Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
One of the more frustrating things about football games comes when you're desperately trying to unlock a defence and none of your teammates appear to be co-operating. So it was last year that I found myself last year, having slotted the ageing visionary Ryan Giggs into my manchester united midfield, in the hopes of delivering a killer pass or two, only to have my wingers and Wayne Rooney in particular charging headlong into their respective markers, making little effort to find any space whatsoever.
Football and facepalms often go hand in hand...or should that be head in hand?
But not this year. If Konami hinted at being back on an upward curve with its improved title last year, then this year's instalment is proof that they're certainly on the right track. Intelligent AI (for the most part) is all part of the package this time around, and what a difference it makes. On an individual level, this means that executing an attacking run doesn't just equate to a straight line, headless dash, but players twist and turn, cutting in from the flanks to look for space.
But the best part is that you can control all of this yourself. PES 2012 has upped the level of control since last year, but not just for the player in possession or a singular defender, now you can govern the motion of a second teammate with a flick and a click of the right stick, holding up play with one hand as you make a scything run in from the wings with the other, delivering a perfectly weighted through ball that sees the defensive line broken and the centre backs in complete disarray. It's a bit fiddly and it takes some serious dexterity which only really comes through practice, but it's totally worth it. The satisfaction at having carved a defence to pieces, or jumbling up and confusing your markers at a corner or long throw into the box and knowing that you did it all, is substantial indeed.
This Active AI, as Konami have been calling it, extends to wider play and different teams as well. Rather than overhauling the engine, Konami have instead focused upon enhancing the AI to create matches against sides that never play the same way. Although less noticeable online, in the singleplayer modes this means that matches rarely get boring, the strategic elements of a game plan having a greater bearing on proceedings than ever before. Teams is PES 2012 tend to mirror their real life equivalents with far more accuracy and diversity than in previous years.
This is true of player likenesses as well, with the top players generally resembling their real-life counterparts, or at least their animated corpses. There's something a little Dawn of the Dead about the way players' mouths move, but aside from that it's relatively inoffensive. Indeed, the aesthetics of PES 2012 are truly something to behold, even if the game is a little schizophrenic in its looks. The lighting is fantastic, particularly when set more towards the evening, stadia bathed in atmospheric shadows that are moody and dramatic,eschewing Skittles brightness for a more realistic, washed out appearance.
Mid-game, things sometimes look a little bland and the canned animations (there are too many of them by far for a game in this decade) oscillate between hand-crafted beauty and clunky ugliness. When the game gets things right, though, it is breathtaking. In an end-to-end view, whether positioned behind a dead ball for a freebie or goal-kick or dancing around players in Become a Legend, the game looks fantastic. Replays too look phenomenal: dribbles lose their stutter, goalkeeping acrobatics look heroic, every inch of play heighten by cinematic camera placement, dramatic focus and film grain.
The offline options are absolutely brilliant once again, but that's because what's on offer in terms of game modes hasn't really changed a huge deal. Now, however, Become A Legend, Master League and the more hands-off mode, Club Boss. Become a Legend and Master League are more personable than before, cutscenes and interaction with agents and coaches fleshing things out and elevating the organisational aspects of the career modes above mere menu fiddling. That fiddling, often a daunting prospect for the newcomer is greatly aided by helpful coaches, menu prompts and notification exclamations. The Active AI is brought into strategic planning too, with your head coach giving dressing room speeches before each match, explaining the tactics your opposition is likely to employ. Master League is as deep, complex and addictive as ever...and now everyone can enjoy it.
Taking the game online, one can see that Konami have been tinkering around there too, and that's certainly a good thing. Basic matachmaking was pretty swift, with your performances earning you a ranking which then determines which division you're in. Moreover, we found the matchmaking process to be far more balanced than in previous iterations. Rage quitters will be punished, we are told, with Konami reserving the right to ban and bar those who throw their toys out of the pram early from competitions, matchmaking services working hard to pit poorly rated individuals against one another. There are constant reminders of the game's top online players and integrated features that notify you of upcoming competitions and allow you to watch the final key matches as well, which is a very nice touch. The community aspects have been tuned up substantially, with groups able to accommodate up to 100 users, pass messages around via integrated bulletin boards and fix up grudge matches will rival communities, and let us not forget, of course, that you can take the insanity of Master League online as well. If you were looking for a footballing time sink, this is it.
