After putting many hours into playing PES2012 I have come to the conclusion that it is no FIFA, nor is it a PES2011. After reaching this conclusion I realised I was both very happy indeed that this was the case, as well as appreciating in full that I am a pretty damned observant individual.
When I was afforded the opportunity to play preview code last year, circumstances were very different to that of last week. For a start I wasn’t turning up in Manchester last Thursday off the back of a stag weekend in Berlin with my mind and body clearly having had a falling out. No, what made things different this time is that instead of a 24hr stay it would be pushing 72hrs, meaning much more game time and that also I would experiencing the game with a number of my colleagues from WENB/Kitana Media and a couple of cameo appearances by others thrown in for good measure. This was something I missed out on last year and turned out to be hugely beneficial in that it allowed me to appreciate some of the games finer points when not playing. It also acted as a great bonding exercise for the Kitana team beyond playing the game itself and I departed from my time in Manchester feeling that I had met with folk whom I can happily consider as friends. PES, it would appear, does indeed unite and huge thanks have to go to Adam and his family for their wonderful hospitality. Now let’s talk PES2012!
With the press embargo lifting last week and there now being a plethora of detailed PES2012 gameplay impressions available, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look back at my experience of PES2012 last week during the WENB playtest festival of awesome which looked to excel in outstanding contribution in the field of excellence to football videogames. In other words, some of us got together and had a shot of it over the course of last week. This isn’t a full on impressions or preview post exactly as I feel there has been a ton of excellent content offered by WENB and those in the wider community that look to dissect thoroughly just about every facet of this year’s title based on the preview we had access to.
I guess I am looking to get across just how much of an impact a few elements of the gameplay in PES2012 had on me. This is not me saying that the game is flawless as there was, as expected, a degree of ”rawness” to be found with the code. What did take me by surprise was how stable the game performed generally and I was already mindful that of some of the issues existing in the preview code (keepers/shooting) were subject to further work. WENB’s own Suff and Asim Tanvir of NGB posted on twitter after time with new code earlier in the week that things have progressed further along in these departments. With that in mind I don’t think it is worth me touching on these aspects of the game as it is best to avoid any confusion.
If there was one thing PES2011 looked to deliver, it was freedom of play, and for all that the core mechanics and technical assets tried their damndest to make this so, the game was hamstrung somewhat due to the limitations of the team having to essentially start from scratch. That said, the theory of engineering the game for freedom was sound and PES2011 had its moments of brilliance. They (Konami) were on to something and only a lack of all round stability and consistency in performance prevented the game from fully satisfying a passionate fanbase. We were on board with the vision but found ourselves scratching our heads perhaps a little too often at the quality of execution. PES2012 looks to run with what PES2011 promised, yet in doing so Konami have wrong footed us in how we would expect that vision to materialise. Where many would consider a technical leap from Konami similar to that which EA offered up moving from FIFA08 to FIFA09 to be the only solution, they have instead made a leap in core gameplay fundamentals that can be deemed just as impacting in their own right to that of EA’s efforts in 2008 when looking to construct a realistic, deep, but most importantly fun football videogame. Konami understand that the tech-war is not in fact a war at all but merely one of the battles to be fought and at this time it isn’t a fight they are going to win with this instalment. Enter the less glamorous ‘’ones and zeros’’ under all those presentation assets that ultimately drive any videogame experience and what allows PES2012 to be such a flexible and diverse football game.
‘’Active AI’’ is the official name but ‘’Actual Intelligence’’ – though sounding somewhat profound – is how Konami could have chosen to label the beating heart of PES2012 had they been in the mood to up the stakes in the feature naming game that is now part of this generation. The thing is, and let it be known that this is a positive, that this innovation that has been introduced to the franchise doesn’t leap out at you immediately. At very first glance, PES2012 looks very much like an improved, more fluid, ‘’alive’’ version of PES2011. This in itself is not a bad thing but bare in mind this is only at first glance. In my first match I was guilty of playing from muscle memory; not only utilising an approach born of hours upon hours of PES2011 but years of playing football games in general. Despite being forewarned of how advanced PES2012 looked to be in relation AI, I was failing right away to truly appreciate it and was guilty of looking at it as mere decoration – an aesthetic asset as opposed to a genuine aid to my play. This is not to say that what movement was being made wasn’t impressive or aiding me in my debut run out with the game, with full-back overlaps, forwards probing for space and the checking of runs plain to see, it’s just that in playing the game in the style I was – too direct, too fast, ill disciplined and untrusting of my players when in possession – I failed to truly survey the scene and this was made only more noticeable given that I was Barcelona. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to play like the current European Champions, more that I was trying to play like them using a PES2011 nay, any football game pre-PES2012 mindset. Sure, the core technique and make-up of the Barca team ensured I could always threaten my opposition but I was being wasteful with possession, the talent at my disposal, but most of all I wasn’t making use of the intelligence in off-the-ball movement and positioning of my team.
