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Following injuries sustained by devastating online lag last year, PES squares up for another shot on goal...
- Become A Legend mode is promising.
- 2 vs. 2 online multiplayer for the first time.
- Online lag has been ironed out for the most part.
- The Champions League mode lacks substance.
- An auto-trick feature spoils the fun.
- Player animations are jerky at times.
PES really does have its work cut out this year. FIFA finally broke the camel's back with its 2009 game, one of the finest versions in the series' illustrious history. To counter this, PES has added depth with an official UEFA Champions League mode, Become A Legend to rival FIFA's Be A Pro features, and an expansion to its online multiplayer offerings to boot. Have Konami's pre-season signings added zest to PES' attack, or will its defence flounder under a barrage of incoming FIFA talent?
Ch, Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes
As far as the general gameplay is concerned, it's much the same experience as last year with a few key changes that require players to re-master their tactics from PES 2008. This is a standard PES trick, fiddling with the balances of various facets in the game so that the formula doesn't become stale. Lightning fast gameplay has always been a trademark of the series and this year is no different as far as flowing attacks are concerned. However, Konami has added a bit of weight to the dribbling and close control that does slow things down a touch.
For example, the series is famed for sending players down channels while dash dribbling; each change in direction has typically resulted in the same angular runs. This is still the case in 2009, but only when players are fully up to speed. You'll have to knock the ball forward in one direction a couple of times with a dash dribble before you can make that change in direction otherwise you'll lose the pace you've built up and turn too sharply. Similarly, players are a little more uncertain of themselves with first touches and one touch passing. Unless your player sets himself and has full control of the ball, pass attempts have a tendency to go a bit wayward.
This doesn't change the overall speed of the game - razor sharp counter-attacks are still just as exhilarating - but it does mean that you have to make sure players are in a bit more space when you pass to them, providing a split second longer for them to receive the ball and get their bearings before playing it on again. Chip through balls also seem to have been tweaked a little, as you can now pull them off from a bit more distance, but many of these gameplay changes have come and gone from PES games in the past (PES 5 got a bit technical with first touches a few years back as well), so they're more like trends than improvements per se.
What we will say though, is that some of FIFA's improvements have made PES look like it's been dragging its feet a little. For example, the jostle system for heading from goal kicks or long balls and fending off players while dribbling used to be one of PES' most appealing elements. It's been there since the very first game, but the Konami team hasn't done a whole lot with it in recent times. FIFA, on the other hand, introduced a groundbreaking jostle system this year. The way you have to time your jumps from goal kicks to get the power of a header exactly right is superbly weighted, while the animations accompanying players battling up the wing are nigh-on sublime.
In comparison to this, PES' system seems a little flat this year and the animations of players scuffling for the ball are even clunky at times. The things is, the PES system was once a milestone that's now been weathered over the years and because FIFA has shown us something better, it's sent a crack down the side of PES' offering. And don't even get us started on Konami's decision to do away with special moves - that's really infuriated us. If you try and do a Marseille turn with the right analogue stick now then you'll just perform a wayward manual pass. These types of moves are still in the game, but are dependent on your movement from the left analogue stick and are designed to happen of their own will rather than being commanded by your button pressing mastery. This really does gut PES of its vitality, but at least the trusty single and double scissor moves are still there.
Taking all of this into account, our verdict on general gameplay dynamics is lukewarm. There's not much new here and what is different hardly pushes the boat out as far as original thinking is concerned. PES just doesn't seem to have an answer to FIFA's improvements this year. Even the UEFA Champions League license provides little more than official skins over everything in the mode, lavish FMV sequences to get you in the mood, and the Champions League theme played in the various menu screens before each match (which gets a bit tiring after a while).
The actual cup itself is pretty similar the unofficial euro club cub in previous PESs, which had 32 teams and a group stage prior to the knockouts. The official teams in the Champions League mode are the same as everywhere else in the game (i.e. only a couple of English teams, although the list of official European clubs has been expanded considerably) and when you start a new cup it just randomly draws 32 European teams from the whole roster. In fairness, the draw for this year's Champions League was made after Konami would've been able to add in the its results, but there isn't even an option to select the teams involved - it's all completely random.
Time To Change The Oil
The one thing that has got us pretty excited about PES this year is the Become A Legend mode, which is basically Konami's answer to FIFA's Be A Pro. As FIFA has been emulating some of the features in PES over the last few years, it's only fitting that PES should take a leaf from FIFA's book at last (and yes, we're aware that Winning Eleven has had the mode for a while, but this is its first time in The West). As with Be A Pro, Become A Legend challenges you to play as one footballer on a team with a focus on your positioning a team play. At first sight, certain elements of the mode aren't as well produced as FIFA's Be A Pro. For example, the camera isn't quite as slick and the player ratings are accurate, but not as detailed.
What it does do, however, is have a crucial link to online play that FIFA lacks, as well as little touches that harbour the unmistakable brilliance of PES. For example, while creating your player you can opt to customise areas such as your penalty or freekick run-ups and goal scoring celebrations as well (we chose Romario's 'Rock a Baby' as one of ours). Become A Legend is actually the single-player element of the mode, where you start off as a promising youngster trying to work your way onto the bench. Before this can happen though, you'll spend a good hour playing in team practice matches trying to impress the coaches before you even get a seat on the bench. This makes it so much more rewarding when you eventually do stride out onto the pitch in a full match, and it's touches like these that really bring the mode to life.
Once you've improved your player's stats and got some practise in, you can then export this player into the online "Legends" games with up to 4 other players. Yes, it's true that FIFA has online games for up to 10 vs. 10 players, but have you ever played in them? They really are dire, with everyone thinking they're a striker and bunching around the ball like a bunch of primary school kids. PES has gone with the sensible option of placing all 4 players on the same team and challenging them to beat computer teams at various difficulty levels. What's more, there's a neat Japanese arcade style points system that rewards players for good combinations and teamwork (complete with slot machine style sound effects whenever you receive an influx of points).
The online multiplayer improvements aren't just limited to this, as you can now play 4 player conventional matches as well (finally). The horrible glitchy lag from last year's game is much less of a problem this time around (at least on the Xbox 360 version that we've been playing). There are still traces of it from time, but it's been eradicated for the most part and Konami has smoothed over the problems even though the overall experience may still be a bit patchy at times.
Visuals have also seen an improvement over last year's game with improved player likenesses and smoother textures. However, player animations have taken a step backwards as they're often jerky, particularly during the sort of jostling situations we mentioned earlier, while goalkeepers have a worrying tendency to parry what are actually fairly simple catches. As we've come to expect from a PES game, the sound verges on drilling for the most part. Apart from the Champions League music (which is overused), the rest of the game's backing track is pretty appalling, listing bands and songs that we'd never heard of and, to be honest, we wish we never had. Jon Champion and good old Mark 'Lawro' Lawrenson do a pretty good job with the commentary though.