During the previous generation of consoles, there was a group of people who had a secret knowledge. It was passed down from one year to the next, ignored by most but irrefutable to those in the know: Pro Evolution Soccer was the best football game around. Nothing could match its deeper, tactical gameplay that was so much closer to real football than any rival could get. This generation of consoles saw that balance shift and PES has been playing catch up for a number of years, steadily gaining ground but never quite reaching the heights it enjoyed previously.
So we arrive at PES 2012, the direct sequel to the best PES of recent years. Will this year’s release finally reclaim the place of honour that the franchise previously enjoyed? Will PES 2012 be the football game that real, knowledgable football fans will point to as the best representation of the sport?
Between matches and in the training modes, there are lots of screens to click through.
If you’ll excuse me for shamelessly adopting an incredibly tired, old footballing cliché: PES 2012 is a game of two halves.
Let’s address some of the good things first. The formations, player movement and tactical play of the artificial intelligence is usually nothing short of astounding. PES seems to have a knowledge of the ebb and flow of football that most modern managers would sell their souls for. The Master League mode is still head and shoulders above any competitors. It won’t rival a proper management sim but the way it allows steady growth of players and clubs over time is subtly brilliant.
In terms of attacking play, PES has taken another step back towards its early arcade roots by allowing a more fluid forward game, with precision and speed putting the advantages firmly in the attacking side of the game. With the right players, it’s possible to jink and spin your way through an entire team of defenders with sudden direction changes and easily performed tricks.
The tutorials are not as welcoming as they could be.
The AI improvements aren’t just with the defensive side of things either, players will make much more intelligent runs off the ball and create space for themselves. The whole package adds up to a much more pleasant experience when playing with – and against – computer controlled players. Playing against human controlled opposition usually brings the game down to a simple case of who can perform the dribbling runs more accurately and not misplace a pass.
The close control of skilful attackers means that the pressure placed on them by defenders (using the face buttons to chase down and pressurise) is reasonably easy to avoid with tight turns. The sliding tackle is almost useless due to its lengthy animation giving it away and the propensity of the referee to blow his whistle for the most minor of infractions. So you end up relying on a scrappy pass or a bad decision to turn towards a crowded area of the pitch to win possession.
So, PES 2012 has tactical depth, it has attacking flair and it – usually – has tense interaction between the two. It’s not all glory though. The physics are regularly atrocious, with the ball often seeming to be a heavy object sliding along rough concrete rather than a bag full of air rolling along slick grass. At times, this effect seems totally reversed. The ball will ricochet off a defender’s block and fly to the other side of the pitch faster than I’ve ever seen a football move.
Amid the tactical brainpower and excellent player movement, there are goalkeepers who seem incapable of catching and regularly allow the weakest of goals to fly past them while they stand like a spectator. They also tend to stand seven yards off their line far too often, just in that totally useless no-man’s-land for goalkeepers.
Collision detection seems awry sometimes too, with headers and volleys making contact despite the ball being a yard away from the appendage it was supposed to have bounced off. It’s jarring in places and all the more noticeable when set against the natural player movements and runs.
Presentation is one area where PES has always struggled to stay modern and 2012 is no different. If anything, the presentation, outside of the fully licensed UEFA Champions League and Copa Libertadores modes, is worse than usual. The menus are slick enough and certainly responsive and intuitive but once you get into the game modes, there is a general feeling that things weren’t particularly well thought through.
Master League mode, for example, is a wonderfully structured, balanced section of the game. But the repetitive, stilted interactions with your head coach, his paltry selection of written dialogue lines and the obsequious nagging between every match is all incredibly repetitive and needlessly frustrating. The fact that several of the written lines don’t seem to have been translated, spell-checked or proofread properly is unforgivable in a product which just doesn’t feel as close to being finished as it should do.
Of course, PES is always a little rough around the edges and usually it’s easy to forgive those quirks because the game plays so brilliantly. This time around, the poor physics and unfinished presentation actually hinder gameplay in the two areas where PES is usually streets ahead of the competition: tactically on the pitch and in the Master League mode. It adds a level of frustration that does more harm than the good done by any of the yearly upgrades.
- Master League is still the best “career mode” in a football game.
- More tactical depth and formation freedom than elsewhere.
- Under the hood, it really seems to know the subtleties of football.
- Player movement and AI is really exceptionally good at times.
- Often looks dreadful.
- Regular, serious problems with the ball physics and collision detection.
- Unfinished in areas that are key to the best game modes.
Reviewing the yearly football games, or any of the iterative sports games, is something of a pointless endeavour. Fans of PES will most likely have their hearts set on this year’s release, so much so that anything I say won’t make much of a difference to their plans. That’s understandable, and there is a lot in this year’s PES to be happy about. Unfortunately, the problems with the physics and the shoddy presentation take the shine off what would otherwise be another strong contender in the genre.
Whether you can forgive the rushed dialogue text, the constant nagging and the unfinished presentation is a matter of personal patience but those who make apologies for the dodgy physics are giving Konami free reign to present another unfinished game next year. I think PES fans deserve better than this.