Platforms: PC | PS3 | X360 | Wii | NDS | PSP
Let's be honest: PES' star has waned somewhat in the last handful of years. Once the king of the football genre, its stubborn refusal to move with the times and evolve has hamstrung and crippled its incremental progress as EA Sports have revamped their own talisman. Winning Eleven has not lived up to its name, and Konami know it.
PES 2008 was an unabashed mess, save for on the Wii where it actually proved to be one of the best games on the console that year with its well-integrated use of motion control. 2009 wasn't much better and last year's version, despite trying pretty hard, failed to bring the magic back. Next to EA's effort, it seemed archaic and apathetic. There's none of that this year. Konami have set their sights high, to try and bring the definitive football simulation to fans everywhere and, to a certain extent, they've really succeeded.
Let's kick off with the gameplay. Passing, much maligned in recent years, has been revamped and remodelled to give the player far greater control over where they spray the ball. The optional power gauge, sensitive though it may be, allows those with the skills to pull off perfectly weighted passes. PES has never been a series to molly-coddle newcomers, and FIFA fans won't find the assistance they're used to here, but if you put in the time on the practice field, you'll be rewarded when it comes to playmaking for real. Laying on a perfectly timed through ball for a striker to smash home comes with a real sense of achievement and delight.
Equally, Konami have put a lot of work into making defending as much of an important part of the game as attacking. Just as when in possession you'll be punished for assuming you can waltz through the opposition like butter, thinking that holding down a pressing button or moving in for a standing tackle is enough to win the ball back will quickly be revealed to be optimistic idiocy. It's all about timing: sure, there's a button to press and track and bring in a second player, but only with a well-timed push of the analogue stick in the direction of the opposing player can you cleanly perform a tackle and nick the ball. You can still dive in at speed with two feet if you like, but chances are you'll find yourself headed for an early bath. Don't expect arcade defending here, you have to work for that ball.
Unfortunately, these new throwbacks towards proper footballing simulation highlight possibly the biggest gameplay flaw of all, one that Konami have never really sorted out: the dribbling. Boasting 360 degree control, it's disheartening to have to say that this is a complete lie with an 8-way, 16 at best, directional model clearly evident. On top of that, players handle about as smoothly as a cardboard cutout, clunkily wandering around as if their boots were filled with lead. PES has never been the most graceful series but hampering excellent simulation models with godawful ancient handling is a jarring experience to say the least. If I wanted to haul an incontinent fat man around a field, I'd down two litres of coffee and head out for a jog.
Furthermore, whilst I've spent several years roundly criticising the goalkeepers in FIFA games, the PES keepers have an uncanny knack of not coming out for the ball. Astoundingly solid most of the time, I've found on a number of occasions that a through ball into the box will simply be left by the keeper to his defence, at which point a poaching striker can smugly sidefoot into the net from close-range. It brings whole new meaning to the concept of a daydreaming goalie.
Graphically, there's a similar sense of slight schizophrenia. The menus look stunning, the in-game camera cuts, replay swishes and facial animations on famous players are better than they have ever been. The grass looks absolutely amazing and the players that trot about upon it have undergone a severe animation upgrade. But it doesn't quite do enough. Players won't jostle for the ball, there's none of that presentational whirr and buzz on and off the field that EA employed so effectively last year to bring the stadium to life (the less said about the crowd the better) and it all seems a bit static at times. Get a game in full flow an it's amazing, but the quieter moments fail to distract from a graphical model that, whilst vastly improved, still has some way to go.
In terms of game modes, though, Konami have pulled out all of the stops. The Master League is back, and better than ever, with more depth than the Marianas Trench. The wealth of customisable options - from player training focus points to the appointment of key backroom staff to variable drag-and-drop game plans - is absolutely staggering. It's easy to feel overwhelmed (PES has never been kind to the newbie), but this time, at least, there are pop up tutorials to help ease you into the game. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is arguably the most accessible game in the series so far. Excitingly, there is in fact an online version of Master League, although as the servers only got sorted out a day or two ago, it's hard to say how effective it'll be. There've been online issues in the past.
PES has never been one to name drop, but it's worth checking out the Champions League and Copa Libertadores if only to see what Konami can do when given free rein with a licence. Much like FIFA's recent World Cup title, it adds some special pizazz to proceedings, the thrill of a big cup match is there for all to see and experience. Frankly, we'd love to see more of it. The reverse can be said about Become A Legend. You take one player out of the eleven and build him up from rookie to superstar. Unfortunately, however, it's a mode that's woefully underdeveloped, lacking in feedback, features and, most importantly, fun. You'll never play it and, simply because of the Master League and other modes, gets rendered completely superfluous.
PES 2011 is a cause for celebration and disappointment. The former because finally Konami have upgraded some of their gameplay elements, polished the title with pride and gone in search once more of that ultimate simulation for footballing purists. Sadly, though, they don't push it far enough. When it comes down to it, though, I fear that there are too many contradictory elements to fully fulfil the football fan's fervour.
- Passing is now a joy
- So too is defending
- Master League is still utterly fantastic
- Handles like a pregnant hippo
- Pedantic refs and no advantage rule
- Become A Legend mode is dire
The Short Version: PES 2011 goes some way to recapturing the crown of best football series by embracing and updating realistic simulation elements and giving things a bit of spit and polish. But whilst it shines cosmetically, there are still a number of gameplay mechanics covered in rust.