ďThis year will be the best PES yetĒ. Sound familiar? I bet it does. Seabass is probably sick of saying it too. Better A.I., better animations, more true to life football, more freedom, better online code, etc. Nothing groundbreaking, just small improvements to hone the game closer to perfection. This was fine before 2007 when PES was the undisputed king of football games. The fans didnít want anything revolutionary and neither did Seabass because why fix something that isnít broken? That was the premise of Pro Evolution Soccer since the beginning, then things started to go awry with the current gen of HD consoles. The ball was dropped so to speak, but then things got better and we were happy again. But as the late Steve Jobs said, ďpeople donít know what they want until you show it to themĒ. Iím talking about FIFA 12 boys and girls.
I was originally going to write this review without mentioning the elephant in the room but then realised this is nigh on impossible, as Iíll go into detail later. FIFA has traditionally been the butt of football gamersí jokes because of its arcadey, end to end gameplay while hogging the majority of the official licensing and it was rightly panned. However since FIFA 09, the gap between PES and FIFA has lessened and it has been a close stoush for football game supremacy. Itís not even about the lack of official kits, stadiums and licences anymore as the die-hard PES community releases some outstanding option files within weeks of release. No this is a stoush that goes deep into football fundamentals and capturing the essence of the beautiful game. While most criticís choices would depict the recent FIFA games as the better game due to superior technical prowess and quality of presentation, most gamers realise that the footballing flavour is different between the two and choose either game based on their tastes and preferences. That is until you wake up and realise that your childhood sweetheart Seabass is a lying scumbag who preys on your emotional insecurities and undying affection. But letís see what heís conjured up this year and how heís made ďthe best PES yetĒ even better for PES 2012.
Iíll talk about the actual game engine first before going into features and game modes. As with every year, new animations, faces and graphical details are touted to be improved along with better A.I. and playing closer to real life according to the teamís or playerís tendencies. The graphics in PES have always been good albeit the player models have a waxy sheen that doesnít reflect true skin tone well. The A.I. seems marginally better but the goalkeepers are still a little parry-happy instead of catching the ball on softer shots. At least the on-field players make intelligent runs and play according their real life tendencies, such as Barcelona controlling possession with deft passes and Stoke City playing crosses and long balls for their target men. Collision detection and the physicality of players are also said to be improved again, although much like the 360 dribbling that was introduced last time, itís a bit half-arsed. Itís definitely an improvement but far too often you see an arm going through the chest of another player as soon as they get close enough. Itís not too much of a problem during the game but when viewing replays the shortcomings are much more evident. The ball physics seem a little off this year as well, with ground passes being made at great velocities yet long shots on goal seem too floaty and weak. I tried this with power hitters like Gerrard and Rooney and no matter how hard I tried, I couldnít get a long range belter to hit on target. If I put too much power it would fly over the bar, too little and it wouldnít reach the net before it was intercepted and anything in between would just ďfloatĒ without any tenacity or velocity. Any long range shots I got in were due to deflections or a lucky bounce along the way.
The biggest marketed feature of the game engine this year however is the Off-the-ball Controls. The idea is that you can take control of a second player whilst controlling your first player with the ball. You do this by pushing the right analog stick in and using that to control a player off the ball to make a run. In theory this should open up a huge amount of creativity and freedom when orchestrating your offensive runs. In practice itís far from intuitive and itís akin to tapping your head with your left hand and rubbing your belly with your right hand at the same time. The problem lies in the fact that while youíre focussed on your player with the ball, itís almost impossible to see where your off-the-ball player is moving unless you focus your attention on him. The human eye can only focus on a very small area and anything else is part of your peripheral vision. Shifting focus to another part of the screen, and if youíre playing on a 42Ē plus widescreen TV it means shifting your eyes a significant distance of space, causes you to lose focus on your original player with the ball. Being that keeping possession requires acute vision of surrounding players and in the stress of the moment, it makes this feature unworkable most of the time. The only creature I know of which can do this effectively is a bird which can process a separate picture from each eye on the side of their head. For most people, at least thereís the option to keep it simple by just clicking the right stick flick it to the player you want to make a run and the A.I. will do it for you. Konami must have ambidextrous pigeons as playtesters.
