The Prodigal Son Returns
They say there’s no smoke without fire. Ever since PES 2011 was shown in Tokyo, and then most recently at E3, impressions from the press have been consistently positive. The improved competition has certainly moved the goal posts in-terms of what we now expect from a football game, but despite this the WEP team seem to be holding their own with ease so far. While the hardcore have remained loyal, with strong belief PES would somehow find it’s way again, most had given up by now. These positive previews, then, have given us all hope that the king has indeed returned. Surely, everyone can’t be wrong? It’s this feeling of anticipation and confidence that runs through me as I pick up the controller for the first time to play PES 2011.
And I think confidence is an apt word to describe the whole persona around PES 2011, from it’s development team to fan fave Jon Murphy. Over the past few years, to their own admission, over-confidence and laziness stilted the growth of the series dramatically. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and who can say that particular fine line was stepped on a few too many times since PES6. One thing we can all agree on, is that when PES is back hitting the heights of old, the guys from Konami will be the first ones to know about it. As me and Suffwan start up the game, we quickly realise just where this new found confidence is coming from. From the front end to the obvious revolutionary change once the game kicks off, everything about PES 2011 oozes quality. Before a ball is even kicked, we were both blown away by the menus and pre-match layout.
First of all the main menu system is reminiscent of WE8/PES4, something I shouted as soon as I saw it. The game modes are now selectable via a horizontal bar situated at the bottom of the screen which you cycle through, while the main screen graphic changes with your option. Very clean, visually strong and as ever staying true to the PES ethic of a quick and easy menu system to get to where you want quickly. As we choose our teams from a limited selection (Suff went Inter while I chose Real), we’re greeted by what is quite possibly the best formation/team edit screen ever in a football game! You’ve all seen it by now, it’s the screen showing the pitch with all your players dotted around it. The ability to change players, their position and their role is extremely easy and incredibly intuitive, and something you won’t truly appreciate until you experience it for yourself. The accessibility is in direct response to the deep but sometimes bewildering menu system of last year, which meant so much of the hard work Konami did with the AI and player cards were lost to many users. Not this year though, navigating through such complex options has never been so easy. Team picked, strategies in place, and into the match we go.
As if you need telling by now, PES 2011 is visually stunning. The same match intro sequence as seen last year was in place, but looked better with this new ‘skin’. PES 2010 was great graphically, and wasn’t the first thing most thought of when wanting to improve the game. While the difference is clear when seeing it in front of you, describing it is less than easy. The shine and ‘plastic’ look has been replaced by a more realistic filter, with colours and texture more lifelike and less gamey. Even the grass looks real. Seeing the same intro with this new look gives it a new lease of life, losing that familiar feel. The same can be said once the pre-match niceties end, as the camera swoops low and the players stretch and limber up ready for action.
We’ve been told many times PES 2011 is a brand new game, and there’s no question things have changed dramatically. Good news is, it will take only a few moments to realise just how much. It’s a bombardment of improvements and jaw-dropping change from the get go, re-affirming quickly what we’ve been told for a good few months. From the new broadcast camera, to the improved animations, and the new passing system, there’s nothing that remotely reminds you of PES on this generation – never mind PES 2010. As the game kicked off we were both lost for words at first, as it took a while to comprehend what we were seeing, and also try our hardest to get to grips with this new passing system. The new power bar and more manual control in passing has brought a massive change to PES, and for the first time in god knows how long, forces you to play the game completely differently. Simply tapping X (we played on PS3) while aiming towards a player is half the work now, as now you have to apply the exact amount of power you want. Seen in FIFA for a while, but not quite like this, it forces the player to simply take more care in where and who you’re passing with. While short passes require little skill and TLC, anything that is passed over a little more distance means more effort in aiming, especially with less skilled players.
We instantly felt this need to be more thoughtful with our play as we passed the ball forward quickly without thinking much, and it go astray. While directional control is accurate enough with a majority of players, there’s no hand holding or computer assistance in getting that ball to your player. Under-hitting or overhitting the ball leaves you with obvious problems, and requires you to concentrate more than ever when playing a pass to a team mate. PES being PES though, even such an integral element in the game isn’t decided on manual control alone. Similar to how the guys at EA copied elements from PES and looked to improve on it, Konami have done the same but added a personal touch. That key addition is player individuality.
Coming into the playtest, this free passing system worried me, as while it could bring a new way of playing PES, the individuality factor is what has kept me attached to the series. I’m happy to say this philosophy hasn’t been lost in this new adventure. Getting the ball to Alonso was much more beneficial for example, as the accuracy and power was more forgiving than playing the same pass with Marcelo. Me and Suff both agreed there was this feeling the ball seemed to ‘home in’ on the intended target accurately with the better passers, and was always easier to control. The same can be said in playing the ball into space, the better passers in the game really did have an influence in dictating play and control the flow of the game. Once we managed to get our heads around the new passing system, we were left trying to soak in all the new animations in the game.
