Version tested: PlayStation 2
It's hard to be brave when you're already winning. All you can do is lose (seriously - ask AC Milan). And PES, particularly in light of its commercial ascendancy, is most definitely winning. It's almost unimpeachable in its ball simulation, player personality and individuality, and tactical awareness. With PES5 now on the shelves, some have recorded that it's in decline. Don't listen to them. PES5 is harder and more technical. It's a genuine triumph of the series over the hype. My biggest fear about this version was that it would stray too far, buoyed by the commercial inroads it made against FIFA last year. Nope. This is Gianfranco Zola moving to Caligari.
It epitomises this within minutes as you realise what's happened to pressure-tackling. Traditionally when defending, holding X moves the active player to intercept, jostle and unseat the ball or force the opposing player off-line. A more commercially-minded game might push further in this direction, but PES5 utterly forsakes anybody reliant on this approach. It demands timing and manual positioning of the active defender. Simply holding X leads to mistimed or completely failed challenges that benefit the other team - either with a free kick or, worse, open space. PES is still a game where the onus is on the player in possession to try and keep the ball - it's still hard to break down teams, particularly against formidable defensive lines, springy midfields and brute strength, which can often shield you into cul-de-sacs if you don't move the ball around and master crossing, long and short passing and creating space. But reducing the effect of pressing is a clear statement of intent.
To win the ball, you have to wait for the advancing player to present you with an opportunity and then pounce. Stay goalside, perhaps hold square to get an AI-controlled team-mate to shadow the guy in possession, but don't dive in. Wait. Slide-tackling, interestingly, becomes far more useful than X-pressing, particularly against opponents who make a lot of use of the R1 sprint button. R1 sprinting is easily read (and detrimental to any player's stamina and skill over the course of a game, too), and seizing control of the nearest defender and attacking the ball with a slide is now very effective - not least because the game reacts to input faster now. In an earlier piece I said slide-tackling had acquired an almost Sensible Soccer-esque air of pre-emption. Actually it reminds me more of Alan Smith in Leeds' final year in the Premiership, when they knew it was now or never. For him, every game was the proverbial Cup Final, and he flew into every tackle fearlessly, knowing it was all about having the will. And you felt them all with him. PES5 lets you fight for it.
So much sports game development is about image, and constantly striving for reinvention by finding new clothes for your scripting - not just visually, but by accessorising with gimmicks that are then dispensed with before they have time to bed in. PES, to start with, isn't scripted. It just isn't. Elsewhere it's sometimes guilty of gimmickry, but never on the scale of its competitors - its strength lies in the algorithms that govern everything. For the most part, PES5 gets these right - notice how different PES players live or die on the strength of their tactics, discipline and footballing knowledge rather than some sort of arcade reaction. You can't play two games and suddenly "get it". Heck, you can't play 2,000 and understand everything. Half of the things it does, it won't even talk about! Understanding player abilities and the condition arrows takes ages - they all make a difference, but you won't be able to figure them out unless you experiment and think of it as football, not some paradigm lined up for disassembly.
Complementing the underlying equations are the versatility and sharpness of control and control-response. PES5 improves each. There are a few debateable changes (rotating R2 behaviour so that side-stepping is the default d-pad/analog turning behaviour, and 45-degree movement adjustments involve active use of R2 button, will take some learning, but does it ultimately improve the game?), but the logic outweighs these. Just as tackling starts to demand more composure and timing, so the number of interstitial animations and concordantly its control-response improves - stick a boot in and the boot goes in right then, not half an animation later. Receive the ball on the touchline and volley it first time into the area and your winger hits it when you want him to, not when the game can fit him in. Of course, whether the ball gets there or ends up in row Z is still a question of the winger's balance of player-abilities and his level of fatigue, but you can't argue that PES won't react sharply to his A-game any more. Likewise, while shooting seems to require more build-up now, given the right skill a player running onto a ball can hammer it home at the precise moment you want him to connect. If you're sharp, it's sharper. PES does get new clothes, but it's not so much an image change as a determination to fit more in its pockets.
