Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 review

4 out of 5
£49.99

For

Highly playable, decent online play, in-depth career modes

Against

Xbox control issues, risible unlicensed teams, players look like zombies

The nights are drawing in, tree-based debris litters the ground, and a man’s thoughts turn to one thing: anti-depressants. Alternatively, you could invest some time in deciding which pretend football game to buy in order to get through the cruel winter months.

This is gaming’s equivalent of Coke versus Pepsi war, for a number of years PES had the upper hand over the commercially successful but creatively sterile FIFA. However, following a series of mediocre PES outings, blamed on the hardware transition, a hugely improved FIFA surged ahead to the extent that it became more a case of Coke versus Dandelion & Burdock.

"Come back, I can change, this year it’ll be different," cried PES, its hollow words falling on increasingly deaf ears. But this year it really is different, to the extent that we have probably played more of the 2012 game in a week than we have the previous three or four iterations in total. There has been joy, there has been despair, there have been goals, and there have been misses. There has also been a lot of throw-ins and some questionable refereeing decisions. But there has mainly just been us, PES, a baby monitor, and a packet of Doritos, pushing through the nightshift: midnight to six.

Stop That Jinking!

And you know what? We’ve barely scratched the surface of what is an extraordinary world of football built around a core game that enthrals, excites, and occasionally infuriates. Let’s get the infuriating out of the way first. For a hundred grand a week you’d expect a footballer to be able to run in a straight line. Seemingly not so in PES, specifically when playing a one-player game on the Xbox using the control stick. Under which circumstances, the man on the ball will perform a series of random jinks of his own volition, or even simply come to an abrupt halt. Oddly, it doesn’t happen when using the D-pad, when playing online, or indeed on the PS3, arguably the natural home of the Japanese-developed game.

When PES was king, you didn’t even have to think about the controls, the pad melded to your hand as your team effortlessly danced to your every whim. Perhaps it’s some kind of post-Tevezgate statement on the unruliness of the modern footballer, maybe it’s a bug to be ironed out, or maybe we're doing something wrong. Either way, for sake of argument, let’s assume we're playing it on the PS3.

Flick To Kick

The big thing that Konami has been banging on about this year is the improved AI, and we do think it has changed for the better. Players seem to be more alive to the situation, and it’s easy to play attractive possession football as there is generally always a pass available.

You will of course eventually have to get a shot away, and this is usually possible, even if it is a speculative punt from outside the area. It’s worth a pop, however, as the ball does tend to fall loose in the area, leading to the odd own goal. And the keepers also have a tendency to palm it into the net for you.

Sometimes, though, it’ll all end in a trademark goalmouth scramble as you turn the air blue at your striker’s inability to hit the target from a yard.

It is, of course, a different story when you do actually hit the net, and while it’s not quite knee-slide-into-the-kitchen territory, there is definitely a sense of joypad-in-the-air euphoria. Which, to be honest, is all you really want from a football game.

It may still be a little rough around the edges, and - barring the odd well - timed/lucky slide tackle - defending is largely a case of holding down one or two buttons. Shielding the ball while team-mates find space is commonplace, and you can also manually set a player off on a run using the right stick, something that in practice is a bit like patting your head while stroking your stomach.

While it’s harder to pull off the through ball, play does often get pushed wide, and a whipped cross-in is frequently successful, even if it does sometime feel like the ‘wrong’ player scored.

Speed down the wings and heading ability is of the essence, so a nippy winger like Theo Walcott combined with an alehouse striker such as Andy Carroll can reap dividends. You can leave team matters to your coach, although you may do so at your peril given that ours dropped Carroll following a four-goal salvo in a European Championship semi-final.

Football Life

With a solid core game in place, the rest is just details, much like DVD extras. But there are a lot of them, with numerous different ways to test your skill. Licence-wise, in the Premier League only Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United remain unbutchered, with the traditional embarrassment of such fixtures as North West London versus Northlack C, otherwise known as QPR v Norwich.

PES does an accurate Champions League however, and there’s also a fully-licensed South American equivalent, the Copa Santander Libertadores, which if nothing else gives you the chance to see where aging ex-Premiership stars have ended up.

Commentary-wise, PES has never matched up to FIFA, and while Jon Champion and Jim Beglin are unlikely to ever have their own show, they provide some reasonably reactive chat, such as criticising you for attempting to walk the ball into the net, and namechecking players who have scored or provided assists. In terms of bon mots, it’s a toss-up between being constantly reminded that Manchester United are the biggest club in the world or that Spain don’t actually have a national stadium.

There’s another stab at the Become A Legend mode, where you play as a single player, which is by and large an exercise in frustration, even if you can add a more personal feel by badly scanning your face in.

As for the life-sapping stuff, it falls under the banner of Football Life, which offers the black hole that is the Master League, as well as its reasonably compelling online equivalent. There’s also something called Boss Mode, an utterly banal exercise in non-interactivity where you play the role of interfering chairman, your options limited to sorting out some advertising, signing players that the manager doesn’t want, or pressurising him to play a certain way. A further reminder of the game’s Japanese weirdness comes with the option to download the soundtrack to Frogger. Not, as they say, a deal breaker.

Verdict

With FIFA virtually mathematically safe, PES has had to rebuild. Finally, this season the green shoots of recovery have burst forth to the extent that it is as least competitive once more.

Indeed, many may be tempted by the hi-octane spills and thrills as opposed to the stifling simulation of FIFA. A hugely playable game allied to a series of in-depth career modes make this year’s model a genuine contender. Whisper it softly, but PES is back.