Lets make this clear, the animations in PES 2011 are on another planet compared to PES 2010. There’s no point comparing them to last year in a still frame or gameplay segments from a trailer, seeing them in front of your own eyes playing the game is where it’s at. And for me and Suff, it was one of major take-aways from this first look. Even before the whistle blew for kick off it was clear we were in for a treat, with players going through their warm-up routines. All very natural and believable, especially when you add in the effect the new camera gives you. Once the game started, our faces must’ve looked like a few kids at their first firework display, mouth open and saying ‘wow’ every few mins.
Running, dribbling, tackling, passing, heading, falling etc etc you name it, every single animation has either been improved or redone. On top of that, the additional animations have created the most fluid PES game ever. Players move and swivel their body into each turn, no more unnatural movements with players unrealistically moving into certain directions. Passing and shooting animations have also been added, with players really taking into account where the ball is, and whether or not they have time to move it onto their preferred foot. If the ball is too far on their left side and they’re right footed, players are more likely to try and flick the ball forward with the outside of the right boot. More time? Expect the player to use his instep and pass more accurately that way.
The same improvement can be said of the dribbling. The additional animations really bring player movement with the ball to life, with linking animations being the key improvement in this area. The 360 degree dribbling has been well documented and rubbished in PES 2010 by a number of people, but the whole idea of it being in this year would be much harder to argue with. Players move with great accuracy and response, without ever feeling unrealistic. As you would expect from PES, well known dribblers like Ronaldo/Messi/Robben naturally feel better when in possession, and they take many more touches of the ball when moving around the pitch, always giving you a feeling you can change direction if needs be.
While we’re on the subject of dribbling, it’s probably worth me quickly pointing out the new trick moves PES 2011 has introduced. In all honesty it wasn’t something we dedicated our time on, as most of it was just focused on playing the game and getting used to the passing and physical play. From what we did see of it though, we were pleasantly surprised by its implementation. I’ve never been into tricks myself, and it won’t be something I’d be using when playing the game, but by pressing L1 and then inputting movements on the right stick you can perform a variety of tricks. What pleased me the most was the fact no trick was a sure-fire way of beating an opponent, and the over elaborate ones require the player to perform a few tricks before linking in something like the rainbow, meaning they are easier to anticipate and require more time to pull off. My favourite one though is the heel flick inside, made famous by the likes of Ronaldo and Drogba, and was last seen in PES 2008. It was a great way turning inside an opponent and getting the ball onto your favoured foot, and also looked eerily realistic. A worry from the trailer showed tricks not linking together well and stuck to the players foot, but these fears were gone after seeing it in action.
The final big leap in animations in the game came from the physical play. As documented, there are now 3 ways of defending in PES. Pressing X to track a player, X and moving the stick towards your own goal means giving up space so you don’t get beaten, and finally X and towards the player for a more aggressive way of winning the ball back. All worked well, and all looked very realistic when seeing it in action. While the first two had pleasing gameplay repercussions, visually the aggressive form of tackling was the most pleasing. Seeing players tussle for the ball in PES is something we’ve all been calling for, and to see it working as well as we hoped for in the game is a dream come true. The good news is the physical play isn’t just for show, as with the power bar passing, Konami have stayed true to PES’s philosophy. Bigger stronger players will be able to hold off challenges much better than smaller weak players, obviously, but it all comes down to stats and player positioning. In the later games with me as Italy and Suff as Holland, Van Bommel came steaming into Pirlo. A quick shift of the stick away from him meant he came crashing into the back of me, causing Pirlo to fall and win a freekick. Unlike in FIFA, simply pressing X won’t provide an easy way to pressure an opponent, the need to time those aggressive moments is key. Especially with response times improved and refs fixed.
Another worry from all the additional animations coming into the playtest was if the response times had been sharpened up since last years obvious problem. Thankfully, the added animations have actually helped matters with response times, giving players more variety in passing and moving into directions when you need to instantly. Same can be said of the R2 stop, with players able to stop much quicker of the ball is close to their feet. This allows players with better technique to be more important in the game. As mentioned, thankfully the referees are much, much better. During our entire playtest they didn’t make one bad decision, with every obvious foul correctly punished. Same can be said of the less brutal ones, with us both giving away many fouls for being over aggressive when trying to win the ball the back. The advantage rule was also witnessed a few times, although we didn’t see anyone getting booked after play stopped for a previous foul.
Concerns at this stage are minimal, mainly because every problem we pointed out is apparently being looked at. Goal keepers, while behaving more like they should, still parry far too much and let in the odd clanger. Penalty kicks are still from PES 2010 it seems, we can only hope and pray that this changes soon. Other smaller niggles include players taking a little too long trapping high balls, and taking too long releasing a shot.
Overall though, even at this early stage, it’s simply difficult not to be impressed by the giant steps Konami have made this year. After years of claiming they have created a new game, their promises of change are true. It’s a time for fans to rejoice, as our faith has finally been rewarded. It’s also a time for those who jumped ship to come back and see what all the fuss is about. Overall though, it’s time to anticipate the prospect of no longer using the likes of PES5/6 as a reference point of the series at its best. With time still to improve an already solid game, there’s every chance this is the year the prodigal son returns.
Make sure you listen to this evenings podcast for further impressions, released 6pm here and on itunes.