The Pro Evolution Soccer series has always been a bit fiddly. To really get the most out of it, to really enjoy the franchise for what it is, players have invariably had to familiarise themselves with controls that perhaps at first seem a little incongruous and unintuitive. Accessibility has often been perceived as something of a problem, particularly for longtime supporters of That Other Big Football Game and, indeed, I still find it somewhat strange playing one directly after spending a good length of time with the other.
But that's because they're two completely different takes on the same game, much as Need For Speed and Gran Turismo might share the same racing genes, whilst delivering completely different experiences. To say that football cannot sustain the depth that such choice would suggest is, frankly, an argument with little to no merit.
PES has prided itself on being something of a purist title in the past, helped in no small amount by its underdog status, but I genuinely believe that these things comes in cycles of 4-5 years. PES 4 is, in my humble opinion, probably the finest football game of its time that I've ever played. But that didn't present itself to me immediately, and neither will this year's iteration necessarily reveal its aces to those looking for the equivalent of a playground kickabout. There can be no doubt that the last handful of years have seen something of a decline in Pro Evolution's star, but if last year's game showed that Konami were wrestling the series around once more, what we've seen of PES 2012 suggests they are back on track once again.
Visually, Konami has always fallen short of televisual gloss and, this year, they seem to have abandoned the attempt to match the competition's bright shininess, eschewing vibrancy for something a little darker. The lighting is a little moodier, the players' faces (sometimes spot on in likeness, sometimes utterly terrifying) look realistic, if not always fully matching the name on the back of the shirt. You never feel like you're playing against rubbery mannequins. When the camera zooms in for replays, or when you manually adjust the angles yourselves when lining up the perfect video, it's highly possible to create something that feels what I'd like to start calling 'football noir'.
But for all the rather gritty presentation, PES 2012 plays a beautiful game, once you're used to it. Fans of last year's game will be right at home, although we're assured that the button guide will pale only in comparison to the Bible in terms of thickness. The control system is noticeably tighter than that of its predecessor and the new animation system, although still not the overhaul that perhaps the series truly requires, is very smooth and fluid indeed, and looks far more realistic going into contact than before. There were a few tackles that went in that were penalised when perhaps they shouldn't have been, but we weren't sure whether to put that down to fallible refereeing or bugs in the preview code.
Off the ball, the game is still about being patient, timing your tackles to perfection. You can still harass oncoming attackers by holding down a couple of buttons to pull your players out of position, but be warned: even on the middling difficulties, and against semi-competent players, you will find yourself on the unlucky end of a well-placed through-ball. Goalkeepers still spill too many balls, but they now have more than one brain cell to rub together.
Speaking of AI, it's clear that much of the work that's gone into this latest iteration has been tweaking the computer controlled players on both sides. Although you can now control an off-the-ball, offensive player directly (somewhat clunkily, by nudging the right stick in their direction and pressing it down simultaneously), the runs that the AI will make naturally are often better. Instead of simply streaking off in a straight line, often skilful players will dip the shoulder, trying to lose their markers and cut inside.
Those off-the-ball controls come in to play more effectively when in dead-ball situations. At corners and throw-ins, it's essential to make the most of the space around you, creating openings by shifting markers around with jostling movements, ducking weaving to disorient, before whipping the ball towards the desired location. It gets a bit confusing at first, and although we found causing havoc in the penalty area to be a rather fun and intuitive experience, the first few times our crosses were somewhat inaccurate and overcooked. Getting the balance right takes a bit of getting used to, but it's well worth it.
That last line can be used to sum up much of the on-field action in PES 2012. Some of the improvements are immediately visible such as the tweaked passing and shooting, some of them reveal themselves a little more over time. The game is slightly slower than last year's effort, and better for it as the level of player precision, particularly when you are controlling a talented dribbler of the ball, is stunning. Play the game for an hour or two and you'll be pirouetting about the pitch, pulling off dazzling one touch passes, instigating and directing mazy runs and chipping through expertly deft through balls. The sheer joy starts coming back.
But there are some faults, an irritating number of replays that take far too long to skip for starters. PES 2011 was guilty of managing to succeed in providing clunky animations and heavy handling with pitches that seemed as if they'd had a tub of grease poured over them. Although players now handle far, far better, football pitches are still somewhat akin to a giant, green slip and slide and occasionally the ball does look like it's stuck to players' shins, as if the knee high socks were coated in putty, or whatever katamaris are made from. There's also no way of telling whether or not PES 2012 has what it takes to make any sort of impact online, although Facebook integration will help. A returning, expanded Master League - incorporated into a vast amalgamation called PES Life, which serves as a hub for Become A Legend and Become A Boss too - that reliable ace up the sleeve, will once again prove to be a defining feature of this year's game.
It's good to see PES playing to its strengths again, though, good to be able to plough hours into the game once again, simply playing exhibition matches and not get bored or frustrated or angry. It's still not the revolution that we want, a rather nostalgic title in many ways, but the fun and thrill at least is back. This is still the only series in which you can play a truly Catalan game of virtual football. It's a game that embraces a jumpers for goalposts philosophy without feeling the need to create an entirely separate game. The PES series has always played a more European game of football than modelling itself on the Premier League, and this is no exception. But we rather like that, and this is looking like it might just be a very promising season indeed.
PES 2012 is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on October 14th.