind as you work your way out from the back. You've not got a team of Messi clones. You're lucky to have some international players at all. Emile Heskey isn't going to tear through the defence at a breakneck pace, even in his prime.

Simply put, it took a bit of time to get used to the flow. The buttons have been ingrained in me for the last two decades, so much so that when I switched to FIFA, I changed as much as I could to PES controls, the shoot button especially. If anyone actually likes using the Circle button to shoot, they've got some explaining to do. It just feels wrong.

Tricks, dummies, through balls, low crosses... they're all there to take advantage of, should you a) remember how to pull them off, and b) have a competent player on the pitch to actually do them. Then you've got to time all of that so that you don't end up running straight into a defender or ballooning it out of play.

Mistiming tackles happens to everyone, and the referee can either wave 'play on' or call a foul. In PES3, this is the only time you'll see the referee, in a cutscene, and it's not even Collina. Guh.

Free kicks were always an excellent opportunity to score, as they meant not having to worry about opening up a defence and slotting a ball into the net. Instead, it meant very carefully lining everything up, hoping that you don't press the Square button too hard, desperately wishing that you could bend it like Beckham to make it look good...

Each PES game seemed to have one strategy which would utterly trip up the defence and could be reliably abused game after game. I wish I knew what that was in PES3.

Bišćan didn't score from 45 meters out, don't worry.

Further Fun Times

In the dying seconds of the first half, Owen got on the end of a short pass and burst through the defence. Every other time this had happened, I'd ran into someone and stopped the attack dead in its tracks, but this time, Owen found the one line that would take him past the two defenders, through on goal.

Again, I'm not sure when finesse shots were a thing, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't as early as PES3, so the best I could do was jab the shoot button and hope for the best. Too hard and it'd go wide, too little and it'll look embarrassing.

Just right, though, and the TV cameras would get to work showing the reactions of both teams, before launching into a replay so you can relive the one and only goal you'll score this game, and swear that it was skill and not a fluke.

You could even save it and show them off to your mates. Though usually, it was utterly ridiculous goals and weird animations that got saved and shared. Nobody cared about any other kind of replay.

After a mostly uneventful second half, another highlight package rounded things off, and my return to Pro Evo was complete.

Well, no, of course it wasn't. I hadn't even touched the Master League, which was the one main attraction to the entire Pro Evo series. Playing the odd match or tournament was one thing, but taking a bunch of nobodies through season after season, buying and selling and working your way up the tables was all I ever did in PES (other than editing).

It was a race to land the best young talent and watch them score tens of goals each season in the pursuit of yet another trophy, and despite the repetitive nature of the sport, it never seemed to get old. You just stuck PES into your PS2 and got on with it, for no other reason than it was great.

Final Word

I was much more successful in my youth playing this as I was now. Clearly, I put in the effort back then, and actually wanted to play football, rather than just have a kickabout. Times have changed, and nowadays I'm happier to play a bit of FIFA just to get my goal-scoring fix.

Nowadays, Pro Evolution games are downloaded to see what's new and discarded shortly afterwards. They look and feel like a Japanese made game, and even with the global nature of football, something like that just stands out.

Anyway, we're not here to moan about PES 2019, but PES3. It does show its age, definitely. Still, it reminded me of the times when I would put hour after hour after hour into these games, for no real benefit other than the satisfaction of having edited a team, or the joy of having finished another season on top.

It's pick up and play, and it's put in the hard work. It's not the same game as FIFA, and it will reward you for learning how to play football properly. The always enhanced and improved artificial intelligence of your opponents was never as advanced or intelligent as the back of the boxes would have you believe, but face them at greater difficulties, and you'd soon change your mind.

Pro Evolution Soccer 3 was the game-changer for me, and many other players of the time, and the competition to FIFA meant that each release would have to improve on the past games of the series, as well as the current game of the other developers. It was a football arms race that ultimately boiled down to 'do you want to look at correct kits or do you want to play the best football game?'

If you're a football game fan, go back and see how far we've come. I doubt you'll stay for very long, but it's nice to remember what probably got you started.

Fun Facts

I've always thought Pro Evo had a funny name, but the North Americans would know this game as World Soccer: Winning Eleven 7 International.

Pro Evolution Soccer 3, developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, first released in 2003.
Version played: PlayStation 2, 2003, via emulation and teenage memory.