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Konami's PES series regroups following last year's disastrous instalment and TVG finds much to be positive about...
If game development were anything like football management, then Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka, the Executive Producer of Konami's PES series, would be in serious danger of losing his job this season. A run of bad form over the past few years has been reflected in dwindling review scores and game sales for the once undisputable pinnacle of footie gaming. Thankfully though, game development isn't like football management. Seabass remains in charge of the PES team instead of handing in his resignation and making jaded statements to the press about how this is a 'results based business'. With this more reasonable tenure, he's been able to return PES to the top level of footie gaming and form a line-up that can be competitive in Europe once again.
Not since Harry Redknapp took charge of Tottenham in 2008 has there been seen such a swift reversal of fortunes in the world of football. PES 2011 shows huge improvements across the board from single-player to online multiplayer, modes to presentation, and graphics to gameplay. This is at long last a PES game that sits comfortably on current-gen machines. It's a year for the series where the empty promises of previous iterations have finally come to fruition and PES' identity crises of the last few years now appears to have at least been partially righted. Finally you get the sense that this is the classic fun of PES that's been brought up to date with many of the bells and whistles demanded by the modern [video] game.
The 360-degree dribbling controls, which were promised in last year's game but ultimately came out feeling like the same old 8-way directional controls, now appear to be running smoothly in PES 2011. While we still doubt whether there are actually 360 fine increments of control in the game, the number of channels that players can run through and the finesse of their movement between them has undeniably taken a huge stride forward. A second '360-degree' piece of marketing spiel has joined dribbling this year as Konami has been using the same term to refer to PES' revamped passing controls. Again, 360-degrees of control seems a little over exaggerated but there's no doubting the improvements that this feature brings to the game.
Essentially a system that bridges the gap between automatic and manual passing, this 360-degree Passing Ratio effectively brings an end to the days of shouting 'No, not to him!' at your TV as a pass picks out a marked team mate rather than the in-on-goal striker next to him that you intended. It's the default system for passing in PES 2011 (fully manual passes can still be made with specific button combinations) and it brings both the direction and weight of a pass under much tighter control. Passes now go directly where you're aiming them on the analogue stick rather than to the feet of a player in that vague area, while there's also a wider variation of power in the passes depending on how much you charge the pass button. It's not fully manual by any means as nearby players will still 'lock-on' to passes in their direction, but the new system does bring a welcome end to the days of pinballing the ball around with an uninteresting level of ease.
So the mechanics of PES are much improved this year, which is also exemplified by improvements in the jostling system. Although still embryonic in parts, the system now boasts a wider array of more convincing animations as player's fight for possession, making for a more well-rounded game experience. This is likewise the case with improved AI, particularly along the defensive line that now forms a more solid offside trap and avoids the tendency of bunching in the box, which used to open up huge cavities of space for attackers to exploit. At times these defenders can be a little too rigorously drilled if we're honest - we've seen occasions where three of them have lined up in unison along the goal line to back-up a downed keeper - but the AI is still many times more convincing in this area than it was previously.
Away from the pitch, improvements to PES' Master League and Become A Legend modes are instantly noticeable. We particularly liked the changing room cut-scenes before and after each Become A Legend match where your manager gives team talks and praises your good performance or gives you a dressing down for not doing what he asked. Specific tasks like 'attack their left wing' or 'play a possession game' make good use of match stats and the feedback from your manager tends to reflect your on-field performance accurately. Of course, being PES it's not without its whimsical text that's been somewhat lost in translation (we particularly liked being told not to go forward too quickly but also be wary of staying back too much as well - presumably we should also try and score some goals to?), but the new additions to Become A Legend are solid for the most part.
The standard Master League mode benefits from more production sheen all-round that at least presents the illusion of greater depth, but it's undeniably the online component that adds the most substantive new content. While Master League Online operates separately from the offline mode, the concept is largely the same. You start with the mode's trademark bunch of low stat reprobates (Espinsas, Ivanov, and alike...) and the aim is to get additional funds by winning online matches and tournaments. This can then be spent on players that exist on a transfer market which varies according to online demand. If everybody buys Messi for their team then he'll become a higher valued player and vice-versa. It's original features like this that PES should be pioneering and the series seemed to lose its way in this regard over the last few years, so thankfully Master League Online is a step in the right direction.
PES 2011 is still far from perfect though. On the field, penalties remain the dark art that they were last year. Konami really should just bring back the classic controls to be honest. Throw-ins seem to have taken on a life of their own as well - getting the aiming right is now a cause of much consternation. On the upside of all this though, at least tricks and feints have recovered from the multitude of problems that plagued them over the last couple of years, what with the auto-trick feature of PES 2009 and general malaise surrounding last year's attempt to readdress the issue. Konami has now decided to implement a very similar system to FIFA where tricks are performed by gestures on the right thumbstick while holding down the left trigger button. It may not be the classic PES style of well-timed button presses, almost akin to an arcade fighting game, but at least it makes more sense now.
Speaking of the game's arcade nature, it's hardly been dialled down this year. Late challenges, no matter how horrific, often go unpunished without even so much as the referee signalling advantage. The pace is still very fast, although the new passing system admittedly dials it down a bit. Thankfully however, the JRPG-style Card system from PES 2010 has been dispensed with. Replacing it in the formation settings menu (or should we say 'Game Plan') is a Management Edit function which allows you to tailor team strategies to specific periods in a game depending on whether you're behind, in front, or drawing. It's a bit woolly if we're honest but, then again, if you're into that kind of strategic depth (and many PES fans evidently are) then you'll no doubt find some appeal in the feature.
PES' visuals are certainly starting to gather pace now following last year's initial signs of recovery. During the pre-match build-up and instant replays, some of the character models are as realistic as you'll find them in any other football game. Less immediately evident improvements such as pitch textures also add to the appeal, while the motion-blur seen in the replays is a welcome touch. Things do get a bit weird though when the camera pans out and textures are dialled down. Strong outlines on the players can lead to some quite blocky appearances and almost present the quality of a poorly Photoshopped image at times. This is barely noticeable unless you're looking out for it though, a bit like Cat Deeley's skewiff nose.
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