Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 Review (PS3)
For the past couple of years, the quality of the once mighty Pro Evolution Soccer franchise has been dropping at an alarming rate. It felt like the developers could not decide what the game wanted to be -- simulation or arcade -- and therefore the end product became a confusing smorgasbord of both. In other words, this year's title needed to escape the gaming doldrums before the series as a whole was marginalized forever.
Thankfully, PES 2011 gives notice that the PES series is not dead. PES 2011 is the best PES of this console generation by a country mile. However, it's not yet the gold standard all over again. It's a very good game in its own right, but dig deeper and you'll find some frustrating flaws that prevent this game from being an excellent one.
Tiki Taka Football
First off, the good. And there's plenty that's good in PES 2011. I'm glad to report that PES is indeed going back to its simulation roots. The game is a godsend for players who play a slow and methodical game because the buildup play is immensely satisfying. Part of the reason why the buildup play is so satisfying is because the developers have done a good job over the years of creating a pitch that feels big enough to hold 22 players. It might seem like a mundane point, but the relatively large pitch gives players lots of space to move. So even if the opposition plays a heavy pressing game, you are still given a realistic amount of time to contemplate your next move.
The same thing applies on defense. If your definition of defense is mashing the pressure button until you win the ball back, the AI will shred you to pieces on the higher difficulty levels because there's just too much ground to cover.
This year PES added full manual passing, which the developers cleverly mapped to a modifier trigger button so users can decide on the fly when to use it. Unless you're the type to go out and seek a challenge, however, you'll probably find yourself forgetting about the option because the aiming is just too unforgiving. The default semi-assisted option feels great to use. Passing has been tweaked so that a lot of the success rate depends on the analog stick. While this might mean a lot of errant passes at the beginning, it will invariably lead to some nice buildup play as you are now offered the option of playing the ball into space. Of course, the pass accuracy also depends on the player rating, so playmakers like Xavi, Pirlo and Scholes are much more capable of hitting that killer ball.
On that note, player individualization is very noticeable with the help of player cards. Just like in PES 2010, these "cards" define each player’s trademark moves and playing style. For example, controlling those aforementioned pass masters in the midfield feels very different than a battle-axe player like a Gattuso or a Hargreaves.
All this adds up to some very organic, spontaneous moments of play. There is no definite "money" goal. Like real soccer, your best chance to score is to react to what the opposition gives you.
Mourinho Would Be Proud
On the other end of the field, PES 2011 introduces a new defensive system. It used to be that holding the X button on the PS3 controller commanded your player to pressure the opposition in hopes of making a standing tackle. Now holding X is just a starting point; you then have to decide whether to actively pressure by moving the analog stick towards the opposing player, or moving it towards your own goal to simply try to contain him. This new wrinkle makes playing defense in the game feel much closer to the real thing. Instead of trying the nearly impossible task of dispossessing a player like Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi, your best hope for success is to instead steer him into a corner or to a second defender, as one would in real life.
The Buildup Breaks Down
Now, the not so good. Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is the lack of speed separating defenders and attackers. In PES 2011 even the most lead-footed defender can catch up to a speedy winger. While players who possess both technique and pace can still evade defenses with relative ease, the more one-dimensional speed merchants are not so lucky. So players who knock the ball past defenders and torch them with a quick burst of speed, like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon, are rendered pretty much useless in the game.
Another area where PES falls short is in its player AI. Your computer teammates are not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. For a game that has a renewed dedication to realism, there are moments of wacky AI behavior that will really challenge your suspension of disbelief. Playing a one-two with a striker will more often than not end up with that striker running in a straight line until he is yards offside. Attacking fullbacks never overlap your winger. And if you're on the wing, be prepared to hold the ball up for a few seconds before your middle players begin to leisurely roam into the box.
While none of these elements are game breakers, they rear their ugly head enough times to prevent you from playing the style you really want to. This is frustrating because these silly AI issues negate a lot of good that the new passing system brings to the pitch. In a perverse way, however, this actually makes the passing improvements that much more crucial. And by that I mean short passes around the pitch are the best -- if not the only -- way to get your entire team to move where you want to, so during the buildup you will have to manually control most of your team.
Up Into Row Z
Shooting in PES 2011 feels mediocre. Like last year, it is still heavily dependent on your player's positioning, as it should be. For example, a shot taken in stride has a much better chance of hitting the target than an off-balanced one. And given enough time and space, good players will still score some spectacular thunderbolts. But strikers, no matter how good, will balloon a shot when they are being jostled by the defense. Ball spin is almost nonexistent, and most shots seem to travel in that same straight, dipping pattern. In hours of play, I have never seen or been able to pull off a shot with an inside curl.
Penalty shots are still as frustrating as ever. At last search there are about 15 tutorial videos on YouTube discussing penalty shots, which says a thing or two about what should be one of the most basic parts of soccer. That's not the case in PES 2011. While the developers deserve recognition for trying to add some variety by putting more responsibility on user aiming, the end product becomes needlessly complicated. In the end a slight nudge on the analog stick will usually send your penalty kick flying into the stands, which is just no good.
Off the Ball
Referees took a step back this year. Advantages are poorly implemented. Not only is there a lack of an on-screen indication of an advantage like in the past -- though you can see the referee himself gesture it, if you look carefully enough -- they never hand out a delayed card, either. Worse yet is the fact that you just don't know when the referee will give the advantage; I've had plenty of breakaways halted because of a light nudge.
Linesmen have the sight of an eagle, so every single time a player is an inch offside they will spot it. While rules are rules, this is just frustrating because no other soccer game has called such a tight offside before.
