Version tested: Xbox 360
Whether you've been playing Pro Evolution Soccer since the PSone - chipping your PS2 to play Japanese copies of Winning Eleven between annual instalments - or whether you've been playing FIFA since it was isometric and never set eyes on the competition, this latest instalment of PES is going to take a little getting used to.
Yes! It's finally happened. Konami has succumbed to all the bullying and ripped PES up to start again. The result - somehow manhandled to completion before its traditional October deadline - shares some of the same philosophical DNA as its predecessors, which is to say it's still very hard to create chances and convert them into goals, but it feels different both to past PES games and FIFA's alternative.
In a year that's seen EA Canada tooting its own vuvuzela about improvements in passing, PES 2011 also makes great strides in moving the ball around. Impressive pace, a sensible passing power bar, a flexible fully-manual passing modifier and devilish through-balls keep the action just below the redline at all times, occasionally reaching a Barcelona-esque crescendo as everything clicks. The actual PES football is a bit of a beach ball, but its behaviour is consistent and slots nicely into the passing system Konami has rebuilt, heightening the excitement and tension with its sharp acceleration and abrupt deceleration.
Control is also tight and responsive with some nice new touches, like being able to pre-program your own sequences of feints to map to a particular button combo, but all the same you never feel too comfortable in possession. Defenders can slide in successfully from a surprising distance and press attackers quickly in the final third so their progress is halted, even if they're not completely dispossessed.
All these things in concert mean that you are not going to score from outside the box more than once in a blue moon, and you won't be able to dance and pirouette from the edge of the penalty area to the six-yard box either. But conversely it's still easy and rewarding to move the ball around and slot through-balls between defenders. In contrast with FIFA 11, where chances and one-off spectaculars are also few, PES 2011 is fast, fun and attack-minded despite the fact you never end up with a Leeds vs. Preston scoreline.
Wrapped around all this is a much-improved graphics engine. Players mostly resemble their real-life counterparts, albeit with waxwork facial expressions, and their movement, animations and interactions during tackles and skirmishes in the box are more convincing than before.
While much of the last PES outing suggested the series was broken and did need fixing, that wasn't true everywhere, so some elements of that game have been inherited wholesale - the free-kick system being a good example. Team Style also survives the cull. One of the better additions to the series since it entered its decline, it lets you customise the way your AI colleagues behave in various scenarios and allows you to turn a game on its head with the right tweaks.
In fact, you'll probably spend a lot of time playing around on the Game Plan screen with formations, player positions and other instructions. The menus may be a little archaic, but the way PES is structured off the pitch is still superior to the competition - and official Europa League and Champions League licences are still welcome.
Master League remains the highlight though. It's still a carefully balanced mixture of fantasy football transfer dealings and long-term player development that will happily absorb hour after hour of single-player play, although playing against the AI is inevitably a lot less fun than battling a clued-up human opponent. The new online version sees you earning money from matches won, which you can invest in a transfer market where prices reflect demand from your fellow players, building your squad of nobodies up over time and graduating to higher divisions to play against opponents with similarly long-term vision.
With only a year to rebuild an institution, of course, there are still a lot of areas where Konami has work to do. Refereeing is inconsistent - you will appear to win the ball in a lot of tackles only for the ref to pipe up and give a foul the other way - and while the attacking style of play is engaging, it is frustrating to watch so many defenders ignoring a ball running slowly past them until it reaches the attacker running onto it, especially as this is a problem FIFA has now ostensibly eradicated on the other side of the football-game divide.
Perhaps most frustrating though is that shot after shot bounces back off the keeper or flies wide when the goal is gaping and you're manifestly directing your shot on target. The animation doesn't help in these situations either - the difference between what results in a fierce shot on target and a looping no-hoper that wafts away to the corner flag is too hard to gauge. It feels as though Konami built the free-flowing passing system first and then ratcheted up the difficulty of actually scoring to compensate for the imbalance it created.
Animation blending also feels like it's a few generations behind the norm, with players firing shots and long passes out of their feet at a visually incongruous pace, or changing the trajectory of a ball with a header despite running the wrong way and facing an impossible direction. Sometimes they even head the ball when it clearly makes no contact with them in replays - of which the game is guilty of displaying too many, perhaps obsessed with its divisive motion-blur effect.
There are also quirks galore. At one point a ball was cleared out to the touchline and a midfielder responded by bicycle-kicking it in the direction of the penalty area, where another player immediately bicycle-kicked it over the bar. Elsewhere, defenders often run the ball out of play when they should have no difficulty keeping it in, while the pivoting in-game camera is likely to divide opinion. At least Jon Champion and Jim Beglin's commentary is still reliably hilarious. Champion will reduce you to tears as he screams "Possibility!!" or says "Guess who!!" for no discernible reason.
Nevertheless, while FIFA 11 may be the better, more polished and controllable simulation of football, in many respects PES 2011 is the more charismatic of the two games. If you're only interested in the finished article then you might want to wait another year for further progress, but in the meantime PES fans can hold their heads high, and fans of the beautiful game are on the road to being spoiled for choice again in light of this encouraging instalment.
PES 2011 is released on the 8th of October for PC, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.
7 / 10