PES 2012 Review (PC)

There’s something comforting about popping in a new Pro Evo, regardless of your allegiance in the great videogame football war of 2006-2011. Although Konami’s venerable series may have faltered on this latest generation of consoles, there’s a certain charm in the way that Seabass and co have stuck to their guns over the years, and indeed there are even a few elements of their simulation that the glitzy FIFA is yet to surpass. 2012 consolidates the series’ willingness to remould and tweak its animation and AI to yield a better on-pitch representation of the game, but - be warned - it’s also still a way short of the revolution some demanded when FIFA 07 rewrote the rules.

In terms of its core action, 2012 plays a noticeably different game to that of 2011. Player and team AI are markedly improved, with CPU-controlled midfielders and full-backs now content to bomb up the pitch and make intelligent runs when necessary. It’s a world away from the lethargic action that marked the previous couple of outings, and whilst it’s by no means perfect, each of the prominent teams has a more discernible style now. Defensive and midfield units act in unison with a little more believability, and the plague of the static defender seems to have been eradicated - they’ll track and shadow those new attacking runs with a vigour previously unseen in the series.

Facial animation has drastically improved

On first glance then, teams in 2012 simply move right. There’s an ebb and flow to the way that the ball is shifted around the pitch that’s wholly believable, and off-the-ball runs are enhanced even further by the new teammate control options. These are, effectively, Pro Evo’s answer to FIFA’s long-existing ‘trigger run’ button, allowing players to select teammates and time their forward movement to coincide with your own defence-splitting pass.

Of the two implementations of this new mechanic, the direct-control option is undoubtedly the most tricky. It allows you to manoeuvre a teammate directly with the right analogue stick whilst also controlling the player on the ball, effectively splitting your brain and your eyes in two. It comes into its own on set pieces for arranging attacking runs before calling for a ball into space, but I suspect - during open play - that most will stick to the standard system of quickly aiming the right stick to select a player and clicking to send them trundling forwards. That, unsurprisingly, works almost exactly the same as FIFA’s tried-and-tested trigger, and it’s a definite bonus for anybody that needs an extra cutting edge to their attack.

That incision is further enhanced (or stopped in its tracks) by the other two marquee features this year, which take shape as a new level of “physicality” in the jostling system and much smoother animation. Although the first of these is a minor tweak in reality, PES 2012’s shoulder-barging and physical interaction is definitely improved by an extended reliance on the physical characteristics of each player, but annoyingly it still suffers from protracted animation sequences that pre-determine the outcome of each incident. Too often there are un-interruptible barging sequences that you already know the result of, and it seems Konami has a way to go before they can match the competition in terms of physical interaction.

Lighting is superbly atmospheric

In terms of general animation, PES 2012 seems like a far less robotic and regimented affair than last year. Dribbling transitions occur with more fluidity than before, players are quicker to get the ball out of their feet, and the whole experience clips along at an increased speed that makes for a far more tactile and rewarding experience in both attack and defence. There are still moments where your player will decide to root himself to the spot or take forever to lay off even the simplest of passes, but on the whole the flow of movement is a huge step in the right direction. It might not have the glamour of FIFA’s impact engine to determine every aspect of the simulation, but then neither does PES have the hilarity that ensues when those organic physical interactions go wrong. Instead, the variety of animation in every area of the pitch is polished and sizable enough to make it a fun experience.

And yet, there are still familiar problems. Defenders get caught under the ball far too often, and bringing down a high pass is still a little ‘sticky’, with little in the way of the fluidity seen elsewhere on the pitch. Frequently, the engine will choose an entirely inappropriate animation for the context of the move that you were intending, such as Berbatov chesting the ball above his head, spinning 360 degrees on the spot and attempting a bicycle kick into row z when all you wanted him to do was head the damn ball. And speaking of which, crossing the ball in Pro Evo 2012 is by far the most effective route to goal, with an almost laser-like level of precision offered with a little too much frequency for comfort.

The structural and licencing issues remain also, and not even the atmospheric detail contained in the Champions League mode can mask the fact you’re still playing with altered versions of real-life teams. It’s all the more galling when you consider the improvements that Konami has made to their properly licenced teams and players, which sport an incredible amount of detail - right down to the new facial animation system that breathes further life into their well-modelled features. Just for one year we’d love to see what they could do with a FIFA-level licencing deal, but unfortunately 2012 isn’t it.

Stadium detail is packed

Elsewhere, things remain broadly the same. The menu structure has changed a little with the inclusion of ‘Football Life’, which rolls up most of the main singleplayer career and management modes into one section, and the usual slew of online and offline sections are present and functional. Of the time we spent in the online modes, lag was minimal and everything performed admirably. That’s subject to change on launch day of course, but it was refreshing to see everything ticking along nicely during the games we played. Human opponents open up the game and largely remove any traditional AI woes, and PES 2012’s increased speed plays a blinder in such circumstances.

It’s encouraging then to see Konami at least taking steps in the right direction with the PES series, and whilst it’s a good few generations behind FIFA at this point, it’s important to remember that this is a series that’s individual in its own right. Simply put, PES 2012 plays an extremely entertaining brand of football, largely sweeping away the complaints of the two previous versions in the process. There are problems for sure, but it’s nice to know that whichever of the football titans you choose this year, you’ll get a decent result.

Best Game Moment: Bending one in from 25 yards.