Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
1st Oct 2010 | 10:00
This is the big one for Konami. With EA's flagship footy series making even more strides towards perfection, there's a real danger of too much light being put between FIFA and PES - leaving the former with an open goal.
For those in need of a little history lesson, Pro Evolution Soccer's been a frustrating beast since the start of this console generation.
Like Ronaldo in his twilight years, it's still showed flashes of excitement and charm - but once FIFA dragged its boots out of the mud and started showing some real flair, Konami's effort on the pitch has just felt a bit dated.
With ping-pong passing and blistering sprint speeds, PES has often felt like a party game that refused to evolve. Well listen up and listen good; the bad old days are over. It's time to celebrate.
Konami's fitted the PES-mobile with an entirely new intricate system for 2011 - one which seems to respect the player's 'footballing brain' (as still-woeful commentator Jon Champion might say).
In fact, there's almost a whole new philosophy at the root here. You have to work hard if you want to look good.
Sounds brutal, right? It is. But don't worry - it's also really rewarding. This year, Konami seems to be embracing more of a simulation model than a goal-mouth frenzied sprint session - and it suits PES down to the ground.
Now PES is the tough-love dad teaching you to ride a bike. You've had plenty of time with the stabilisers - yes they make things easy and all very fun - but this is a man's game, son. PES fans will finally once again be able to sincerely claim that their game of choice is the "real hardcore option".
For starters, all assistance has been switched to zero. All. Of. It. When you pass? Zilcho help. Shoot? Nada. What about crossing or playing a through ball? You're on your own, pal.
It sounds daunting (and perhaps conceptually impossible). But it turns out, like all loving parents, PES is actually trotting behind you all the time; its hand just inches from your seat in case you look a little wobbly. And the more you balls it up, the more satisfying it is when you start to 'get it'.
There's definitely no more hammering on the A button and watching your players flick passes about the pitch. Now everything is based around a power bar - and at first it's a bit of a shock. Get lazy on the stick or misjudge the strength of a pass and you'll put it just behind your team-mate or send the ball floating clean over your intended target.
It's the same with shooting; you'll find yourself skying shots for days until you get the feel - and long balls need to be weighted perfectly.
Through-balls do get a little bit of help from the CPU - but it's just as well. When you combine all this with 360 dribbling, your brain is constantly taxed; and you need to play much more carefully as a result.
PES 2011 is also a much slower game than its predecessors (and slower than FIFA 11, we'd say) - mainly because of the above but also because automatic player and ball control is greatly reduced when sprinting as well. Now build-up play and a mix of passing and quick dashes are the only way to go. A bit like real life, then.
Your game will be riddled with school-boy errors to begin with, but now PES has a bit more depth, it's a game that needs to be mastered rather than exploited. (And by exploited, you know what we're saying: Through ball down the wing, cut inside, low cross... goal).
However, Konami hasn't perfected every aspect of the beautiful game. It's not uncommon to play 90 minutes, for example, and only see the opposition keeper catch the ball once.
Oh he keeps the ball out of the net all right - it's just that every other save he makes is some mad parry - which immediately triggers those classic goal-mouth scrambles.
The out-field players are in on it, too. There's far more space than in, say, FIFA 11 - but sometimes for all the wrong reasons.
When on the attack, once we'd made it past the opposition midfield, we often found ourselves jogging towards goal unchallenged. The defence would back off until we got just inside the area - when they would clamp down with incredible efficiency.
It's almost as if they were coaxing us forward, giving us time and space, daring us to go for that once-in-a-lifetime long-range effort. But then, once it became clear we were far too sensible, they'd snuff our advance out as if to say, "Sorry mate, it's 30 yard screamers or nothing."
Having said that those 30 yard screamers are the most satisfying you'll find in any game. Once you've got shooting down you realise goals can come from anywhere. You aren't triggering goal animations when you press that button - once the ball leaves your foot it's down to nature.
So, PES is back in the same ball park as FIFA again. It's great news for anyone into football games. After all, competition is at the heart of the game we love.
Problem is, when you place PES 2011 head-to-head with EA's offering, it still falls short in the frustratingly typical areas.