‘’Just play like Barca’’
This was the advice offered to me by my host for the weekend, who was quick to see the error of my ways. Now, that may come across as stating the bleeding obvious as well as potentially sounding damned patronising but here is the thing – it was the right advice to offer. This is how much Konami’s latest rewards you when you ‘’think football’’ and more or less directly apply your knowledge and understanding of the sport and its teams, tactics, individuals, and playing styles in particular. Obviously, for all the advances made in AI and other assets it doesn’t mean the game is completely limitless with possibility, or so deep as to capture every single individual trait of a team or individual. It is still just a videogame approximation of the beautiful game after all, with much of the real sports subtleties yet to be captured but PES2012 does a bloody marvellous job of trying to make you believe such limitless depth exists within the code. The game inspiring such a train of thought is very reminiscent of the classic PS2 titles. After gathering myself at the half time break and with my hosts wise council duly noted, I took to the field with a little more composure in my play and…
…I still ended up getting beat! Barcelona 1 – Benfica 3.
It wasn’t about winning though and my disappointment at losing my first match on PES2012 was greatly tempered by the fact that I had just played a second half in which my passing game at least was a worthy digital replica of the real life Barca in phases. I slowed my game down when in midfield with ball retention my number one priority and as a result the (active) AI – in tandem with players own characteristics on and off the ball – began to manifest in a way I haven’t really seen in a football game before. Suddenly I was spotting players looking for space that went far beyond mere overlapping runs (which were also far more noticeable and effective); players coming short, making little movements to lose markers and those very ‘’purdy’’ diagonal runs where all on display, inviting me to produce the football for which the Catalan giants are known. It was as if wee digital Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Messi were coaching me on the football they look to play and I was delighted to take them up on the offer. A Thoroughly satisfying debut apart from the result, with credit also having to go to the COM controlled Benfica in quickly making me aware that you can’t switch off and every ball is there to be won, along with schooling me in how blindly steaming in to regain possession can often make you look very, very stupid indeed.
It is absolutely vital to notify all before moving on that such was the evolution of my passing game and the freedom the game allows in this department – thanks in no small part to vastly improved through balls and the manual modifier actually adding something to play – that just over 24hrs later I was handing a certain Milan supporter his ass! Me playing as Italy with a turbo-charged Giovinco running the show and destroying my opponent’s England side, 3-1. A proud moment and he won’t like me telling you this…that he picked England.
The Lord of the Dance vs. Barjen Robben
There was one key aspect of the gameplay I just couldn’t fully unlock the potential of in my time playing but I was able to witness its beauty thanks to those others who were present. Dribbling in PES2012 as it stands in this preview code is quite incredible and previously mentioned Milan fan had it aced, hence why I look to emphasise my one glorious 3-1 victory over him whenever possible. We have all seen the videos showing how 1 on 1’s are being approached in this year’s game but let me tell you our host for our WENB gathering would appear to have unlocked so much more wonderful secrets in this discipline. The way it was described by Adam was ‘’a game of rock, paper, scissors’’ and I can see exactly what he means such is how it appears to work. I would add to this ‘’ballet performed on a knife edge’’ which makes no sense whatsoever but I am rolling with it, though possibly Eurogamer put it best when they said you feel as though you are ‘’playing close to the edge of your abilities’’. We really are talking about the absolute finest of margins here and when you succeed and dance your way through three players with such balletic beauty it looks and feels terrific, though perhaps not as beautiful or terrific as Mila Kunis in Black Swan. The work that has been put into making these face-offs at close proximity give the dribbling added dimension and depth. Think FIFA’s ‘’knock-on/first touch’’ control but something that feels less engineered, more organic and sprinkled with incidental and contextual flair which seems to vary from player to player and situation. Okay, there might not be 80,000,000 animations in place but there certainly is a surprising level of variety on show. Thomas ‘’The’’ Broad seemed to get the hang of using bursts of speed and spinning his marker with his back to goal early doors and scored a simply wonderful goal with van Persie only a couple of minutes into his first game. Very van Persie like in its execution and one of those moments from our time playing that reminded me of the PS2 days.
