Version tested: Xbox 360
In hindsight, we'd go one further. The myth that EA makes the bimbo football game and Konami makes the cultured one is - to return to the note upon which we began our FIFA 09 review - thoroughly dead. But that doesn't necessarily mean the same is now true in reverse. FIFA 09 may be excellent, and the last few Pro Evolutions have gone backwards, but what of PES 2009?
At its heart, we suspect, lie many of the same lines of code that drove the success of the series on PS2 for so many seasons, because the fundamentals are unchanged: player movement is on eight directions (with in-betweens during sprints), passing is zippy, and ball movement is physically convincing, if a little heavy. The graphics reinforce the impression that PES is reliant on existing content and assets, too, because despite the usual claim that it's "undergone a stunning graphical update", movement animations are wooden and repetitive, and the players look more like they've undergone a stunning facial beating under a railway bridge.
FIFA, by inevitable comparison, is so smoothly plastered with graphical Polyfilla that almost every angle of ball receipt, every tweak of the analogue stick, is covered by an appropriate animation, which frees the players and football to move organically in ways that PES wouldn't countenance. It's not quite that perfect, but the fact is we used to talk about the difference between PES' loose ball and FIFA's gluey boots, and these days it's the difference between PES' grids of movement and FIFA's cloud of possibilities. No wonder Peter Moore's crowing about the review scores.
But while the visual comparison between PES and FIFA is now rather harsh on EA's Japanese adversary, Konami's re-minted PES Production Team in Tokyo is a bit like the James Bond film crews - their grandfathers worked on this stuff, doncha know, and they know a bit about it. So it shouldn't be a surprise to discover that while PES 2009 lacks FIFA 09's fluency - graphically and mechanically - and the EA game's authoritative command of licences, it still plays much better than last year's effort thanks to a few nips and tucks, and gives PES fans who can't break away from its hard-coded diagonals and toxic waste likenesses their best return for a few years.
PES moves at a fair old trot, and while the attacking principles are the same as they are in FIFA - pass the ball, retain possession, go backwards when you can't go forward, drag players out of position to make space, be ruthless when you do - wing play is more effective, with a high frequency of goals from diving or jumping headers, and the trick moves that used to be on the right analogue stick have now migrated to the d-pad or left stick (whichever you use for movement), so they're easy to incorporate into your approach play, rather than an afterthought. Nippy strikers and wingers have less trouble holding onto the ball under duress, too, reaching the byline fairly often in spite of typically adhesive pursuing defenders.
This is because, absent the need to counterbalance FIFA's omnidirectional player brains, PES doesn't have to be so rugged and physical. Defensive pressing is more about pushing wingers inside or driving your opponents down blind alleys. Aggressive pressing with two players - similarly suicidal in both games, since it leaves tons of space for AI or a wily human opponent to exploit - results in a fair few niggly trips, but there's less bullying. If you want the ball, you're going to have to chase it and earn it, which in turn encourages patience in attack. Once you have it, as with FIFA, the basic vocabulary of controls and a sensible approach will bring you results, but there's a huge range of subtleties to master, whether it's different types of pass, cross and shot, flair techniques, off the ball instructions, when it's best to make substitutions, and so on.
So then, for all the superficialities that divide PES and FIFA, there's quite a lot that unites them. But superficialities can be a bitch. PES has the UEFA Champions League licence, and Manchester United and Liverpool licences (it's Liverpool FC's official game, for goodness sake), along with previous agreements involving Spanish and Italian sides, among others; but most of the other Premier League clubs still have silly names, some of the national teams are totally fictional, and there are lots of noticeably incomplete transfers, with Berbatov yet to arrive at Old Trafford and Shevchenko still running around Stamford Bridge. Although he's not, of course, as the game only models 19 stadiums. Elsewhere the commentary's dreadful, and the crowd chants lack the overlapping you hear on TV or the growl of being among them, and are sickeningly rhythmic and artificial instead.
PES's answer to FIFA's Be a Pro mode (and its online counterpart) is weaker, too. You define a custom character, starting out as a reserve at 17, and then play one role in the team - either midfield or striker - earning experience points in practice matches and trying to break into the first team. But it lacks FIFA's coaxing feedback - the greens and reds acknowledging good movement and involvement during the game - and in a mode where the significance of good movement is amplified so considerably, the fact FIFA kicks the PES movement code so hard around the park that you could stitch lines on it, throw on laminate and sell it at JD Sports, is rather damaging. That said, there's a bit of value to be had from it if you ever overcome that hurdle, and the four-player online variant may lack FIFA's 10v10, but it's still a good number. (We'll be comparing PES' and FIFA's single-footballer modes in more depth soon.)
Inevitably, PES also suffers from the same football-isms we brought up with FIFA, namely passes going to a player other than the one intended, the game selecting the wrong player in a moment of crisis, and a bit of residual input skewering the odd attack. But it also suffers the odd PES-ism, like players confused what to do with a loose ball when in close proximity, throw-ins, corners, free-kicks and ball distribution from that keeper that all rob the game of pace, and being unable to tell at a glance which slide tackles are fair and why. You often suspect the game computes the outcome fairly, but the paucity of animations and grid-like movement means you can't tell at a glance, and it's frustrating.
PES still has the Master League though, providing many seasons of well-designed progression, and the Champions League is a boon, even with its overblown presentation coupled to misnamed teams and, hilariously, Sony PlayStation ad hoardings all over the 360 version (probably down to the terms of any UEFA licence, but we like to think it's the new spirit of friendship). There's also a full Edit mode for people who want to tweak their line-ups.
Even so the result, overall, is a game that by any objective measure now languishes in second place behind EA's spirited new-look FIFA. And yet it's only with a heavy heart that we mark it down a point lower, because we still love PES for its personality. The new generation of FIFA games are so new that we're still exploring their limits, but we already understand all that about PES, and when something out of the ordinary occurs, like a shot-cum-cross from halfway up the touchline creeping in at the far post, it's like hidden treasure. When you realise the ref isn't calling play back for astonishingly vicious tackles that occur after the ball has gone, preferring to let attacks develop, it's hilarious.
Should you stick with Konami, then, PES 2009 will grow on you, and you may forget you ever thought about switching teams in the first place. But personality isn't always enough, and the fact is that PES can only draw alongside FIFA in the areas where the Konami game's strong, falls short in others, and never could hope to compete on the glossier, contracts and lipstick side of sports game production that EA's ruled for years. Not quite a reversal, but PES needs to be a very different game when it hits 2010 if it wants to overhaul the Canadian upstart.
7 / 10