Pro Evolution Soccer has enjoyed an illustrious history. If you had to compare the series to a real-life football team then it would undoubtedly be Liverpool. Like Liverpool, the Konami title was the early benchmark setter in terms of the console football game. It was a trailblazer and football sim purists heaped praise upon it for tackling the game in the right way. After all, this is the beautiful game that we're talking about.
But, again like Liverpool, the series has suffered in recent years. So often the pretender to PES's throne, EA's offering, FIFA (undoubtedly now the Manchester United of the football game world), has slowly, but surely, become the undisputed number one football title. But can the latest incumbent, Pro Evolution Soccer 2011, prevent the series from going the way that the once mighty Reds have in recent months (i.e., tits up) or has the once-proud-king had its day?
We'll start with gameplay because this is undoubtedly the most crucial aspect of a football sim. The reason that FIFA is now seen as the top title is that EA started to focus on gameplay rather than just having all the official kits and the best animations. Sure, these are nice touches, but when you're playing your mates, or some random kid halfway across the world via the online option, all you really care about is that the game plays out in a realistic manner. And PES 2011 doesn't disappoint when it comes to gameplay. Although it does surprise.
The first few matches you play will lead you into believing that you've wandered out of Konami's game and into another - it really does appear that different. At least, on first impressions it does. Once you've settled into it though (and cranked the match speed up to +1), you will begin to appreciate the differences and realise that the familiar PES is lurking there, underneath. And, whisper this quietly, not the poor PES variations of the last couple of years, but the brilliant PES of 2005 and 2006.
The first change you will notice is that the camera angles used for the default setting are a bit weird. You get a nice side on view, a la Sky Sports' football coverage for kick off, and the pitch looks decidedly skew-whiff for corners and goal-kicks, but you'll soon get used to this. What will take you a bit longer to get used to is PES 2011's new “total control” which means an “enhanced 360-degree passing ratio”. If you're confused as to what this means, then let us put it in simpler terms - the passing is now much harder.
But, once you begin to tame it, you come to realise that it is vastly improved. No longer will a quick tap of the pass button find an unmarked team-mate, you'll now have to aim and judge pass lengths yourself, which is made a tad easier using the new power-gauge (which also comes in handy for shooting, which has improved, but isn't greatly different). As a result of the pass-reinvention, through balls are back to their PES best, with defence splitting passes now being the reward of any player who can master this aspect to the game.
Another big difference, with the onus being on the word big, is that players can now kick the ball much further and much harder. This is more realistic, but it does mean that it's harder to assess just how long to hold the long-pass button for a cross-field ball. However, it also means that, finally, you'll be able to get a decent clearance from the back, and put the ball to safety - rather than simply teeing up an onrushing midfielder 30-yards out - an aspect that PES has always sorely lacked.
Goalkeepers have had a major overhaul in PES 2011 it seems as well, with more realistic animations, and a far greater array of save techniques on offer, including some very impressive instinct reactions. Don't worry though traditionalists, the goalkeepers on PES 2011 are still guilty of the same mind-numbing errors that they always have been.
Another gameplay aspect that hasn't escaped the PES surgeon’s knife is defending. Defenders will now hold their positions, rather than charging in, and jostle with attackers. However, we found this new defender AI to lead to a few problems - sometimes defenders would hold positions at the wrong time and look a bit static. It was a bit like watching John Terry play.
Players also appear to be a bit more physical than on previous versions, with plenty of shoulder argy-bargy going on, and stronger players often out-muscling their weaker opponents. Drogba, for example, is an absolute monster on the game if you can get him running on the shoulder of the last defender.
A final aspect of the gameplay that is worth mentioning is that it is now possible to map skills to the right analogue stick in advance of the match, dependent on individual player's abilities. So, expect to see plenty of YouTube vids with clips of Messi, Ronaldo and the likes terrorising defenders in the coming months.
The tactics and manager side has seen a huge redesign, which some PES purists will possibly see as unneeded. Every detail of a match plan can now be pre-planned, with tactics even customisable in 15-minute blocks dependent on whether you're winning, drawing or losing. You can let a manager take control of your team, who may select the starting XI on form rather than the default line-up, or, as per the traditional PES route, you can customise the team yourself using either complex, or simple settings. One nice improvement on the tactics side is that you can now simply drag and drop players into position as per Football Manager.
As with every PES update, there is also a raft of differences with the gameplay options, menus and so forth that we won't go into too much detail here - after all, you'll want some surprises when you load your disc and fire up your console. The most notable inclusion, or rather exclusion, is the lack of Mark Lawrenson as co-commentator, who has been replaced by ITV's Jim Beglin. Sure, the commentary is still pretty crap - but at least you don't have to put up with Lawro's whiny voice anymore.
During matches there are some new little touches that also sit well with us. Firstly, stats as the match progresses - for example a shots on/off target stat after you've hit a free-kick into the stand. And secondly, match sounds have improved, with more realistic crowd singing (“You are my Solskjaer” when Man Utd are playing for example) and new PA sounds, such as the amount of minutes added on, or an announcement of substitutions.
A final word must go to the looks of PES 2011. As always, player likeness is absolutely spot on (at least in the most part) and the overall graphical experience is much fresher than PES 2010. The pitches look beautifully slick, or terribly stodgy - depending on the weather conditions - and the stadiums are fantastic. And, for the teams that Konami has the licenses for, the kit accuracy and detail is incredible.
Pro Evolution Soccer is not so much an evolution, but a revolution. Loyal fans of the series, who have stuck with it through the bad times, are rewarded with a title that has been completely re-worked; for the better. Whereas the annual PES update in the last few years has merely seen the occasional superficial change, the 2011 version really does feel like a massive step up, in terms of gameplay, upon last year's effort. It's not so different that PES specialists will struggle to get to grips with it - but it is definitely different enough to make them sit up and pay attention.
It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a strong indication that Konami has realised what went wrong with previous efforts and has steered the title back on track. In terms of the annual PES v FIFA war, then, if you read our FIFA review, it is still clear that EA is leading the way. But, PES 2011 offers a glimmer of hope that the glory days could once again be returning around the fields of Konami Road.