Speaking of playtesting, the pigeons must not have conveyed the fact to Seabass that the game suffers from a game-breaking bug. When sprinting, activated by the right shoulder button, you suddenly stop and start again. This stutter occurs every 2 or 3 seconds while sprinting, making it near impossible to create any flowing runs or dribbling on the wing. I originally thought my shoulder button was broken but even after switching controllers or mapping sprint to another button, the same stutter run problem occurs. After checking some user forums, it appears to be a widespread problem on the Xbox 360 and Konami will be addressing this issue in a patch sometime in November (Note: At the time of this review no patch has been released yet so it will be scored as it is). How such a huge gameplay bug was missed is beyond me. Itís like playing an FPS with the left trigger to aim zooming back out every 2 to 3 seconds. Itís almost enough to throw you off playing the game altogether. Which is a shame because dribbling feels tighter this year and you can jinx players with deft changes of direction with the left stick with a skilled dribbler without needing to resort to skill moves.
Konami have made a lot of effort in bringing us new modes and improvements to the package. Theyíve brought back Training mode which lets you explore the intricacies of the game, and as any PES fan will know, this game is deep beyond compare but completing some of these challenges verge on frustrating you rather than teaching you. The Champions League licence is as welcome as ever although I nearly had a cardiac arrest when I couldnít find the Master League mode in the menus until I found it embedded in the new Football Life mode, where youíll also find Become a Legend and the new unlockable Club Boss mode which simulates the role of the chairman rather than the manager. If youíre more into the bean counting side of football rather than the tactics and team management then this mode is for you, although I donít think Iíd want to sit next to you at a dinner party.
Elsewhere, Jon Champion and Jim Beglin are back to bore us to death with the same repetitive unimaginative lines and the music is at best, tolerable. Besides the orchestral score of the Champions League mode, nothing else noteworthy will come out from your speakers. Graphics on a whole are great but animations are still robotic and are starting to look seriously dated against the fluidity of FIFA. It still looks and plays very much like a video game and the cut-scenes in the different game modes are looking very last-gen as well. Some say this is part of the PES charm but I say itís lazy presentation. Master League is as deep as ever and is something which even with EAís financial might and resources cannot seem to emulate. Managing your team is largely unchanged from last year and the ease at which you can change formations, positions and tactics is unrivalled. Theyíve even changed the penalty kick system back to a more conventional straight on view than the idiocy of last yearís side on system. Online, the game is still hit and miss for and most games you encounter are against Barcelona with a frantic ping-pong of end to end action, provided you donít miss the action due to lag which doesnít seem to be any better or worse than last year.
In essence, the feel of PES of old is still here. This is a blessing and a curse. In the right conditions, no other game of football can create some of the WTF goals you pull off which makes you fist pump the air and has you watching the replay over and over again. This is where PES feels its most analogous and magical. This is at odds with the robotic animations, the tired engine and the presentation all looking like this game is nothing more than an HD remake of a great PS2 game. This was excusable back in 2007 but moving along several years we have come to expect more. Well thatís it in a nutshell. Iíve always been a die-hard PES fan but each year FIFA make a step forward with big leaps in FIFA 09 and now FIFA 12. PES on the other hand makes one step forward and one step back with no real progression since its halcyon days on the PS2. Each year, changes are made for changesí sake. With each new PES Iím forced to relearn the shooting timing, the game speed, dribbling and passing and other small idiosyncrasies. Itís not always better with each new edition, just different enough to make you think this is a new game. Itís time Seabass stopped tugging our chain and gave us the game changer weíve all been craving for and rewrite the old engine from scratch. You know the developers have the talent to create an awesome football game but itís obvious with each new edition that theyíre handcuffed to a legacy that is limiting the potential of PES to make the next big step. And shipping the game with the stutter run bug just rubbed salt into an already deep wound. Once that is fixed, and despite my somewhat harsh review, PES 2012 would possibly score between a 7 and 8. Ignoring the issue of not being able to sprint for more then a couple of seconds (which Iím pretty certain will be patched soon) itís still a great football game bar a few niggles with the ball physics. Although itís no longer the most accurate representation of the beautiful game, the mechanics are still fun and deep enough to absorb months of your time, with Master League the saving grace of the series. However even the most loyal PES fans will have to admit there is a better football game out there and itís not from Konami.
XboxZone Score: 5.5/10