Of course, you can still look to use more orthodox methods along with the usual tricks and feints – including the improved shot feint – in which Danny was glad to illustrate via his constant use of ‘Barjen Robben’. To be fair, Danny was merely looking to use the main strength in his line-up and for all that the threat posed when he had Robben on the ball was very real, which is as it should be, he was made to work to beat his man and it just added to his pleasure no doubt! Thankfully and more importantly realistically, for all that dribbling has improved immeasurably over PES2011 and could be *whispers* the best dribbling has ever been in a PES game…maybe any football game*whispers* it’s not over the top, nor is it the case that a central defender will be slaloming or pirouetting his team to glory. Also, while the catch-up bug has gone, this does not mean we get the polar opposite as a result and have players tearing away from their markers. No, the balance at this juncture appears to be just right and it has a lot to do with Active AI fulfilling its role well, thus demanding that a player more often than not has to beat his man and those secondary pressers in order to go through the gears fully.
It really needs be said that never before in a football game have ‘’mighty midgets’’ or ‘’technicians’’ looked and felt so colossal out on the field. The likes of Silva, Modric and rather memorably for myself in one particular game I won 3-1, Giovinco, all stand out superbly. The more languid style best epitomised by someone like Busquets is well realised as well in that they he possesses a level of on the ball ‘smarts’ that sees him able to show composure in spite of a lack of pace and mobility on the ball. I don’t think I need to detail just how explosive Messi and Ronaldo are but let me just say that from what I witnessed they have been realised fantastically. It isn’t about these player’s abilities exclusively however, and all that goes on around them plays a huge part in making all these individuals stand out in PES2012.
The Return of an Art Form?
What would all this improvement and innovation matter if the defending wasn’t fit for purpose? Well, defending is pretty damned solid from my experience though it is demanding in just the right way. Timing and clever, conservative utilisation of secondary press is key and echoes what was present in the later PS2 offerings, though the system in PES2012 feels much more refined thanks to what in my opinion is a far more intuitive contain mechanic. The visual signposting as to what your player is doing is far clearer than found in PES2011 resulting in greater confidence when facing up to an attack, which naturally is helped by the AI improvements that see that a greater level of organisation and awareness is present.
Such is the depth of control at the disposal of the ball carrier and the intricacies present in 1 on 1 situations that they do feel like a genuine test of nerve and composure when undertaking defensive duties, especially when facing up against speed stars and players who possess excellent technique and hold up play ability. This includes when they have their back to goal and are receiving a pass. Often I found my defenders getting beaten by a clever first touch or spin into space due to me being over eager to get to the ball. In PES2012, much like the real sport, you will have to sometimes concede ground if it means getting that right moment to make the challenge or wait for the necessary support to arrive in order to temper an attack. There were even moments of defensive flair apparent in my time playing, with one goal saving clearance from Gari in a match against Danny that will live long in the memory. It took us all by surprise that one, especially Danny! Elsewhere I spotted little flicks and moments of control when a defender was dealing with an awkward ball that made defending look all the more tidy and composed. No more stage fright when dealing with through balls is also a welcome (and damned necessary!) fix as well and the all round alertness to stray balls, along with defenders looking to intercept and block not going without note either. The return of the art of defending? It be looking rather promising on this evidence.
Make no mistake, for all that PES2012 is cut from the same cloth as PES2011 and shares some similarities in look and in some motion, it plays a game that is so far removed from last year’s offering as to be unrecognisable. This latest outing from Konami actually vindicates a lot of what PES2011 looked to offer fans and is a great advert for developers looking to implement fan feedback as well as ensuring that their own vision isn’t completely compromised in the process. PES 2012 is more of the same with the emphasis very much being on the ‘’more’’; more animation(though not genre defining for a sports title), more graphical polish, more stable, more fluid, more freedom of play, more tactical options, more off-the-cuff flair, more depth, more emotion, more passion, more possibility….erm…more goalkeeping!
The team in Japan not looking to start again from scratch has resulted in them producing something that ironically feels as though they have re-built the game entirely. This is a parallel that PES2012 shares in common with those titles from the PS2 glory days (though far more pronounced in this case) and it is surely no coincidence that with this being first game on next-gen for the franchise that looked to use the previous instalment as a solid base, it has benefited development of PES2012 enormously in pure gameplay terms.
As development enters into injury time the hope is that so much of what shines in preview code is not compromised as Konami look to deliver what is shaping up to be without doubt their finest effort in this generation.
I leave you with these words of wisdom as we venture forward to gamescom…
I beat Adam 3-1! Oh, and playing the game from pitchside camera is the way to go ;)