Version tested: 3DS
Fittingly for a sport beset by clichιs, PES 2011 3DS is the quintessential game of two halves: one muddy boot sliding into a glorious 3D future, the other trailing stubbornly in the past.
To be clear, Konami's first 3DS title is the most convincing sales pitch for the extra dimension that I've not so much laid my eyes on, but popped them out over in the launch line-up. And yet, at the same time, its implementation serves to highlight the limitations of the technology when applied to the football field.
The endlessly iterative, annualised development of football gaming's top clubs, PES and FIFA, means evolution is rarely revolution. At first sight, spotting differences feels rather like standing in front of a mirror and trying to see your hair grow.
But with PES 2011 3DS indeed with the console in general the first time you experience glasses-free 3D is a bit of a 'wow' moment. If I wanted to impress people with my snazzy new toy, the first game I'd show them is PES in 'Player' view.
To gaze from one end of the pitch to the other, with the 3D slider set to max, is to be in awe of the magnificent trick 3DS plays in convincing you that you are staring deep into a real, palpable space. At first sight it's a revelation, pregnant with the possibilities that bold new technology always promises.
The camera locks to a selected player while dynamically following the action, with an arrow icon at the player's feet pointing toward the opposition's goal. On the attack, charging down the middle of the pitch, breaching the defence with a beautifully-weighted through ball that your striker sprints onto, takes around the onrushing keeper and wallops into the roof of the net: breathtaking stuff.
Try defending against a team doing the same to you, though, and it's basically a disaster. At crucial moments, particularly when the opposition whips a ball into the area, you have little awareness of player positions as the camera thrashes around to follow the action. At such times, skill and strategy go out of the window and the enterprise is fatally undermined.
That's not to dismiss this view entirely, as the awareness of space when knocking the ball around the middle of the park is unsettlingly impressive. But it's far too hit-and-miss for serious long-term play.
Konami offers four alternatives: NormalClose, a horizontal view that's basically useless as you can only see half the pitch; VerticalClose, which locks the 'Player' view on the opposition goal, so even more unhelpful for defending; VerticalWide; and Wide.
The latter is standard PES view (though not as wide as some might like), which I can see many will default too before long. Here the impact of 3D is significantly less arresting. But while the sense of depth is diminished, what it does do, cleverly, is make what you are seeing on-screen somehow bigger, drawing you in subtly but irresistibly in a way that only becomes obvious when you turn off the 3D and it all seems rather flat and drab.
Surprisingly, though, my current preference is for VerticalWide, which is set back sufficiently to see enough of the game while giving the wonderful feeling of 3D space. It's familiarity with an exotic coat of freshness and one that, all credit to Konami, in the football genre is only currently available on this platform and in this game.
Here I am banging on about the visuals like a salivating neophile, and I've barely mentioned how it plays. Which, in my defence, is because this is otherwise largely PES as we know it, with no alarms and no surprises.
The feature set and content are effectively carried over from the PSP version, improved aesthetically and, to a limited degree, functionally but oddly shorn of certain elements. Understandably, the time pressures of producing a launch title will have focused Konami's mind to concentrate on creating a bespoke visual spectacle.
60 national and 170 club sides are included, complete with the usual absurd licence-lacking likes of West Midlands Village, Lancashire Athletic and Man Blue. The Edit Mode is there, as ever, for manual changes. The first one a 'Merseyside Red' supporter will make is likely getting rid of Torres, since the game doesn't take January transfers into account.
Exhibition, a fully-licensed Champions League, Master League and Wireless Play are your key options from the main menu. Inexplicably, there's no training mode a baffling omission, as it would surely provide an ideal, stress-free way to acclimatise to the extra dimension. And it's a real shame there's no way to store replays of your best goals, since watching them back in 3D is one of the undoubted highlights of the experience.
Meanwhile the Copa Libertadores and Become A Legend modes also fail to make the cut. In their stead, we have seemingly obligatory StreetPass functionality, which adds an extra layer to the Master League, comparing the stats of teams on compatible devices and awarding a win to the strongest. This improves your Street Pass ranking and unlocks classic players and teams as you progress.
Wireless play, sadly, is only a local affair, no doubt as a result of Konami's deadlines, but this is a game that really needs to be fully online for 2012. No excuses. And an overhaul of the interface would also be welcome, with menu navigation needlessly fiddly in places (especially when tweaking formations), and on-screen text requiring hawk-like supervision to read in places.
I should say that if you take 3D out of the equation entirely, PES 2011 remains a handsome beast. Player models are vivid, sharp, well animated, and where licence permits reassuringly lifelike. And commentary from Jon Champion and Jim Beglin is well implemented without ever getting too annoying (although it sounds much better through the console's speakers than headphones, which exposes a degree of tinniness in the audio quality).
The touch screen, by the way, is brought into play not just as a home for the cramped radar, but also for four customisable buttons to which you can set various general strategies that can be applied in-game: 'Pressure', 'Offside trap' and so on.
Beyond all of this, at its heart, this version of PES is reassuringly solid, enjoyable and challenging. It's a slow-paced, physical game where defenders easily muscle attackers off the ball and clear-cut chances (on default difficulty upwards) are few and far between, requiring patient build-up and a keen eye for an opening.
As such, while it occasionally feels lumbering, and is starting to show its age now especially when set alongside the flexibility of PES and FIFA on home consoles the thrill of netting a vital goal is as great as ever because you know you've earned it.
And for a handheld game, offering a mesmerisingly compelling visual experience that no other football title currently offers, it's a season ticket that's still worth signing up for.
7 / 10