PES 2010 is a big deal for Konami, and so it should be. Having been dethroned as the king of football games by FIFA 09 a year ago, there's an awful lot at stake. PES Productions entered a period of soul-searching as it began to understand where it had gone wrong - and how to put it right again.
If anything positive came out of last year's disappointing effort, it's that it inspired a new determination within the PES production camp to listen to people a bit more, and take on board feedback more than ever. With that in mind, Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka and European team leader Jon Murphy approach a recent face-off with the press at an event in France in a rather unusual way.
Rather than sit and field the same old questions, Seabass and Murphy direct the questions back at the press in a series of roundtable sessions as part of a new process of "listening and learning and improving". Rather than telling us the same old story about how it has improved AI, tactics, and team realism, the team uses its PES European Finals gala event in Nice as an opportunity to garner opinions from a wide cross-section of the very same people about to go and write reviews for the upcoming version. Although, well, Editor Tom's doing ours. [Sorry about that. - Ed]
"This year and, of course for the following year, we're going to continue this listening, learning and improving process as an important step for PES Productions and the PES series," Seabass tells us. "Of course, we have so many ideas in advance of making the game. However, it is also important to get feedback from the users and the press to make the game better."
Seabass and Murphy are keen to press the assembled for what we think of the new Team Style and Player Card system. As you'll remember from our hands-on, Team Style allows players to tweak various elements via a slider system, allowing you to press harder or hold your ground in possession, or fiddle with the defensive line, while, in the words of Seabass, a Player Card "is like a combination of pure additional skills and the ability to drill down into the individual rather than the whole team and make minor changes to how the individual plays within the squad."
The reasoning? "In previous titles," says Seabass, "there were so many segments that you had to undergo when you were changing the playing style of the team. You'd have to adjust this one... this one... then down this one!" He motions. "It was really complex when you wanted to play [in a specific way]. That's the reason why we introduced the card and slider systems, because it simplifies highly complex settings into one or two things."
You can't help admire the principle of the thing, but the feedback probably makes for uneasy listening, with the majority of the assembled hacks unsure of what tangible difference tweaking with Team Style or Player Cards makes - a problem that most players will almost certainly face.
To the average player, we reason for our hosts, the problem is that game offers no real feedback, and you don't have anything to compare it to unless you're a hardcore player and can instantly spot a difference. Most players, it's felt, will be intimidated into settling for the default settings and never even delve into the interesting new features on offer - however beneficial they may be. Indeed, Seabass admits, "It may be true that the casual gamers will not use the slider and card system." But, he insists, "even at the default setting, it is a way to enjoy PES 2010".
"It is really up to the user, if he wants to change the settings, to customise their playing style and tactics, that's all up to the user and we do not blame the user. If he doesn't even touch a single setting, he will still enjoy PES 2010."
To a degree he's right. For my money, PES 2010 is the most fluid, instinctive and enjoyable PES probably since PES5. During the media competition the previous night, I come to the game cold, never having had a warm-up match, and manage to win four out of six matches just playing through muscle memory of what's always worked in football games - football. But the fact remains that there's always the sense that you could be doing so much better if the game could only find a way of educating you about it.
The solution? Many are discussed, but one of the more interesting suggestions is a kind of 'interactive training' or 'tutorial exhibition' mode, which would essentially be played like a real match, only one with 'playing assists'. It would stop after key situations, and talk you through what would have happened if you had used different Team Style settings. It could also remember key moments of the match (including set-pieces) so you could rewind, play and practice them again, perfecting moves, tweaking tactics, giving you the chance to benefit from real match situations - something the current training mode is sorely lacking in. Other possibilities touched upon include providing control hints that encourage users to try using more complex manoeuvres, such as feints and shot variations, and taking the time to school them in doing so.
Many players feel that the 'tricks of the trade' in football games are jealously guarded secrets which the elite would rather insert needles into their own eyes than impart on their opponents, making it harder than it needs to be to get better at it. If the game actually has the option to tutor players in a more visible, more user-friendly and more practical manner, it's likely more people would be better at the game, and in turn would notice - and try out - some of the excellent-sounding changes the team work so hard to implement.
Interestingly, Seabass and company appear highly receptive to such suggestions, and come away from the various sessions expressing delight that so much constructive feedback had been gleaned in a short space of time. It's also notable how visible Seabass is at the event in general, taking time to studiously watch players in action for hours on end, impassive from the sidelines, no doubt keeping his fingers crossed that the reaction will be more favourable than last year.
So what of PES 2010 as a game? Technically, it looks extremely slick, with better facial likenesses, real-time lighting, smoother gameplay, swift load times, improved animation, a better front-end, and more licensed teams. Whether that makes it the equal of the mighty FIFA 10, we'll cover in our review tomorrow. One problem that PES 2010 faces is the exact same one FIFA faced for many years - how to convert people who are used to one game's way of doing things. The old issue was that rival football games became so refined that preference became an increasingly subjective decision. The danger last year was that it was an objective one: FIFA was superior.
Will that change this time? Bearing in mind the pace of innovation and reinvention in sports games, it may be too much to achieve in one step. But Konami's attitude bodes well for the future.
PES 2010: Pro Evolution Soccer is due out on 23rd October and reviewed on Eurogamer tomorrow morning.