Pro Evolution Soccer has historically been seen as the more sophisticated and - dare I say - superior title among the soccer franchises. As a series, PES is known for its fast, frenetic pacing while the top competition, EA Sport’s FIFA, tends to take a slower and more tactical approach to the game. In recent years, PES has suffered a few design missteps (most notably with last year’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2008) and its reign over the genre is slipping. Now with the slew of improvements to the latest instalment in the FIFA series and EA’s vice-like grip on league and cup licensing, does PES still hold the crown?
The answer, sadly, is no. There is no doubt that PES as a series is moving in the right direction but it seems Konami have opted to play it safe with their latest PES offering. Sure, PES 2009 has included a new game mode (Become A Legend) and has the exclusive on the UEFA Champions League, but the focus of the game seems to revolve more around fixing the problems of PES 2008 and iterating on the features introduced there rather than pushing the genre. That’s not to say that the game is bad, not at all, it’s just that when the inevitable comparison to FIFA 09 is made PES comes up short.
Visually, PES 2009 comes across as underwhelming. Like PES 2008, the player models have undergone little change and still look like they have one foot firmly planted in the PlayStation 2 era, with player likenesses ranging from being passable to requiring you to squint and use some imagination. The stadiums and lighting effects do a little better but still come across as looking out of date. If there’s any saving grace to the visuals, it’s that the game has run beautifully during the time I’ve spent with it. Gone are the frame-rate issues that plagued PES 2008.
As with previous PES games, however, the visuals only go so far. The main draws for the series have always been the style and pace of play as well as the excellent control scheme. The gameplay here is fairly similar to that of PES 2008 but with a few key changes that will require players to re-master the gameplay mechanics. For example, special moves have been taken off the right analog stick which is now used for manual passes and the chipping /first touch passing mechanics have been tweaked -- you’ll have to be wary of where you pass the ball now as players require slightly more clearance than in PES 2008. These gameplay changes come as a much needed return to form from last year’s offering.
The Teamvision system, that acts as the game's AI and was introduced in PES 2008, has also seen decent improvement with opposing players being able to spot holes in your defence and move quickly to capitalise on them. Even though most games tend to be played end to end, the AI now also seems to be better versed in mid-field play with AI players now taking more time to set up their plays and cut away at your defensive line.
The game modes have also undergone some change with the inclusion of the UEFA Champions League which, while fun to play through, is a bit of a mixed bag. Even though Konami has managed to expand the European club list, there are still a handful of club licences missing. The edit function is still around though so you could go through the teams and fix the names, shirts and badges where appropriate. The Masters League mode is back again but is largely unchanged from previous editions of the game.
The new Create a Legend mode, however, is brimming with promise. Create a Legend tasks you with just that, creating a legend. You start as a talented youngster hoping to sign a contract with a team and play his way onto the bench. After you’ve built your player up to a level you’re happy with you can also opt to take your legend online with up to three other people and play matches against AI teams of varying difficulty. While not as polished overall as FIFA’s Be a Pro mode, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun and worth keeping an eye on for future titles.
Overall I think PES 2009 has the makings of a great game that’s just been held back by the lack of forward momentum. EA Sport’s putting out what is arguably the best FIFA game since the series inception doesn’t help matters much either. Coming off a bad year for the series, I think things are looking up given the improvements and additions in PES 2009 but Konami really need to step it up if they want to stay competitive.