There is a new "drag and drop” setup this year for formation and tactics. From a usability point of view it's definitely a success. You can change everything from your starting 11 to your team shape in a few clicks.
Playing styles are defined using adjustable numerical values for options such as mentality, back line, pressing and width. While this helps customize your team style to a certain extent, the developers' bizarre decision to remove player arrows confounds. In previous PES games you could set individual players' runs with the help of directional arrows, commanding them to move wide, cut inside or drop deep. This year the player behaviors are entirely dependent on their cards and their position in the formation, which, coupled with the spotty player intelligence, can yield some questionable results.
PES 2011 is a good looking game. Most players look like they do in real life in terms of faces and physiques. Movement is fluid, and animations are aplenty. It is hard to spot moments where a player artificially "enters" into an animation. While there is nothing graphically in the game that makes your jaw drop, there is nothing that jars you out of virtual reality either. It should be noted, however, that the PS3 version suffers from a slightly worse case of the "jaggies." You will probably forget about that aspect after a couple minutes with the game, but at first sight it is slightly off putting.
The UEFA Champions League and Europa League licenses are back again this year, in addition to the newly acquired Copa Libertadores license. They don't provide much in terms of substance, but they still add a nice layer of gloss to the overall atmosphere. Watching players walk onto the pitch of a nighttime Champions League match with the operatic anthem ringing around the stadium will still send chills down most fans' spines.
And of course no PES review would be complete without moaning about its lack of team licenses. Yes, part of it is due to EA's exclusive deal with the Premier League, but no matter the reason, fake jerseys and team names still knock the reality level down a notch.
At this point nobody should expect much from PES' commentary. While I've always enjoyed Jon Champion’s ESPN broadcasts, in the game he comes off much too scripted. Jim Beglin, if you're lucky enough to hear him more than a few times, sounds more like a fan in the stands than a color commentator. He usually pipes up right before a goal with memorable gems such as "oh my" and "unbelievable!"
In an effort to pump up the authenticity levels, Konami has also added real-life chants for its licensed teams. These chants predictably start to get annoying after a few games as there are only two to three per team. You can only listen to Man United fans praising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and denigrating Alan Shearer to the tune of You Are My Sunshine so many times -- though I do give credit to Konami for being ballsy enough to include a chant with an F-bomb.
The bread and butter for offline PES gamers, Master League is back. With the exception of dedicated footie manager games, this is the deepest "franchise" mode out there for the sport.
There are no big changes this year. You, the manager, are still tasked with acquiring players, bringing along youth, hiring the proper coaches and ensuring continued success by winning trophies and earning prize money to keep your club out of the red. Save for the few odd transfers (Mesut Ozil to Aston Villa?), this mode is realistic, deep and it's certainly addictive.
Become a Legend
Become a Legend also makes its return. Konami's answer to FIFA's Be a Pro mode, it is very much the same thing. Create a player, sign with a lower-end team, play well, wait for a move to one of the giants and perhaps captain both your club and country in due time. This year the developers added a pregame element where your coach gives you tactical instructions on how to play ("hold the ball up and wait for support," "play it to the flanks," and so on). It's a welcome addition. Whereas in the past you might have felt a bit lost on the field, these instructions certainly help now that you have some tactical goals in mind.
In addition to the regular online modes, this year's pièce de résistance is Master League Online. Don't let the name fool you, MLO is nothing like the offline Master League. For starters every team starts off with a batch of ragtag players, and there is no official league schedule to speak of either. Instead you log on at your leisure to play matches against other users, as well as cup competitions, for prize money. Win enough matches and you get promoted to a higher division. Prize money is then used to acquire real-life (and better quality) players to help you work your way to the top. If online play is a priority, do try it out as it definitely adds continuity and longevity to the mode.
The quality of online matches is decent. Not lag free, mind you, but if you can stand a slight delay you can still play a good game of soccer against a human opponent. However, in 10 matches I have lost connection in two of them -- not the best sign.
After 90 Minutes
I have avoided the FIFA comparisons until this point, just because I want to judge PES 2011 based on its own merits. But I think in terms of overall style, this is an apt comparison: While FIFA feels like the well-oiled machine that gets all the technical aspects right, PES feels like the game, in spite of its flaws, that conveys the soul of the beautiful game. It's hard to define what exactly "soul" is, but let me just say that there's still nothing quite like stringing together 20 odd passes then pinging an incisive through ball to your onrushing striker for the kill in PES.
Having said that, PES is a very good game, but it is certainly nowhere near perfection. You can play some pretty soccer on the ball, but off the ball the AI just does not live up to that high standard.
So is PES really back? It all depends on your definition. But after a couple years of having an identity crisis, the franchise is definitely on the right track.
On the Pitch: A wonderful simulation of the game. Pace is measured, methodical passing is rewarded. It’s a game for the thinking player. However, this is letdown by some questionable AI teammates that don’t always go where you think they will.
Visuals: Looks very good. Realistic player faces and builds, fluid animations. Stadiums (especially at night) look beautiful. But lack of authentic licenses still stings.
Audio: Playing PES for the audio is like playing Football Manager for the graphics. It’s just not very good.
Entertainment Value: Master League still reigns supreme. This is the mode that will last offline gamers months as they try to take their favorite teams to the top of the continent.
Learning Curve: The new passing system will take some getting used to, but is ultimately rewarding. Difficulty, even at at the highest level, still feels a bit too easy though.
Online Play: Master League Online is a nice addition. Organized divisions and cups give online play some much needed structure, but connection quality can vary.
Score: 8.0 (Very Good)