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PES2012 : The WENB Review

It transpires gameplay is fundamental in this football life.

If PES2011 was very much an ‘’ideas’’ game in which just about anything was worth consideration and dropped into the gameplay mixing pot with mixed and sometimes downright confusing results (scratches head at thought of penalty system), then PES2012 is a product born of some much needed streamlining and refinement of said ideas. However, more added stability to the foundations of the previous offering and a cheeky wee boost of technical assets are all well and good but will equate to no more than an incremental update and sometimes that can prove to be enough but fans of the series have demanded more. The WEP team have thus had to innovate to set their labour of love apart from what has come before and yet still retain the series proud and much loved roots. No pressure then, Seabass – san.

The game has to be won out on the pitch and it is here where the WEP team have opted for the pragmatic approach when it comes to innovation and improvements, but that is not to say that what has been prioritised for PES2012 out on the lush digital turf aren’t significant game – changers in their own right. Quite the opposite is true in actual fact as instead of looking to wow it’s audience with glitzy, showy, sizzle that is always going to be desirable for any game in any genre, PES2012 preaches core gameplay and football fundamentals with Active AI being the driving force behind it all.

Actual Intelligence?

When first announced even the most optimistic of series fans couldn’t help but think back to TeamVision and what it…actually, what did it do again? Anyway, fear not as Active AI would appear to be the real deal and offers a pretty stern test of ones ability – even on Professional skill level in these early days – so get ready to swallow your pride. Active AI is not completely perfect in its implementation but there is a rather handy set of tools at the player’s disposal that can (with practice) help address this which will be touched on later.

Over-lapping full backs, midfielders making themselves available of an easy pass, forwards making subtle movements in order to invite that killer through ball – all these off-the-ball basics that define the team game are all present for your consideration when in possession. It isn’t just realised in a basic, geometric fashion either as players will look to make diagonal runs/movements and even check them should they venture offside. This will sound awfully contradictory but such is the quality of the Active AI that it isn’t something that leaps out the screen at you at all times. Maybe that could be down to those 30 plus years of playing and watching the sport that has this player happy to accept that this is how football simply is and should be, but then it does eventually hit you that this level of intelligent movement has never been seen before in a football videogame, at least not in the way PES2012 performs.

Of course, this is PES we are talking about and player – as well as team – individuality is key, so it is very satisfying to see it manifest in this new AI system. A player like Xavi or Pirlo not only feel more commanding under your control due to the what is happening around them and their god-given eye for a pass, but that they also display real life characteristics in how they position themselves during build up and even defensive play. The defensive game has also reaped the benefits by showing an all round better awareness with team mates doing a nice job in positional play, cutting off passing angles, making interceptions and containing, though they can go to sleep on crosses and requires you to concede that the ball in to the box is going to happen on occasion and you are best to try and mark up or utilise manual ‘keeps to improve their positioning; fiddly but it can work .

It may very well be something of a hard sell but the AI advancements in PES2012 are really quite something though if there is one little concern regards the AI it would be that when the CPU plays as one of the better teams they can be a little too direct and don’t fully utilise the passing options around them. One for those obsessive tactical guru’s in the community to no doubt crack using a tactics and formations screen similar in layout to last year, only with the possibility with up to four on-the-fly formation/tactics set-ups now available to the player (Tip :  Commit to D-Pad or stick control alone in order to free up an easier method to change tactics during the match). The tactical sandbox is still very much in place and still rewards those who explore what it can offer, so worry not.

Manual Override!

As stated previously the AI isn’t perfect and sometimes you don’t quite get that movement you are looking for from your team mates, forwards in particular. This is where the somewhat controversial addition of team mate controls adds another user controlled layer to off-the-ball movement. Fans shouldn’t have worried about it compromising the stability of the game in all honesty, not because it doesn’t work (it does and can be very useful) but it is bloody demanding and will for many feel somewhat unintuitive. Good! Pointing and clicking on the right stick to select a player to make a run (and in the case of manual control, moving the secondary player) is a test of dexterity but looking at it in a positive light, at least it will curb any spamming of the mechanic and ensures the game doesn’t regress into simply trying to bludgeon through an opposition defence. Well, one would guess that is theory and time will only tell if this proves to be the case. Not an essential addition as was suggested by some but run prompts are now present in a PES title, and this off-the-ball control also extends to set-pieces with them proving rather handy for throw-ins and corners, if not so much free-kicks unless you want to play short or into feet.

