It's rather fascinating to look at the evolution of football titles. Every year we are promised realism on a level we've never experienced before, and there are a lot of buzz words and words like revolution thrown around. They reinvent the wheel every year. And at the centre of this spectacle stands PES and FIFA. And they always claim to have made the best game ever in their respective franchises.
Knowing this the words of Pro Evolution's Jon Murphy are hardly surprising: "I think we'll smash them this year", referring to FIFA 12. Having released a host of gameplay videos detailing how specific in-game situations have changed since the previous year, Konami are doing a good job of backing up their words.
However, the menus suggest that not much has changed since last year. The presentation and layout are virtually identical to Pro Evolution Soccer 2011. Your team selection is now aided by ratings of various categories, such as offence, defence, or how physical they are from A to D. In the set up menu you are still limited to only seeing one variable at a time, so having to switch back and forth to see a player's rating and form is a bit tedious.
Two seconds into the game and we are promptly reminded to turn up the speed. At default the game is a bit slow. With the adjustment all is well. And despite the initial impression that all is as it was, it feels much better. There is still a touch of arcade in the dribbling, and the passing feels incredibly smooth. The controls feel extremely natural, almost like liquid.
You notice this as real precision is needed. Things like through balls are much more elegantly handled. Even if you haven't played the series in a while or if you're used to FIFA you will quickly get a hang of it. It is easy to tell that a lot of effort has been put into creating a balanced game, and as usual you can adjust the difficulty level to suit your skill.
Something that comes across immediately are the exceptionally good animation work. This goes from everything from dribbling to challenges, no situation looking unnatural or odd. Konami sets the standard in this category and we don't think we've seen such animated activity in a football title before. It lends a new layer of authenticity to the experience.
These new animations are not just for show, they also enhance the gameplay. In previous games there has been the occasional situation where a player seemed unsure how to receive the ball. The new animation system takes care of this. There is still some work to be done until the release, but this is typically an area where PES rules supreme over FIFA.
In defence, the tackle button requires even more precision this time around, and it takes a lot of practice before you can routinely dispossess a player. Often the player will ride your tackle if mistimed, and those who simply hold down the button will either completely miss the opponent or run straight into them committing a foul.
The biggest worry is the refereeing. Fouls caused in the box aren't always called. In the previous iteration this was annoying, but it only caused the players to stumble. Now thanks to the new, more realistic animations you can trip over a leg and still not get a penalty. This is an issue that will cause riots on sofas all over the nation and controllers to be tossed if not balanced correctly. Even if we see these things in the Premiership all the time, it's not something the makes for a better gaming experience.
Konami have put a lot of emphasis on the so called "Active AI", designed to give AI-controlled players a better understanding of game situations and open spaces. This is not immediately noticeable in offensive situations. You will still see teammates jogging idly up the pitch when there is every opportunity to make themselves available by running off the ball. What is strikingly different is how clever players act when defending. Defenders will mark attackers closely, and the methods we have previously used to get into scoring positions won't work. You're going to have to be more creative in your attacks and creative openings.
Another new feature is the ability to send team mates on runs with the right analogue stick. Move the stick in the direction of the player and press it. It is not entirely intuitive, and it is hard to get the timing right. The system used in FIFA, mapped to a shoulder button works much better.
You can also manually control the second player with the right analogue, a feature we believe was there in FIFA 04. It's not a bad idea, and sometimes it even feels liberating. But it requires a lot of concentration to focus on two players at once, and I doubt this is something that most players will enjoy fiddling around with.
As always navigating the maze that is the license situation of a new Pro Evolution title is difficult. Two Premiership teams, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs are licensed, while all of Spanish La Liga, Dutch Eredivisie and French Ligue 1 are fully licensed with all the teams.
Italy's Serie A is completely licensed with the exception of Palermo and the Portuguese league has also been added, but only big clubs Porto, Sporting and Benfica are licensed. You will also find the teams from the South American version of Champions League - Copa Libertadores - in the game. A bunch of larger European clubs, including Celtic and Rangers, are also licensed.
On current play then, it's still a draw between these two massive franchises. With releases for both games only months away, tensions are mounting, and both will have to bring their A game to the pitch this winter. On all accounts though, it looks like PES 2012 is at least performing stronger than it has in recent seasons. Here's to another memorable play-off between both developers.