It's PES - but not as we know it
For the last few years remaining a fan of the PES (Pro Evolution Soccer) series has been akin to being marked for the plague, there seemed to be endless amounts of "diehard" fans who were leaving in their droves to be welcomed into the welcoming arms of the FIFA series and anyone who didn't was viewed as being ignorant or simply blinkered with their affection to a what once was the superior game. Though I admit there has been somewhat of a fall from grace for this one time champion, the perception that it is in it's death throws is still someway off the mark.
Ironically the FIFA series has always had strong sales but has recently backed that up with critical acclaim in it's last few iterations, there are things that it has always done better such as it's presentation, what with it's slick menu interface, it's wealth of features and maybe most importantly the official major league licenses it has always presented an attractive package, but this is hardly surprising it is a product of the EA juggernaut after all. It's become apparent that since FIFA has got out in front in the race between the two flagship titles if PES didn't fight back it wouldn't be long before the distance between them becomes too great.
As of writing the latest game, PES 2011 is still running on the same engine that was being used in it's Playstation 2 heyday and it shows, there are some nice graphical touches and it still retains a greater sense of detail than it's rival but it's a significant factor that the development team urgently need to address before they can move on and stage a true comeback. There has been criticism in the past that Konami were comfortable to just release a slight variation of the same game annually, and although they have been making a concentrated effort since FIFA usurped it, problems like this persist and it 's sometimes confusing to distinguish where they are concentrating their efforts.
Gameplay wise there have been various tweaks and additions, and as series veterans will know this will often cause you to scratch your head in confusion and hurl expletives at the screen. This has always been the case and personally I find it a bittersweet experience until all the mechanics click into place and you're back to playing the way you u to, and wondering what you found so hard to begin with. It will of no surprise then that the same applies here, the dribbling has again been changed, you now have 360 degree control or at least thats what the box would have you believe, it was a claim that was made for the 2010 game and just as it was there it is nowhere to be found here. The game persists with its eight-directional controls and for all the additions this definitely feels antiquated.
The game now plays at a slower and more deliberate pace and one that will force you to come to grips with the style changes if you hope to win with any sort of consistency, along with the dribbling the passing has also been refined. You will now have to measure your passes and judge the power, more so than in the past especially if you relied heavily on the passing assist, now there is none. Initially its seemingly trivial as you kick-off but as you quickly realize it will hamper your ability to make passes as effectively as you could in the past, there is definitely a learning curve present here, one which even veterans will have to adjust to. The addition of this system means that in order to play well you will to devote your full concentration to the game around you, the first time pressure is applied and you try to play a quick through ball you are likely to see that it veers off aimlessly for a throw-in, it's PES - but not as we know it
The shooting is largely unchanged except the power at which you take a shot seems to have been adjusted, in most cases placement wins over power and you will find that there is really no need to drill the ball as it will more often than not cause you shot to fly off erratically and miss it's target. The only instances I found it useful to apply any sort of power behind my shot was when I was firing from range, and even then it was only accurate with a good player which seems to apply to most aspects of the gameplay. The aforementioned tweaks and nuances can really be seen when you have a truly skillful player on the ball, playing as Barcelona for example would be a good way to see how everything works in regards to player movement and how the top players can trap the ball and get round players much more effectively than most It's when you start to select lesser teams and play more difficult opposition that you realize mistakes are much more costly and you will have to adjust accordingly.
In the past certain situations always felt slightly on rails with their outcome, so it's good to know that these additions have largely rid the game of these instances, for example throw-ins were always frustrating as the AI allowed you to run a player to intercept a pass which would put the attacker at a disadvantage. Challenges will now cause the ball to possibly bounce off players and spill out into the open whereas in the past it felt as though it largely bounced to the nearest player, these are seemingly minor thing which add up to give a great sense of spontaneity to the play. There are various other little moments like this that longtime fans will appreciate and see that someone is paying attention.