Player individuality is possibly the best it has ever been in any football game, bar perhaps defenders you don’t expect to be that good with the ball at their feet looking and feeling a little too comfortable in control, though it is perhaps a necessary compromise to maintain fluidity. Players such as former cover star Messi and current cover stars Ronaldo and Neymar are represented spectacularly and are a joy to control but technical players such as Iniesta, Silva and Modric amongst others are arguably the real stars. Dribbling mechanics are straight forward on the face of it but – in conjunction with stats influence – hide huge depth. Technical players truly shine in PES2012 as do quick, direct dribblers. It’s all about mastering the new burst mechanic with the right player, shifting and shielding the ball and using quick stop and go. The sidestep dribble can still feel a little too locked-in, with exits lacking some response. Tricks? All present and correct from last year but such is the influence of stats over the very deep ‘basic’ dribbling controls a must learn they are not.

It is pretty daunting facing up to all the games excellently realised individuals, especially given the demands of the new defensive controls, which come with a very steep learning curve that can have you thinking the system might be broken initially. After hours upon hours of play it does finally click and becomes deeply engaging; dispossessing the likes of Messi by holding him up via contain, trying to get him on his weaker foot and timing your tackle perfectly is immensely satisfying. To say that you need to be patient both in a match and in developing your skill in the fine art of defending over time is a huge understatement. With the otherwise excellent Training Challenge mode returning this year, the art of defending could and should be better explained in a controlled environment so as to allow players to develop a greater understanding more quickly. Slide tackles are more effective than last year (they had to be as you will be using them a great deal!) and refs make the right calls more often than not and do look to play advantage, with only the lack of an on screen indicator showing that this is the case perhaps causing confusion.

Pass Master?

All this intelligence in movement matters not without a good passing game being in place and it is here where PES2012 stumbles just a tad. Make no mistake, the passing game wonderfully crisp (ball physics have improved greatly) with that player individuality remaining a key factor regards vision and quality of execution but the ambiguous nature of the multiple levels of assistance selectable causes some annoyance. The simple fact is every setting can feel quite similar which for this player resulted in switching between assistance levels and never really settling until a number of sizable number of hours game time. The ‘’one size fits all’’ passing set-up of last year’s title needn’t have been tampered with in all honesty and if this level of control customisation in the passing game remains in future releases, it needs to be more pronounced and probably better explained.

Every player should find their level eventually after some time and the manual modifier mechanic remains and should always be an on-the-fly option, though manual long balls feel far too forgiving compared to last year, where it required skill to pick out a pass at range. It is still somewhat baffling why manual crossing is not possible and that shooting cannot be subject to manual modifier control or even be subject to user selectable assistance like passing. Regards shooting, it is far more satisfying than either last year or the demos would have had us believe, though there is still an element of mystery to mastering the art, with placement logic still not 100% . These observations  evaporate almost completely when a Villa, Ibrahimovic or Rooney take aim, so something is calculating away in there that dictates placement. Curled strikes with R2 are back in place, chipped shots carry a little more class in look and execution (though appear lacking in some error), direct free-kicks are very PES5 in feel and all round there is a greater variety of ways in which players strike the ball, within the confines of the animation engine. Yep, creating and scoring a goal in PES remains as satisfying as ever, maybe even more so in spite of some qualms over set-up. Liquid football on tap, though it could do with a little ice to remove the slightly rough edge when it goes down.

Keepers? Post-patch they have improved vastly over what was present in the two demos that have had many in a panic pre-release. It should be said they are improved over what was present before – they are not suddenly those keepers we crave due in part to their animations and them still displaying some sloth like reactions to some efforts on goal, particularly efforts close to them. They do seem to catch more and their parrying is a little more convincing. Truth be told it seems they are victim of technical restrictions though they do perform some frankly stunning saves and double saves. Not too shabby in 1 v. 1’s either and the best keepers at least inspire some confidence. Improved but still needing to be more consistent and better realised; surely a focus for the future editions.

It is the keepers who perhaps highlight where the franchise desperately needs to progress and that is in the animations department. Listen, PES2012 is not an entirely poorly animated game and there has been clear improvements made in spite of it not being the primary focus for this year. The game is generally very fluid and does what it can do consistently for the most part but you can see the joins so to speak. With EA truly excelling in this department, fans of PES can’t help but be more than a little envious that such technical prowess hasn’t found its way over to our footy game of choice and for all the progress that is apparent within the confines of the existing tech, knowing that considerably better is possible with current generation hardware will always put this top of our wish lists…even if we won’t always admit it.