VON MISTELROUM STRIKES
Although Konami has a grip on the Champions League licence, it doesn't make up for calling West Ham 'East London' and giving them a random badge with two crossed swords at the centre.
It used to be charming - but now, when compared to EA's slick machine, it looks a bit amateurish. It's made all the more annoying when playing a top side. As Man Utd - Champions League Man Utd - trot out in full regalia on one side of the pitch, Bolton look like they're wearing their mum's pyjamas on the other.
It's not something you can blame Konami for exactly but it is something that you can't ignore.
In terms of visual presentation PES 2011 is harder to judge. The PES pallet is darker than FIFA's, for example - and this gives it a more grounded look. But sometimes the screen can look completely washed out and, well, brown - as if you're playing football in the world of Fallout.
Players either look the spitting image of their real-life counterpart (see the England national anthem) or they're reduced to the default smooth-faced model with lentils for hair.
Having said that, you can't expect every player to be a perfect doppelgänger in the game - and where the PES team have put the effort into a player it really is top notch.
Animations are similarly mixed. Movement is more fluid when it comes to turning. Players will stretch around the centre circle at kick-off and there are some nice context-sensitive pieces when it comes to colliding with the post.
But a light jog in midfield looks decidedly geriatric, and players seem to jerk between fast and slow movements when sprinting.
The responsiveness of the players is also hit and miss. That 360 dribbling can be great for weaving in-between defenders - but generally players feel very light and seem to slip along the ground for much longer than you'd expect once you've taken your finger off the sprint button.
There's no two ways about the quality of the audio offerings, however. They're dire. The crowd sounds like five thousand supporters locked outside the ground - and commentary from Champion and Beglin just doesn't match up to FIFA's seamless and varied offering from Tyler and Gray.
Champion will often remain quiet for long periods before shouting, "NOW!!!" Every time before a shot on goal or he'll offer the confusing line, "The order of the boot is applied" for a clearance (and we mean every time).
Beglin's insight into the game, meanwhile, is about as deep as Inter Milan's defensive line.
Previously, when PES was quicker and quirkier, it could get away with slightly sub-par extras. But if Konami wants to continue down the sim route - and really get right up in EA Sports' grill again - there needs to be improvements in the whole match-day experience.
Sophisticated commentary and authentic sounding crowds (even if they don't look too hot) are all part of what makes FIFA feel like a cup final - where as PES still feels somewhat pre-season.
MASTER OF ONE
Off the pitch, Pro Evo's Master League is still the stand-out feature. It's very similar to previous editions but with the mode being so popular we wouldn't expect many changes.
The control the player has over the running and development of his or her team is still deep - with everything from training to club finances available for tweaking.
We do wish that the transfer system offered more by way of player negotiations instead of letting scouts handle everything contractual - but with the addition of Online Master League a whole new competitive dynamic will be added to the much-loved mode.
Make no mistake about it, PES has made a big and important step forward this year. It's managed to combine a new system - which forces you to patiently and skilfully pick your style of play - with the usual hint of lunacy in front of goal that made the series what it was at its peak.
Players now have more control than ever, even more so than FIFA in places, and they won't get their hand held. The ball never feels as though it's on a pre-programmed flight path, nor does it feel like it's stuck to a player at any given moment - even if the men on the pitch sometimes snap to invisible lines.
Similarly shots are based on physics rather than animations which means there are an infinite variety of goals to be scored.
FIFA is still the better football sim by a fair bit, though; it's fluid yet solid where PES feels liquid but fragile.
Pro Evo's biggest letdown, however, is still its lack of atmosphere and licences - and its occasional awkward movement. It still doesn't feel like the real deal in a lot of places.
FIFA fans won't entertain Pro Evo, but long-time fans of PES will know what to expect and have come to love a lot of the series' quirks. In a way, it wouldn't be Pro Evolution Soccer without them.
The new style of play will hurt at first, some might throw the pad down in anger. But ultimately, with the addition of this new "no assistance" system, PES-heads get a completely new dimension to their play - alongside a fresh and interesting challenge.