IGN Review of Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
"Engineered for freedom". No, it's not another eye-rolling tagline for the latest car TV ad, but the back-of-the-box headline for the 10th outing of Konami's annual feast of football. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is the usual marketing bulls**t. After all, did we not have the full 360 freedom to manually pass last year? Well, yeah, but let's not ruin a good slogan.
A less punchy tagline, but closer to the mark, would have been more freedom, more often. Konami loves boasting about this stuff, but it bears repeating - if only because it's actually true for the most part. The chief boast is the 'freedom to play', and this is definitely where PES impresses most this year.
Passing feels crisp, responsive and intuitive, and if you can get that right in a football game, you're halfway to greatness. Even if you're one of those players who completely overlooks left-trigger-enhanced manual passing, it's easy to see that Seabass and co. have completely nailed the fundamentals this time around. Simply knocking the ball around to feet, there's a satisfying zip to it, and fewer passes go limply astray. Likewise, AI players are more alive to the situation, and more likely to read your intentions and run towards misplaced passes or try and break into space. The system builds on the flow and excitement of last year's PES, albeit with added conviction.
But even when you're trying to win the ball back, the tweaks to the defensive system make the dogged art of jostling for possession feel less irritatingly bobbly and random. In PES 2011, positioning and timing is absolutely critical, and if you can get the right side of your man, the chances are you'll reap rewards. Call another player into the fray to close the player down and tackle, and it's a game where you're less likely to get punished for arbitrary, basic mistakes, but one where you can be passed into oblivion if you give opponent too much space. But while you can generally rely on your defenders getting tighter to the man and generally being less suicidal than previously, keepers can still pull a Robert Green when they want to. They'll probably blame the new balls...
The vast improvements to the animation across the board make the whole spectacle a great deal more convincing, too, meaning that a well-timed sliding or block tackle can be as game-saving as it would be in real-life. If you get it wrong, the slow-motion replay will generally reveal why, though it's fair to say that referees are still pretty intolerant creatures when you deign to lunge in.
On top of that, the improvements to the possession system make it much more rewarding to try and patiently build attacks with hold-up play. The unpredictability of the outcomes make it the sort of game where you'll try new things, whipping in a cross after stealing possession, only for an onrushing forward to score a spectacularly opportunistic diving header. The outcomes are rarely the same, and you'll find yourself taking a punt from all angles - only to miss as many sitters as you'll score improbable net busters.
Tactically, PES 2011 is a tinkerer's paradise. Not only does it have an elaborate stadium editor, but it has a fantastic new system that enables you to drag and drop players into precise formations, as well as issue the kind of team management instructions that effectively turn the game into an incredibly complex simulation.
Fortunately none of the tinkering is even remotely mandatory. On the contrary, the long-overdue reintroduction of variable game speed allows for plenty of mischief (even mid-game) allowing you to either dial it down to a geriatric pace, or crank it up for comedy capers. If that's the way you want to enjoy it, fine. At the very least, it allows you to put the cat amongst the pigeons once you've mastered it.
Tricks and feints play a slightly more prominent role this time around, though it's questionable whether this is necessarily for the best. Being able to create and customise your own link feints and map them to the right stick certainly looks pretty neat when you can pull it off, but it's questionable whether your average defensive clogger should be able to pull off a Step Over Dummy and Sideways Scissors at the drop of a hat. Sometimes, Konami, less is more.
Sadly in the case of PES' ongoing licensing poverty, less is definitely not more. The rather apologetic inclusion of a few more official licenses of the bigger teams (such as Bayern Munich) does not make up for having to play as London United or Merseyside Reds. Fortunately, the presence of real player names and some spot-on player likenesses swiftly helps negate the initial disappointment. Directly compared to the mighty FIFA, it's likely that many of you will actually prefer Konami's crisper, more vibrant visual approach - especially when you're playing two similarly coloured teams. Certainly, no-one can have any complaints about the front-end anymore, with its slick minimalism and roster of excellent tunes to nod along to. It's like they listened and everything.
Long term PES fans are also likely to be pulling their shirts over their heads and running around the living room at the thought of an online Master League. Needless to say, time limitations and the fact that the servers only went online on September 30 prevent us from giving detailed first-hand experiences, but you'd bet your house on it, given how well it works offline. Bidding against each other for the best players, in particular, will give an already hugely addictive, absorbing mode an entirely new dimension. Traditional online play, though, we were able to test just prior publication, and found it extremely easy to get up and running, and pleasingly lag tolerant. On the downside, it's a little short on options for an online game in 2010, and is definitely an area Konami could improve dramatically in the future.
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