Perhaps most excitingly, Facebook integration via MyPES is coming this month, which will allow you to set up your own online leagues, track matches online and offline, post results up online on your Facebook walls and unlock a few extra goodies. We can't really pass judgement on this feature yet as it's still in beta, but we'll be returning to both football games in a month's time to see how the online experience is getting along.
It's clear to see, then, that the Pro Evolution Soccer series is well and truly back on the up for the most part, but there are one or two things that still scupper the experience. Goalkeepers are one of them. It's becoming a bit embarrassing really. Playing the game earlier in the week with Felix, the number of goalkeeping gaffes in one match was well into double figures before the ref was even considering checking his watch for half-time. It's natural for there to be a bit of unsteadiness when one takes on the mantle of a lower league club, but PES 2012 has the likes of Iker Casillas, Petr Cech and Gianluigi Buffon behaving less like an assured presence between the posts and more like they're in the middle of panic attacks. Rushing out without user prompting, refusing to catch the most basic of shots, we'd be able to explain (if not excuse) their calamitous goalmouth scrambling if the physics engine was to blame, but this is AI programming pure and simple. The strides made on the pitch make the fallacies between the sticks even more glaring.
Defenders occasionally catch the malady plaguing the goalkeepers too, a string of several games the other day yielding four matches where any time I crossed into the final third my man in possession would be bundled by four or five players at once. If my guy happened to be a pacey fellow, this resulted in something that you don't often see outside of alcoholic post-match parties: Cristiano Ronaldo leading a conga line. Although not quite as erratic as their goalkeeping counterparts, centre backs - both friendly and otherwise - do occasionally surge out of position. Again, it's a shame because the attacking AI is generally so good, it really shows up the flipside of the coin.
There are the usual gripes too about presentation and polish, and little niggling things that we complain about every year and are never quite fixed - from the incomplete licensing to out of date rosters to a game engine that offers moments of fluidity followed immediately by clunkiness as you pass to a player who happens to be below a rank of 80. The patch is coming, but it does speak to something of a rushed title. Konami have rather had their hands full this year, often beyond their control, so some of this is forgivable, but in this day and age of televisual stylings and cinematic experiences, we do like our realism, even if it is in (player) name only. If we keep banging on about it, it's only because it does make a difference. The game's use of the Champions League license is fantastic, complete with that operatic warbling theme. It's exciting, it's instantly noticeable, easy to relate to and raises the stakes. But it also underlines what the rest of the game is lacking in.
PES 2012 is a game with the ability to offer up moments of supreme satisfaction. Get your head around the biblically-thick control manual and there are rewards aplenty to be found. There are options galore for both social and solo players, with this year's PES playing a highly attacking game, the AI tweaks proving fantastic, the enhanced controls most welcome. When it all comes together PES 2012 is a game that constantly surprises, always mixing things up and challenging the player, encouraging you to make use of the tactical elements at your disposal and rewarding you for implementing a game plan. For some that will no doubt be more than enough, it might even prove to convince some doubters that PES is back and firing on, if not all, most cylinders. But again, some clumsiness at the back, a looming deadline and a lack of authenticity leave a slight taste of disappointment in the mouth. It's a cracking game, make no mistake, but I wish the team had been able to have a little more time on it.
- Active AI makes for varied offline encounters
- Off the ball control is a brilliant feature
- Excellent offline and online options
- Feels a little unfinished
- Defensive AI could be better
- Outside of Champions League, presentation still lacking
The Short Version: PES 2012 is serves up a fast-paced, attacking brand of football, designed to dazzle and delight both offline and online and for the most part it works. The control system is hardly the most accessible once again, but if you can get your head around the new features, the rewards are high indeed. Although occasionally patchy at the back, the Active AI makes for some wonderfully varied encounters, even if the usual little gripes detract somewhat from the overall product. Certainly pushing for the title, though.