Remember when Pro Evolution Soccer was the standard by which we judged the beautiful game in videogame form? In the early years of the twenty-first century, PES was a finely-tuned masterpiece, the closest you could come to actual footie without a pitch and ball. In fact, here at Dealspwn we maintain that Pro Evo Soccer 4 is the greatest football game ever made. Regardless of FIFA's technical merits, it can't quite capture the magic of PES 4.
That said, it's a vastly different landscape now. FIFA is top dog, and PES now resembles an ailing star struggling to keep up with its younger, better looking counterpart. However, ass Matt rightly pointed out in his preview from GamesCom, just because FIFA might be ruling the roost at the moment doesn't mean PES is exempt from the genre. Both offer their own take on football; it just usually comes down to which we enjoy the most.
And you know what? While I've been enjoying FIFA's particular delights for the past two years - having once been a PES diehard - hands-on with the latest build of PES 2012 at the Eurogamer Expo yesterday has opened my eyes to an astonishing fact. Has PES finally caught back up with FIFA?
I was alongside Matt when he was gathering impressions for his GamesCom preview of PES 2012 - he was comfortably thrashing me, if you must ask - and I didn't much care for it. The controls felt ropey, almost as if the aim of the passing and the direction of the shots was a little off; it lacked style, with very little to differentiate it from FIFA's take; and I must admit, it was real ugly. Try as Konami might, they're Championship engine can't compare to FIFA's Premier League accomplishments - awful footballing pun.
However, it's been over a month since GamesCom, and Konami has obviously been hard at work battering PES 2012 into shape. Once again, Matt and I found ourselves drawn to the PES booth - EA hadn't even bothered to turn on the FIFA pods - and decided to give it another go. We expect much the same; iffy controls, messy formations and atrocious visuals.
We were wrong.
PES 2012 feels great. Like FIFA, PES' players have a real sense of weight. When you're running with the ball, you can anticipate the sort of success you'll encounter. Theo Walcott, for example, is nimble and pacy so he can burst past defenders, but he's also quite lightweight, so a burly center-half can brush him off the ball with ease. A player like Sergio Busquets, however, while pondering and slow, can hold the line in commanding fashion, throwing his large frame in front of onrushing attackers.
And it's the dribbling where PES really establishes a sense of style. Take control of Messi or Ronaldo or a similar fleet-footed archetype, and with enough mastery of the controls you'll be dancing past defenders, avoiding lunging slide-tackles and clumsy shoulder-barges with relative ease. While the dribbling is a little buttery - it's as if the players have coated the underside of their boots in vaseline - the overall experience is hugely enjoyable.
If you've managed to download the recent FIFA 12 demo, you've no doubt been introduced to its new style of Tactical Defending. Great on paper, but in reality it's slowed FIFA down considerably, and we're all having a hard time adjusting to the sudden change in play. However, while FIFA might have slowed down, PES has certainly sped up. With the likes of Arsenal or Barcelona, masters of the counter attack, PES 2012 can be lightning fast. One-touch passes, left-for-dead shimmies and perfectly paced through-balls can see an attack shift from one side of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds.
As I mentioned earlier, PES 2012's passing felt a little off at GamesCom. It just wasn't intuitive enough. You'd direct the pass in the direction of the player you'd want to receive it, calibrating for length and power, and yet it would often end up in an utterly different place. It appears Konami has fine-tuned the system since, as the Eurogamer Expo build was vastly improved in my hands. Passing felt slicker, more precise.
It's still a little unnatural, however. Konami appear to be skipping a few frames with the faster, one-touch animations. It's difficult to describe, but stacked up next to FIFA, it's evident the animation system is still a fair way behind. Shooting, however, is a different story. Lining up for a shot, you must take into account the orientation of the player in regards to the goal, not to mention speed and power. After a dozen or so botched long shots, I drilled the ball into the top corner from 35 yards with Barcelona's Pedro, having finally begun to understand the system and its requirements.
Again, we're back discussing FIFA in a PES 2012 preview. Bear with me. EA is lauding FIFA 12 for its realistic Impact Engine which calculates every brush, tumble and collision between players. In GamesCom, it was a mess. Every exchange resulted in a staggering animation or a player sprawled on the pitch, and the AI appeared utterly bemused when the realistic ball physics intervened and said spherical object rolled away from two players who'd collided, the rest of each team staring dumbstruck at it.
It's since been dialed back in the latest FIFA 12 build, so much so, in fact, that you can barely register its presence. PES 2012, on the other hand, has upgraded its physics engine, resulting in an experience that is on par, if not superior, to that of FIFA's. It'll require more than a two hour session in a crowded booth to tell, but the visual and mechanical feedback from PES 2012's physics engine is far more palatable, if not more realistic, than FIFA.
It's most evident in fouls. When you commit or suffer a foul, PES 2012 fires up a cinematic replay. An example that particularly stuck out for me was when I was playing as Arsenal and had Walcott charging down the right wing. Matt sent a player hurtling towards him and threw out a leg, stopping the ball. However, such was Walcott's momentum he flew over the defender and hit the ground hard. It wasn't a particularly amazing moment, but hit home in its authenticity.
In the end, I was struck by a particular dilemma I'd almost forgotten for a few years; what football game am I picking up this year? I thought it would certainly be FIFA, seeing as how much I enjoyed 11, but such is 12's inconsistent quality and the sudden turnaround from Konami on PES 2012, I honestly couldn't decide right now.
But what about you, Dealspwners? What football game will you be picking up? FIFA 12, or PES 2012? Tell us, we'd love to know.