Now onto the presentation, and as I alluded to earlier it has probably been one of the biggest shortcomings of PES since the beginning. In short it still can't much FIFA on this front but it is definitely improving . The main interface is nicely designed and looks more attractive than the slapdash pink effort than adorned 2010, I'm pleased to say moving through the various menu's is quick which is a gripe I have with FIFA because as flashy as they look they are prone to locking up and not being the quickest to navigate. The tactics menu has now changed and uses a drag and drop interface to switch players around and make substitutions, it's slightly jarring to begin with as not all aspects are explained, especially the one touch settings which seem to be counter intuitive and work against the player.
Again the licenses a bit of a hit and miss affair, the English Premiership being the notable absence, two teams are present in Manchester United and Tottentham Hotspur but it only serves to highlight the lack of other teams and instead you will have to make-do with the likes of Merseyside Red in the place of Liverpool. There are several other leagues present, La Liga, Eredivise, Serie A (barring Palermo) as well as a selection of various teams from around the world such as Boca Juniors, FC Basel and most that are present in this seasons European competitions. There are also several national teams that are fully licensed, although these are in the minority. The Copa Libertadores is a new addition and allows you to play through the competition, confusingly the teams present are only selectable here and are unavailable for selection elsewhere, it's frustrating although its in part due to the licensing agreements in place.
The game again features a licensed soundtrack, although it's purely subjective I find the largely indie tracks not to be to my liking; however the ability to import your own custom playlists is present if you don't care for what is provided. Commentary is ever present, but as many will likely know its never been a strength of the series even in its heyday.
In terms of modes all the usual suspects are accounted for, the Master League is similar to that of last year's, however you can now sign scouts and use them to unearth potential new signings in different regions, the management of your club, down to it's finances and the youth team are all accounted for, its easier to see why it remains so popular among fans. The UEFA Champions League makes its return here as does the Europa League as well the Super Cup for the first time, as mentioned the Copa Libatores is only available as a separate feature. It would be nice if the Master League could finally be all encompassing for once whereas it always ends up being a distinctly European event.
The Master League is also now playable online, it's a novel idea and one that fits in with the persistence that is present in many online games today, for the time being it seems relatively even between players although I wonder if the same could be said in the future once the game has been out for sometime, there could easily be a scenario where a newcomer is hopeless against a stacked team of superstars.
The online element to PES has long been a bone of contention with the fan base, it's odd to think that it probably was at it's most functional while on the original Xbox, the last few editions on both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have for the most part been rendered unplayable online and it has severely hampered its appeal next to FIFA which has been making great strides with it's online content. It will come as a great relief then that the online element is now hugely improved, I've yet to experience dropped connections and the games have largely remained stable and playable. The Become a Legend mode is again present and is identical to what was seen last year, If you dislike playing alongside the AI and instead prefer to play online with others there is that too.
The ability to customize has further been expanded this time around, along with your player's appearance there is also the option to create your stadium, these options can be as realistic or as crazy as you wish as there are is a selection of unlocks which range from being able to make your stadium appear as though it has been transplanted out of a cartoon to giving your players comedy heads such as a pumpkin or a centurion helmet. These don't really have any outcome on the gameplay itself, but it is nice to see these callbacks to earlier games in the series where it felt there was a more humour running through the game.
With the new additions such as the Online Master League which I feel is a great addition, and the overall improvement on past problems like the multiplayer now being more functional will only help the game in trying to win back the goodwill of those who have felt hard done by the series for the last few years. The gameplay has again been subject to the yearly changes but I feel as though this is the best PES has felt to play for sometime, it does have a fairly steep learning curve however, one I feel may turn off some in favor of the instant playability of the FIFA series, but again PES has something of a reputation for being one for the purists.
In the constant battle for Football game supremacy, FIFA is still out in front but after a couple of years of languishing I can say that it looks as though the PES series is starting to look re-invigorated. It still does possess the odd quirks, the presentation takes a shine off the proceedings as always and the engine really does need an overhaul but it’s refreshing to see that it looks like it's making steps in the right direction. Hopefully Konami will address the issues, the inconsistency of the overall package need to be fixed before it can truly come out of the shadow of the highly polished FIFA 2011.
PES remains a difficult beast to tame, the new style of play may take some adjustment, and as ever it retains a sense of quirkiness but those that stick with it will be duly rewarded.