Any gimmicks it's ever tried have rarely been perfect to begin with (trick stick, anyone?), but they do improve. This year for example, broadband online play is much better. We're still waiting for things like co-op and voice comms, but the lobby systems, profile management, stats-gathering and other areas are more agreeable. Teething's always been inevitable with substantial PES adjustments, and now online play's broken through it's inevitably much smoother, lets you pre-define more options, see the other player's record at a glance, and bind preset phrases to a chat menu. Buen partido indeed, my Spanish friend.
One of the things I'd noticed about PES5 but hadn't been able to quantify until recently was the change in brilliant players. PES has always been good at reflecting an individual's skills. David Beckham is a master of the long ball and fluffs the odd penalty. Alan Shearer can hold off defenders longer than most. Zidane beats his man and delivers inch-perfect passes, inspiring his team-mates to react to his involvement by making for open ground. But it wasn't until I talked to somebody who had actually addressed this with the dev-team that I could really appreciate how PES5 built on this. Simply, it's stretched that final band of player-skill. Those last few percentage points in each player's skills column actually represent a far greater range of improvements. Adriano's shooting skill, for example, is monstrous - as befits the man - and eclipses even those on the rung just fractionally below him. It's a concertina approach - the closer to the edge, the greater the differences.
There's more you'll notice in PES5, but frankly I'd rather you found it yourself. Your old tactics won't work to begin with. Through-balls aren't the same, passes angle differently. Learn how. That you have to learn every year is joyous enough in itself, and the rails in many relatively unimportant areas have been oiled to help you enjoy the process - keepers are much better at distributing the ball, and refs understand the advantage rule better, even holding over bookings until the ball goes dead, etc.
There are some persistent blemishes, as ever there are. There's a sense, particularly playing against AI opposition, that the defence drops very deep when you're on the attack, packing the area to prevent you getting a clear shot rather than defending logically; the ball, meanwhile, is still capable of pinballing off knees and shins; and throw-ins and dead balls still feel relatively crude. But then you could argue that the AI dropping off so much is your own fault - did you give them time to regroup by R1-sprinting and ending up at the corner flag? Did you pick a suitable formation for counter-attacking? And while pinballing can go against you, it's also there to entertain; deflections and, worse, a clearance going utterly AWOL after hitting an onrushing attacker in the FACE, amuse and underscore the game's versatility. There are real quirks and problems, and areas left unattended (like the commentary - seems like Trevor Brooking still hates me), but the main reason you notice them is that the other billion lines o' code are working so well. "Hrm, England's teamwork seems rather too good," rather ignores the fact that you can quantify the teamwork at all. And you can.
For all this, you might wonder about the newcomer, or the divorcee looking for reconciliation. And yes, I'm clearly happier about its defiant reaction to commercial success, but that isn't to say it's become impenetrable. The training modes are more than capable of introducing you to key areas - fundamentally, situationally, and through targeted objectives and free-play. Through experimentation you'll become proficient, and the default three-star difficulty level is not so unfair that you won't score a few goals in the process. The difference will be, and it takes a little getting used to, that it's more about the 'how' than the 'if'.
PES5 is very much an "and how!" kind of game. It hasn't pandered to the majority. The bar for entry into the Master League hasn't dipped - indeed, the only noticeable reflection of its increased stature is that it licenses more players than ever - including a couple of English teams, Arsenal and Chelsea - and is as up to date squad-wise as any new version has been. Where before it could be distilled and fell into patterns quite easily, it's closed ranks - only by picking the right players, looking after them and putting them to their best use, can you win on higher levels, or against the best players. Everyone, on their day, can wave a footballing wand - but it'd take an act of supreme luck for a newcomer to show up a master. Indeed, one of the things PES5 does best is to punish the indolence and complacence of the average thrill-seeker. And, rather neatly, that's also the reason it's close to toppling an empire.
9 / 10