Over the last few years the FIFA juggernaut has undoubtedly enjoyed more success than the veteran Pro Evolution Soccer series. Konami's title retains a loyal band of followers but its halcyon days are behind it. Like Liverpool and countless other once great teams who are playing second fiddle to Manchester United, PES is playing catch-up to FIFA.
Recent iterations have only exposed just how big the gap is. Each new 'game changing' feature that Konami have hauled out is hobbled by others which fly well off the mark. The last couple of years have been spectacular cases in point. While EA Sports rolled out the polished 360 dribbling and improved passing PES' offerings seemed off the pace and most importantly lacking in quality. Frankly catching FIFA at the moment, particularly in one new game, is an impossible task for the team behind PES.
That doesn't mean PES 2012 is another year of disappointment, far from it in fact. While it is second best to the latest FIFA you can quickly appreciate PES' own qualities. Most importantly though it would seem than Konami finally have a platform to build on for the future after several false dawns on the current generation of consoles.
Stepping out onto the pitch for the first time PES immediately feels different to FIFA. EA Sports' title is a more physical affair while PES almost harks back to an earlier time. Passes ping around the pitch quickly and dribbling feels tight. Compared to FIFA's more considered, slower build-up play PES has a much quicker pace to it. There is something almost warm and comfortable about the latest edition to the point that even lapsed Pro Evolution Soccer players, who perhaps haven't touched the game in a few years, should find their feet in no time.
Also noticeable straight away is a more polished AI. The much vaunted 'advanced' new system is perhaps a bit over-hyped but it is a step up from previous efforts. Full-backs realistically overlap giving you further options on the flanks whilst midfielders are capable of starting moves and then darting forwards to be available at the end of them. Elsewhere defenders hold their lines and forwards find space. On the harder difficulty settings it offers a stern challenge and can be punishing, send a defender out too early and the forward will dive into the space you've just vacated. It all works well and when attacking, even in the tightest of spaces, you nearly always have an option to call upon.
You can further increase your options by controlling a man off the ball with the right-stick. This can be tricky to do and it works best at set-pieces. You can send a man on a run and pick him out from a dead-ball situation. Itís a useful tool to drag defenders out of position and can often give you an added edge to unlock a tight game. In open play the extra man can be difficult to deal with suggesting that hard-core PES fans will get the most out it. Reassuringly though if you leave the AI to deal with creating intelligent runs it wonít let you down.
Outfield players behave with a decent degree of intelligence but those in between the sticks often fluctuate between world-class and gormless. Most of the time they cover the correct posts, get their positions right and come for crosses. However they are prone to some utterly woeful moments including fumbling shots and allowing efforts close to their bodies to fly in. All this can create some excellent goalmouth scrambles (something that has always been a trademark of the PES series) but it can lead to cheap goals being given away. None of it is a game breaker though and even the best keeper in real life is prone to dropping the odd clanger in a match. In that respect PES does capture the unpredictable nature of football.
Elsewhere at the back FIFA and PES share some common ground. You can still apply pressure with a second player but more precision is needed to time a challenge and win possession. The defensive play neatly showcases some improved animations and physics. Players tumble and fall impressively. FIFA's physics have more of an initial impact but PES' still look believable. Ball physics are perhaps not the strongest link though with the ball lacking a bit of weight. The same can be said of the players to a certain extent. Players can twist and turn with ease which makes for an exciting match but in FIFA you feel as if the man on the ball has some mass behind him. These are minor niggles though because coupled with decent graphics and player likeness PES is a capable player out on the pitch.
With such strides taken it is a shame that Konami did not apply the finishing touches to other parts of their package. The PES series has never been blessed with brilliant presentation and it is once again business as usual in this department. Menus are functional at best and at worst they make the wealth of tactical options (which are there) difficult and painful to access. Itís a real shame that this area has once again been neglected, particularly when efforts have been to present an excellent Champions League mode complete with authenticate anthem. Unfortunately the stirring rendition is spoilt when the garish and offending PES music takes over. PES might be making small gains against FIFA on the pitch but away from it they are a million miles apart.
The usual game modes are all present and correct including various leagues, cups and exhibition games. The Master League and Become a Legend options are all there but the menu system takes away some of the enjoyment. Indeed the once excellent Master League has lost a lot of its sparkle when it goes head-to-head with FIFA's equivalent career mode. There is plenty to keep fans happy though and practically everything, including grounds, can be edited and tweaked to your heartís content. On-line things appear to be just as comprehensive (we havenít had a chance to delve deep into the multiplayer side of things). There are all sorts of community options enabling players to create leagues with friends, manage things via the web and connect with Facebook. On this side PES appears to be just as feature rich as itís rival FIFA.
League, cups and multiplayer modes aside football games have always boiled down to what happens on the pitch. Just like in real life everything revolves around those ninety minutes. Everything else can be right but if the play on the park isnít convincing then it is all for nothing. Thankfully after a couple of years in the doldrums PES appears to be finally getting things together on the pitch, it is not always perfect but the bones of a playable kick-about are starting to emerge once again. FIFA and PES both play a markedly different style of game. PES is certainly the quicker of the two games and, at the end of the day, a lot of it will boil down to personal preference.
Make no mistakes though Konamiís effort has enjoyed a significant upturn in quality this season. Were it not for the competitive nature of the genre then PES would be looking at a higher score. However it is hard to ignore FIFA and the fact that it is starting from a much stronger position does show in the end. There are niggles with the physics and good outfield AI is let down by some hamfisted goalkeeping. Despite that though when things click PES shows signs of the old magic. Konamiís latest effort is certainly competitive. It wouldnít win the title or even the league cup this year but it is finally starting to become a viable alternative to FIFA. Given just how powerful and impressive the FIFA franchise has become that is no great shame.
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