Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 (PS3)

It's that time of year again where Konami and EA, representing east and west, battle on the retail shelves to provide the best soccer (or football, or whatever you want to call it) game.

Pro Evolution Soccer, or Winning Eleven in Japan, has really struggled in recent years. A few years ago, it was the dominant game, with vastly superior mechanics to EA's baby. It didn't matter that the games were not officially licensed, and the team names were made up. What mattered was just how badly the EA games played, and how "realistic" at the time the PES games were.

Fast forward a few years, and things have changed. EA's FIFA games started playing well, and gaining a lot of fans, and then they started adding on more and more features, and the games grew in terms of licensing too; now, with a FIFA game if you want to take Mongolia all the way to World Cup glory, you can.

PES, meanwhile, has become officially licensed, but shallowly so - it focuses on a handful of club leagues and a relative pittance of international teams. It has also been left in the dirt when it comes to ways to play compared to EA's games. Now, it has meant that PES sits in second place, both in terms of audience mind share and raw sales figures.

The bad news is that PES 2012 doesn't really change any of that, and it probably won't reclaim #1 from FIFA. The focus is still on club championships, and a limited selection of those to boot. Sure it's fun to play through the English Premier League or Ligue 1, but given I'm a fan of Crystal Palace in the real world, I still prefer FIFA in that it lets me play my favourite team into the Premier League and beyond in the franchise mode.

PES' management side is also, still, woefully undercooked and serves little purpose other than to funnel you into the next game; also disappointing, that. In short, off the pitch, PES is only marginally better than Gameloft's woeful Real Football games, and certainly not in the same league as FIFA titles.

Where PES really excels, where it is tragic that the game doesn't see greater support, and why I can recommend this game to soccer fans, is the on-the pitch action. It's fluid and controls beautifully. Players respond in a remarkably human manner to inputs, the AI keeps up with what the player is looking to achieve, and there's a real dynamism to the movements and flow of a soccer match, which is remarkably close to the watching the beautiful game on the TV thanks to the lovely visual engine (ugly crowd aside). By contrast, FIFA games are slower and more restricted.

PES manages to pull this off with the sheer number of inputs and commands at the player's finger tips. Though remembering all the button combinations and executing stunning plays makes the game at times feel more like a fighting game, it really does showcase the Japanese developer's fascination in forcing gamers to be skillful to succeed.

This is reinforced by the AI difficulty options. There are five difficulty levels to chose from; the game is a cakewalk on the lowest difficulty level and even beginners should have no difficulty beating Spain 10-0 with New Zealand. The tides rapidly turn though. Unless you have memorized some of those fancy button combinations and come up with some clever tactics (as well as worked out how to effectively defend against counter attacks), just one difficulty level up will result in those 10-0 results going against you.

Winning a championship on the highest difficulty level with a middling or poor team is a genuine challenge in PES, and effectively separates the game from the all-to-gentle FIFA series.

It also means that PES players tend to be good at what they do. Jumping online with PES 2012 reveals a truly amazing set of online options, including the ability to pull friends together for custom tournaments and a neat feature, called myPES, that allows you to share your online victories and losses through a free Facebook application.

Getting competitive in this mode is difficult though, like getting competitive with Starcraft in South Korea. It requires practice and training to become truly good at this version of football.

And really, that's how PES differentiates itself from FIFA. Where EA is trying more and more to attract the casual players in with its sports games with single button controls and cute, silly, big heads, PES continues to happily support the soccer fans that want a bit more. It's a stiff challenge to rise up to if you're coming fresh off being a superhero at FIFA, but ultimately this is the more rewarding game.

Just make sure you also pick up a soccer management game with this so you can have the off-field experience as well.

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