28th Sep 2011 | 09:00
PES 2012 faces the same long battle as its predecessor. It's a new year, a new season but the same uphill struggle for Konami in the battle for virtual football glory.
Why? Because of the rival. Have a look at our FIFA 12 review and you'll see another fantastic follow up, with EA Sports snapping up some big name features and having the balls to shake up its winning formula to incorporate them.
It seems the last thing that Konami can do is rely on a bit of complacency from the champions.
Still, PES 2012 jogs out of the tunnel looking sprightly. Visually (and without too much gushing), stadium environments are often close to awe-inspiring. There's a real quality to Konami's lighting system, which really shines in floodlit night matches.
Where FIFA 12 might be a bit too bright and clean at times to trick the brain fully, PES 2012 has a slightly darker tone and makes better use of shadow to add more weight and dimension to the stands, the players and pitch itself, which can look comparatively flat in FIFA.
Looking down the pitch towards the far stand for a goal kick is the best example of this. We actually felt a swell of nervous pride when we took in the scene which felt so real, and it's all thanks to Konami getting the lighting spot on.
Player likeness is similarly impressive in places - although, like its rival, PES still understandably pays the most attention to its top earners - with certain stars like Gerard and Ferdinand arguably looking more real in the Konami team than they do in the EA camp.
Having said that, it comes down to a matter of taste and for every PES model that knocks the socks off FIFA's effort, the latter will come back with a similarly superior doppelganger elsewhere.
Continuing the aesthetic praise, PES 2012 takes full advantage of its Champions League partnership with a full-on television intro to the tournament (including that choral piece that you make up words for) that just feels really good. All the Champions League trimmings are present on the pitch as well with players marching out towards the official black and white, fluttering centre circle flag.
It's simple but well executed visual advances like all of the above - along with returning visual features like motion blur in replays - that make PES a proper alternative to FIFA at face value.
Unfortunately graphical prowess doesn't quite hold up when players actually start to move. There's a clear lack of animations in PES 2012 compared to its opponent. Player's simply don't have the same range of movement as in FIFA and it has a few knock-on effects.
LOAD OF DRIBBLE
The dribbling itself becomes robotic when tearing into a sprint. Rather than smooth regular strides players seem to run jolt their sprint, with their legs speeding up in short bursts. This doesn't have an adverse effect on the sprint itself, players don't stutter forward, but their leg movement doesn't really fit the pace of the run itself.
There's also less freedom of movement generally, with PES players apparently unable to take quite so many touches as their rivals, turning circles are never quite tight enough. We never really felt like we had as much nuanced control as we did in FIFA.
Add to that to the PES brand floaty finish to player's movement across the turf, which hasn't changed since last year, and dribbling can sometimes be a touch unwieldy.
Tackles and collisions also feel shallow. Having gotten used to the new FIFA physics system, the PES engine instantly looks outdated with basic stumble animations triggering upon impact.
Most players feel incredibly weak on the ball to begin with as well. They seem to hit the deck with the slightest of brushes and the referees are incredibly harsh.
This could be more of a quirk of the engine, though, something that needs to be gotten used to all over again rather than an out and out criticism. The amount of fouls you'll concede at first is frustrating but actually just means that you have to work on your patience and timing to get the ball fairly. Still, we would have liked a bit more muscle to our men.
When it comes to player AI though, things start looking up. Team-mates often outdo their FIFA opponents as far as intelligence is concerned, especially up front. Strikers are much more willing to make the darting runs through defence that we crave from FIFA.
If your fellow footballers still aren't cutting the mustard though you can direct a team-mate's run yourself with the right stick. This also applies to freekicks and throw-ins so that you can actually put players where you want them rather than helplessly delivering a ball knowing that the opposition is going to cut it out the moment it leaves your foot.
It's a welcome addition but one we didn't have to use all that much, which is testament to the standard AI.
Goalkeepers, however, pale in comparison. As in PES 2011, it's almost as if someone's told the men between the sticks that they get more points for a parry. No matter how soft, straight forward or predictable a shot on goal is the keeper will palm it away in a frenzy rather than make the easy catch. We're not exaggerating when we say we've gone whole games without seeing the keeper hold on to the ball.
We're just taking a look at our review of PES 2011 and realising how much we're having to repeat ourselves when it comes to the little characteristics that mean PES still doesn't feel as solid or even finished as FIFA.
Having said all that there is a slightly different quality to PES this year that will spread smiles across the faces of the faithful. Where last year's effort tried to go full-on sim by denying players any assistance whatsoever, this year assistance returns as standard with options to remove it should you choose (makes sense).
What this means is that PES 2012 has the frantic edge thanks to parry-happy keepers, slightly slippery dribbling and shots that can float in from just about anywhere (we've forced some delightful tips over the cross bar from the centre circle) or be punched in at close range. At the same time though it lends a helping hand to curb too much frustration.
Dare we say it but, at times, it does feel like the return to PS2 and classic PES circa 04/05.
With standard assistance in play, crosses into the box are pinpoint accurate with little player input, and through balls are similarly forgiving if not quite so laser targeted. But we quite like the level of assistance in those areas though since there are other elements of the game that require more from you anyway - mainly those that hold the power gauge in strict regard.
Shooting then is as difficult as it has been with every new edition of PES we've picked up in recent years and the passing system offers so much freedom that you'll be able to make your own through-balls from scratch with the correct direction on the stick and enough power with A/X.
ROLE PLAYING AWAY
Off the pitch the highlight is, of course, Master League where players take on a team of no-names and buy, sell, train and play their way to world-beating stature. Now Master League comes as part of the 'Football Life' suite (imagine our terror when we couldn't see the ML logo at first glance) which also includes Become a Legend and Club Boss modes.
The former sees you take on one player throughout a journey from amateur zero to international hero whereas Club Boss tasks you with the much more sober task of guiding a club financially.
All of them come complete with proper cutscenes - including Master League - which is the big addition and a novelty, even if it is a bit ham fisted in some places.
Coaches and players approach you at your desk to give advice, make complaints or just have a natter about what's going on and sometimes can be quite useful and satisfying. Our right hand man, for example takes us through suggested tactics before every game on a whiteboard and we had to gamble with our response to a player who had a deep desire for the number 10 shirt.
It's the kind of feature we've seen in other titles and it has the same hiccups. Anyone who's played a THQ wrestling game in the past will be familiar with the way in which character models often make awkward motions while subtitles replaces actual words. Dialogue itself can be a bit unnatural as well.
Still, it's a decent addition. At the best of times it brings more situations to deal with throughout Master League and, at worst, it won't distract too much from PES' most loved mode, which still isn't rivalled somehow by the FIFA equivalent.
PES 2012 then has a combination of qualities from the series' recent history. It's definitely a step away from the hardcore simulation that was attempted last year and more towards the PS2 era of flairsome fun.
We love the graphical style of PES 2012 in part but really can't get along with the animation set, which we feel is lacking. Add the lack of licenses, dire commentary and mono-cheer crowd - three things that we've given up complaining about in this series - and Konami falls just short of recreating the beauty of the game.
Mechanically while AI is a step ahead of the rival, goalkeepers remain dumb, midfielders weak and referees harsh. Those elements, along with some crazy shot ability here and there do make some contribution to the classic PES feel but altogether 2012 feels cheaper than the ever more luxurious FIFA.
With the slight step back to classic PES, the fun factor becomes a more valid excuse once more but FIFA is far from the spark-free stick in the mud it once was.
When it comes to picking sides, you've all played the demos and you've probably already made up your minds. If you love PES then you'll love PES 2012. For us though, FIFA remains the footie game of choice at lunch.