Freedom's Just Another Word...
The tagline for PES 2011 was "engineered for freedom." I know that without even thinking about it because that phrase was plastered on every promo video prior to the game’s release. However, it was all a bit misleading because freedom, in this case, was limited to what you could do on the ball. Sure, you were free as the player, but what's the point when everybody else on the pitch is so stiffly controlled by the man? In short -- and pardon the philosophical moment-- you were only as free as the others around you were on the pitch. Pinging passes into space manually meant nothing when your teammates refused to run onto those balls most of the time.
All this is a longwinded way to say that the AI in PES, offensively and defensively, really needed a lot of work. So it was greeted with a welcome relief that all of PES 2012's promotional materials thus far focused on the improved AI behavior. Seabass, PES' creator and pitchman extraordinaire, recognized the silly AI behaviors from last year's game, and it looks as though his team took major steps to rectify it.
He looks ready to fight for his freedom from AI shackles.
It's certainly ballsy for the developers to put most, if not all of their eggs, in the AI basket. In a sense, it seems to be a shrewd decision because AI is probably one the biggest things PES still has going for it when compared to the FIFAfranchise -- FIFA AI teammates are still trying to figure out alternatives to running in a straight line. But it's also a risky proposition, as AI behavior is one of the hardest things to get right.
From the two promotional videos and press release that have been released thus far, even if we assume that only 75 percent of what they promise will come to fruition, there's still a lot to be encouraged about. (Say what you will about EA, but Konami is not exactly filled with angels either when it comes to hyping up one thing and delivering something totally different. If you need any proof, the "new and improved" penalty system was, believe it or not, a selling point for PES 2011.)
The biggest relief is that your teammates seem to have finally grown brains. It's nice to see them making runs into space and opening defenses with overlapping runs. The reason why PES 2011 was so conducive to tippy-tappy football was because the only way you could get the whole team to move where you wanted them to was by briefly controlling each player. Your teammates only seemed to know where to go if they were within 10 yards of your player, which was why no other playing style even came close to working as consistently as the tippy-tappy one -- there was just no intelligence in the AI to provide support for any direct play. With the new improvements, it finally looks like there might be a chance to hoof long balls up to the front, on a rainy night in Stoke, and still have a fighting chance.
Yeah, you'll still be the one splitting the defenders.
The focus on AI behavior means great things for the game's Be a Legend mode as well. While PES 2011's mode was enjoyable, a lot of times it served only to shine a harsh spotlight on the game's flaws. If your player was a winger with speed and dribbling skills, you hit the jackpot because there was nothing going for you. There were no fullbacks overlapping, your forwards checked back at the worst times, and the game's now infamous catch-up mechanism (where a defender always ran faster than the player with possession) pretty much forced your winger to get rid of the ball within a few touches. With these major negatives hopefully eradicated for 2012, it's looking like a good year for all the Cristiano Ronaldo wannabes out there.
Amidst the fanfare, however, there are still a few reasons not to get carried away just yet.
AI naivete was only a part -- albeit a large part -- of what hampered PES 2011. Its other downfall was its rigidity. More specifically, the rigid way in which AI teammates would lock into a particular course of action and not snap out of it until they reached their designated “end spot.” This proved to be a particularly frustrating aspect of PES 2011 because it seemed like the AI-controlled players had no idea what was going on around them, and made those runs just because they were triggered. So the fear for PES 2012, what with all the arrows in Seabass' "Tactical Analysis" video indicating where each player is programmed to go, is that it will turn into a scripting overkill, just with smarter scripts than last year.
I don't know what that says, but that's a lot of arrows.
The lack of contextual awareness also extended to the defensive end. How many times have you seen an AI-controlled teammate standing yards away from a loose ball, twiddling his thumbs just because the game has decided that your user-controlled player, stationed further away, will be fighting for that ball? Players in PES 2011 never truly felt connected to one another, which is why it’s interesting that Seabass, in his promotional video for PES 2012, mentioned many times the concept of playing as a unit.
To put it another way, it's not only about the AI players acting logically, but it's also about them being able to react logically to what's happening on the pitch. And if Seabass and co. can get that right, they just might have a trump card to play against FIFA for years to come.
Kelvin Mak is the soccer writer here at Operation Sports. Residing in Toronto, Canada, his favo(u)rite sport is -- surprise -- soccer, and he religiously follows the Premier League. You can find him on OS under the user name kelvinmak, or in a bar in Toronto, usually after 2 p.m., under the name Pukey.