Visually, PES2012 sits somewhere between the 2010 and 2011 editions. Lighting in particular is fantastic throughout just about all stadia and time settings (you will always have a favourite) and there is a nice variety in turf shades, though this player still craves the deep lush green of the Konami Stadium in PES2010 to make its return. Player likenesses, models and kit detail seem to be that little sharper as well and pitch-side detail and ambient touches add a sense of gravitas to proceedings. Konami still now how to surprise us and little things like animated managers, camera men and ground staff are all neat, welcome additions to the matchday spectacle. More national anthems feature for the international sides and have a very broadcast authentic regards their presentation. Wide-cam still disappoints in holding detail despite improvement but the new pitch-side camera could well prove to the preference of a many a player and with good cause – the game looks terrific from this new viewpoint. The audio during matches is basically the same, for better or worse, with Champion and Beglin’s commentary track still sounding a little sparse even with the addition of a few extra lines. The sound of the ball hitting post/bar or the ad-boards is damn cool though and to be fair, for all that the audio is pretty lo-fi, the crowd sound as though they are watching the game and react to goals, misses and fouls with some enthusiasm. Importing chants and music is still an option so it is not as if you can’t personalise the audio experience to some degree.

That’s (Football) Life!

PES has always had a wealth of single player content and PES2012 is no different on this front with everything pretty much being the same old, same old…

Aye, right! Football Life is epically marvellous! It’s as if all goes on in our heads during a Master League or Become a Legend campaign is now right there on the screen and only a Japanese developer would dare go down such a route and somehow make the experience both utterly compelling and so damned charming. It plays out like a football soap-opera of sorts with unsettled players bitching and whining about such things as not being picked, feeling fatigued or just throwing their toys out the pram for not being played in their preferred position. The club chairman even gets involved as well, giving you ‘’missions’’ that come with rewards if you complete them successfully.

This added layer of interaction with your squad and staff via your own created manager avatar brings these modes to life. Many may have seen videos or screenshots of the new look to the games main single player modes and unless you have a heart of stone you will be smiling and you will get hooked. Playing a fixture and the game cutting to your manager after key incidents is never going to get old. With everything going on before your very eyes the concern is that it will get repetitive and it can do but such is the way things zip along briskly these things never overstay their welcome and in fact results in the actual matches feeling like even more of an event than they ever were before. A triumph, and something that should not be spoiled any further in a review and instead experienced by all. All that is missing are some QTE’s where you can kick a boot in the eye of an underperforming player at half-time or put your 1st team coach’s head through the tactics board in your office after a defeat. Half serious here.

All the regular modes return and things are pretty much as you were here. Such is the quality of the gameplay and tactical depth on offer however that these modes such as Champions League, Copa Libertadores (hugely underrated addition) and the various leagues/cups that are common place in a PES offering are worthy distractions. It would be good to see a little more added to these modes in future releases given what the developers have offered up in the Football Life modes. It is nice to see that another league has made it in as well – albeit not fully licensed – in the form of the Portuguese league. Edit Mode appears largely untouched although the Import/Export feature could prove to be a godsend for Option File creators everywhere and the fans who reap the benefits of these guys slavish attention to detail. It can’t be emphasised enough how much the community can offer this game and what a great Option File will do in order to make it feel that little more complete.

At the time of writing, neither the online components or new myPES application that integrates with facebook had been sufficiently tested to pass comment. As always it is a case of waiting and seeing how it develops with many a contrasting opinion regards performance more than likely. What should be said is this. It would be a great shame if this game doesn’t deliver online as everything is there for it to be a great online title and Master League Online has immediately become a fans favourite.

Conclusion

PES2012 is a game that not only channels the spirit of the series past, but does so with confident strides towards a bright looking future. Sure, there are some issues with the game which are the well documented technical short comings and a very small number of probably fixable/tweakable  quirks that ultimately fail to compromise the pure gameplay focused experience on offer. This year’s offering from Seabass and his team is without doubt their finest in this generation and it should not be forgotten that this was a game developed in a country that fell victim to one of the worst natural disasters in history and most certainly had an effect on not only development itself but more importantly the passionate team behind the project. The fact that in the face of such national tragedy they have managed to deliver the best PES in years is worthy of note for all true PES fans, however insignificant that may be in the grand scheme of things.

A return to roots while not being scared to take some chances has resulted in a return to true form.

9/10

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