I feel old. It could be the occasional gray hairs that are becoming increasingly, well, less occasional. It could be the aches and pains I wake up with the day after attempting anything even remotely athletic, or it could be the copy of PES 2011 I’ve been banging away at for the last few days.
You see, as a kid, I had an Atari 2600. On that 2600 I had a soccer game (for soccer is what we called it in such unenlightened times) that consisted of three players per team, two of which would bop back and forward along the same lines while you controlled the other. There was a blue team and a red team.
Now I have a games system that could probably cook my dinner for me if I knew what button to push and a football game that allows me to participate in every aspect of the sport, and I can only look back in wonder at how far things have come.
Of course, PES 2011 isn’t in competition with my Atari 2600. Instead, it is in competition with both its own heritage as a top football title, and the disappointment of some fairly mediocre editions of the franchise in recent years, including the lacklustre PES 2010.
So is PES 2011 a step forward from PES 2010 and a step back towards the franchise’s former glories?
Graphically it is certainly an improvement over its predecessor. Players are more realistic, motion is more fluid and the close-ups are of the “squint and it could be the real thing” variety.
Of course, this is as it should be for any new instalment of an established series, so what are more impressive are the advances in gameplay. As well as looking better, PES 2011 offers an all around better on-the-field experience. Operating with a whole new set of mechanics (meaning something of a learning curve will be in store even for PES veterans) gameplay feels more natural, and the new ‘360 degree’ passing opens up far more varied options for moving the ball around the field.
This does take some getting used to, and my first couple of games resembled a Saturday morning under-10s competition more than they did the Champions League. It’s fairly intuitive though, and before long I was stringing together elaborate attacks and putting my striker in space with relative ease. Players who prefer Maradona-esque one man dashes up the field are catered for too. This style of play won’t always be rewarded, but the trick plays and manoeuvres available with a flick of the right stick offer an equally entertaining array of ways to advance the ball.
The different game-types on offer are consistently good too. The ‘Become a Legend’ mode offers all the usual player creation options (although I can only wish a back-alley meeting with Vinnie Jones upon anyone who gives their future superstar a friendship bracelet) and the opportunity to play games as an individual. In many ways I found this more engaging than full-team play, as the team at Konami have done an impressive job of capturing the joy and frustration that comes with being one player on the team.
Likewise, the Master League management option offers an immersive opportunity to build a contender from the ground up that die-hard football fans will lose days of their life to. This is another big step forward from PES 2010, particularly in its online incarnation. Throw in any number of other features, including the ability to design your own stadiums, and there are really no obvious gaps in what PES 2011 has to offer.
However, there are still some frustrating problems with this game. First off, the commentary is an increasing annoyance the more you play. This is true of all sports titles, and the free flowing nature of football makes it particularly hard to script for, but too often the calls from the commentary box bear little or no relation to what’s happening on the field. A lot of the menus and navigation are particularly clunky too, especially online, making the transition from match to match more tedious than it needs to be.
PES 2011’s biggest issue, however, is that of licensing. While players can compete in several European leagues - the UEFA Champions League and, for the first time, South America’s Copa Libertadores - Konami have not secured full rights to several of the world’s most famous teams, and do not offer a wide array of international leagues.
Most disappointing for me is the English Premier League, which consists of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and an array of fictionally named teams. I didn’t grow up watching ‘London FC’ or ‘Merseyside Red’, I grew up watching Chelsea and Liverpool and when I plunk down more than $100 for a football game, I’m looking to play against those teams. Sports games aren’t just about enjoyable action; they’re also about the fantasy fulfilment of participating in the same leagues and competitions you see on television, and the trainspotter-like desire to recreate those competitions as realistically as possible in your own home.
And this isn’t just a problem for fans - it’s a problem for Konami too. Should you want to play as Chelsea, Liverpool (or the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League for that matter), you only need to cast your eyes (and wallet) as far as EA Sports’ FIFA 2011. The improvements made to PES 2011 have brought it closer to the EA Sports FIFA franchise than it has been in years.
Some will prefer the gameplay of PES 2011 to its EA Sports counterpart (certainly more players than would have in 2010). However, for casual fans and trainspotters alike, the depth and breadth of leagues in FIFA 2011, combined with its continued high-quality gameplay, will leave PES waiting until 2012 for another shot at the title of top football franchise.