I used to adore the Pro Evolution Soccer series. It was the absolute king of gameplay when it came to soccer, but something happened. Gamers moved beyond the PS2, but Pro Evolution did not. Early Xbox 360 and PS3 efforts for PES were shameful ports of the PS2 versions that looked like PS2 games, were missing features and couldn't hold a stable frame rate. I gave up on PES after the 2008 edition and moved on to find that FIFA had become one of the best sports games. PES had lost its crown and needed to do something drastically different to regain its glory. Thankfully, somewhere along the way, PES woke up to face the music, and PES 2011 is a fantastic product that is in many ways superior to the competition.
Now, any football fan is going to want me to just get right down to the nitty gritty. I've reviewed both football games this year, so which game would I recommend? The answer is not so simple. This year's FIFA and PES offerings are both fantastic titles, but it boils down to this: PES 2011 is a better football game, but FIFA 11 is a better game.
I suppose that's an explanation that may take a little more detail. PES 11 has absolutely nailed the feel of playing a real game of football, and while FIFA 11 also does a great job, it nails the spectacle. PES is significantly more satisfying to play. Each goal that you score is an absolute joy, and goals scored against you are spine-crushingly devastating. Players don't snag a pass and instantly have control of it. The physics vary depending on the speed and height of the ball, and it just feels real. It's an accomplishment to get solid control of the soccer ball in PES 2011, and that's a pretty big testament to how well it simulates a real game of football. Players hit hard, ball control is a constant struggle, getting the ball into a good scoring position is a solid challenge, and the feel of the gameplay is pitch-perfect.
With all of that going for PES 2011, what's wrong with it? Everything that surrounds the game of football cannot hold up to what the competition offers. There's only really one mode that stands out, and people will argue about which version is better, as FIFA also has a good equivalent. The difference between the games boils down to a single point: budget. For the rest of this review, keep in mind that Konami doesn't have nearly as much money to throw at this title as EA has to throw at FIFA every year.
When you start up PES 2011 or enter any mode, you'll see some ugly, outdated text menus. These are best left to the background. I don't need the big, ugly text to tell me which roster update is being loaded; I just want to know that the game is loading my DLC. Once you get past things like that, the presentation improves dramatically. An easy-to-navigate menu system and a kicking soundtrack set the right mood for a game of football.
Once you dive into those menus to start a match, things get disappointing really quickly. PES has always struggled to get team licenses, and it's still an issue here. There are certainly more official teams than there have been in the past, with almost full lists of French and Dutch teams, but about half of the Italian teams are missing, none of the national teams feature actual players, a couple of the South American teams are licensed, and only two teams have been licensed from the almighty English Premier league. Finding your favorite team to play is a huge toss-up. You might be playing as your favorite club, or perhaps you'll have to settle for awful stand-ins such as the North London Football Club.
On the flip side, the game has a couple of big licenses that FIFA doesn't. PES is quite blatant and very, very proud of the UEFA champions league. It was absolutely fantastic to take my favorite team (Inter Milan) through the entire league. The presentation is spot-on, and the feel is just right. It captured the feel of the event as well as it could for not being able to license all the teams within the league.
The gameplay modes haven't really changed that much. The offered modes are still standard league play, master league and become a legend. League play is all well and good, allowing you to step into the shoes of a manager of any of the teams and lead them through several seasons. It's a standard career mode. Become a legend hasn't been altered much, either, and it continues as a second-class version of EA's Be a Pro mode, which is now in virtually every one of its sports titles.
The big, tremendous offering in PES 2011 is master league. You can take any team you want, and all of its players will be replaced by a largely terrible group. It's up to you via training, transactions, youth league and precision in-game planning to bring this team up to snuff. It's an insanely deep mode that may baffle more casual players (I'd redirect them to standard league play), but it will make hardcore players who love team management jump for joy.
Even the online play has been dramatically improved. When I last played PES, the online portion was a mess. Getting into a game was difficult, options were limited, and the lag made the game almost completely unplayable. That's all been fixed this year. Online play works, it's easy to get into matches, and even master league works online. Of course, the problem is that there aren't many players online. During my review period, I didn't see more than 300 people online at a time. Finding a match only takes about a minute, but with a smaller community, I worry about the title's online longevity.
PES 2011 plays a slower, harder, more realistic game of football than it has in the past. That is in no small part due to the graphical improvements made in this year's game. Graphics have finally been given a boost so that the game looks like it belongs on the Xbox 360. As mentioned earlier, players hit really hard. With that comes a lot of fouls, and many new animations mean that the game no longer looks robotic. In the past, you would often see several players making the exact same animation on the pitch at once. Things have gotten a lot more fluid now, and players react with significantly more realism. When I say that PES plays a better game of football than FIFA, the graphics are a huge reason for that. With a somewhat gritty style, PES captures some player likenesses better than FIFA does — although it stumbles on the non-real players — and some players may actually prefer this style to FIFA. The camera work is also much better than what FIFA brings to the table.
However, the rest of the presentation lags behind the competition. They're in entirely different leagues, so it's not even a contest. Konami cannot find good writers or good announcers. Neither of this year's announcers has anything interesting to say, and it's painful to hear. I imagine these guys do fine while announcing a real football match, but they cannot bring any enthusiasm or realism to the game's scripts. The soundtrack also needs to even out; it fluctuates between classical orchestral tunes and modern world music. It's jarring to go from one menu to the next and have the music genre change several centuries.
PES 2011 is a great return to form for the series. It has its bearings back and now needs to zero in on fixing some of the bigger problems, such as the overall presentation and lack of teams. As it stands, PES plays a better, more realistic-feeling game of football, but FIFA walks all over PES in just about every other way. PES has the core experience down, and football purists shouldn't miss a re-creation of the beautiful game as well as it's done here. Unfortunately, everything surrounding the gameplay needs more work before PES can vie for the football gaming crown again.
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