After being seen as the dominant franchise in the world of football for many years, Pro Evolution Soccer now finds itself as the underdog - its offerings this console generation just haven't been up to snuff. With that in mind, Konami decided it was time for change, so this year's PES is quite different from those in the past few years. There's a completely new passing system and some changes to the interface and they've also secured some new licences. They aren't giving up without a fight.
There are a few key changes to the engine this year, such as the new passing mechanics and further refinements to dribbling, but one of the most noticeable comes with the defensive side of the game. In the last few years, the game quite heavily favoured the offensive side of the game, but not any more. Defenders will now hold their positions much more and it feels like it's gone too far the other way. Defenders rigidly stick to their lines, so you literally will be going up against walls of players and anyone knows that this just promotes the "parking a bus in front of the goal" scenario. It's rare in an actual game that you'll see defenders perfectly in line for a lengthy period of play, but it seems to happen almost all the time in this year's game.
And this leads on to the next problem - the AI. Attempting to play through the middle will not only see you surrounded by a plethora of opposition players, but it'll also highlight how inept the AI are when attacking. They rarely ever make useful runs off the ball, and if they do, they're to positions where you'd have better luck finding a needle in a haystack than actually completing the pass.
There are positives though and these come in the form of the new "total control" model. Now, it's not entirely new to PES, as the manual pass option has been there for years, but now it's mandatory. Every type of pass has 360 degrees of control, no longer do the passes auto-lock on to the player that the game thinks you're trying to pass to. It rules out that area of frustration, but does sometimes promote another. The strength of the pass is now extremely important' perform a weak pass and it will literally go about 1 metre, to nobody. It takes a little time to get used to, but the extra control is welcome.
The addition of this though, and the improved defensive units, mean that dribbling the ball has almost become redundant unless you're extremely potent with skill moves. It's quite ironic really, considering the game's mascot, Lionel Messi, gets taken out of the game fairly easily. His main trait just can't be used effectively.
Both the Master League and Become A Legend return as the main bulk of the game. Master League is fairly similar to anything that's come before and it's probably what PES is more renowned for. Here, players can either choose an existing squad, or take over a team with an entirely fictitious one and become a powerhouse in the world of football. The likes of Castolo and Minanda return, although Vornander is noticeably absent, but the real draw here is buying players and making a dream team. It's also possible to buy legends from the game's history and players made in the Be A Legend mode.
Both modes have a fairly similar interface and use agents as a core function. Agents are used to buy players in Master League, and they're used to help you find new clubs/provide information in Be A Legend. It works quite nicely, although it feels a bit simplified now. Be A Legend, especially, requires almost no effort or interaction. You get to choose your position, then you can assign points to where you wish stats to improve more quickly. Any actual progression isn't really that noticeable. The games themselves can also be extremely boring because there's no way to make teammates pass the ball to you. It relies on them "trusting you" and then determining whether they want to pass the ball to you.
It again shows the frailties of the AI, as they often just run off the pitch, make impossible runs, or try to complete impossible through-balls. Some of it wouldn't be out of place in a comedy sketch. And you, as the player, have absolutely no control over any of this. All you can do is try to get yourself in as much space as possible and pray they will pass you the ball so some progress can actually be made.
The game's presentation is, for the most part, stellar. Players are instantly recognisable and the amount of players who have real faces is impressive. Konami have also added some more licences to the game with the addition of the UEFA Super Cup, Copa Liberatadores and teams like Bayern Munich. What's no so great though is the sound work, in particular the commentary. Jon Champion is joined by Jim Beglin, possibly the worst co-commentary on TV. What they end up saying often has absolutely nothing to do with what's actually going on. For example, when there's a one on one shot powered at the keeper's face, the commentary team will say "I may be being a bit harsh, but I think he could have held that." Or, when taking a long-range shot, Beglin stated "he was totally unmarked in the box for that one, he really should have scored."
There are also some issues regarding tackling, and the conceding of fouls. When using the standing tackle, fouls seem to be given away for almost nothing and the replays look ridiculous. When using sliding tackles, it seems to be that when the ball has been won clearly, it results in a foul, and when the ball hasn't been won, nothing happens at all. It's a bit odd. There was even a case where someone tried a diving header and conceded a foul because of it.
This year's PES shows some signs of improvement, which is encouraging for the brand. The new passing mechanics are great for offering players much more freedom, allowing for more creativity in build-up play and there are even more licences. However, while there are some positive signs, there are also some negatives to go along with it. The attacking side of the game has been nullified and the AI really isn't that great. The game's audio presentation is also under-par. At the end of the day, PES 2011 is still a good game, it just doesn't meet the high standards that we've come to expect over the years.