And we’re off.
Like the Christmas shopping season, it seems like it gets earlier and earlier every year with football game demos, doesn’t it? Either way, PES leads us off with its first of two demos. Except for those poor North American PSN users, everybody else should have access to it by now. It’s not a bad strategy on Konami’s part: release it early, tempt a few action-starved FIFA fans into giving the game a try, plus get some feedback from the fanbase and make some changes.
So what’s new? Plenty, though you may not notice it from the outset, because from far away it looks the same game as PES 2012, which, also looked a lot like PES 2011. That’s my roundabout way of saying that the graphics are still not exactly up to snuff. However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t any work put in. Players’ animations look cleaner and less herky-jerky, and the color palette also looks a little sharper than previous years. But these are, of course, subtle changes, and not the bigger ones that many fans have been hoping for.
In fact, subtlety seems to be the watchword for this year’s release, if this preliminary demo is anything to go by. For the second release in a row, Konami seems to have bet the farm on its gameplay, and true to the PES legacy, this year’s version is another one where you’d think not much has changed, but then proceed to continuously find new things the more you play. Here are some:
- The first thing that made me quite happy, upon playing a few games, is the fact that counterattacking is much more fun this year. Two reasons: First, the stellar AI returns improved over last season. Your teammates are, most of the time, where you'd expect them to be, and they help you create space by making runs down the flanks and channels. There also seems to be slightly less boneheaded runs this year, which makes hitting opponents on the break more lethal.
More importantly, Konami has finally embraced the “full manual” mantra, meaning that I can overhit a pass if I want to, giving me that much more freedom to build my play. Shooting can also be set to full manual, but that currently seems a little more finicky than ideal, or it could be just that I’m not very good at it. Either way, full manual passing and shooting frees up the game a whole lot more than one would think at first sight.
- While the AI is, for the most part, intuitive, not all the flaws have been eradicated. There are still moments where the game has decided that a pass is going to a certain player, at which point that player would be the only one conscious of the fact that a pass is being played, and others—who may be in a better position to receive the ball—simply let it roll past, staying in their predetermined courses. These moments are pretty sparse in occurrence, but it does go to show that the AI isn’t quite perfect just yet.
- Even though my last point hinted at the dreaded s-word—scripting—to be fair there seems to have been some improvements on that front as well. The ball, weirdly as it may sound, seems more alive this year. I’ve seen more cases of deflections and mishits. Scrambles around the goal—one of the biggest joys in the heydays of PES 6., for those who remember—are also more frequent and exciting than they’ve been for a long while.
- One of things that PES always did well is differentiating players. This year is no different. Yes, player ID, one of the most touted features of this year’s release, is neat—basically Ronaldo sprints like Ronaldo, Nani does his somersaults, and John Terry lumbers around and lunges into tackles as you’d see him every weekend—but it would all be fluff if there was nothing backing those animations up. Thankfully, there seems to be. Depending on player attributes, it’s night and day trying to play a through ball (especially with manual controls) with Andrea Pirlo and Scott Parker, and it’s just as dramatic trying to receive said through ball with Mesut Ozil and, oh, I don't know, Andy Carroll.
- AI Management seems to be less one-note, as well. Their substitutions aren’t restricted to only the “like-for-like” types. The England manager, for example, was smart enough to substitute Wayne Rooney in for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was playing left wing, and then switch Rooney into CF, where Ashley Young was playing. However, the substitution patterns still seem too predetermined, as in the same ones would crop up every game, around the same time. But this may just be the case of it being a demo.
- One thing I didn’t see enough is the differentiation in each team’s playing style, especially at 0-0. To be fair, it’s always hard to judge based on a five minute game, where possession stats can get really skewed. But still, playing as England against Germany, in the higher difficulties, I’d like to see the CPU press the issue a bit more. After a goal is scored, however, things get better. The AI pushes its team forward to go for a goal, or marshals everybody back to defend a lead.
- Finally, and most importantly, after the countless false dawns and “breakthroughs” that ultimately proved to be fruitless, this is the massive one that we’ve all been waiting for: Goalkeepers are now competent. No, really. They can save a shot without spilling it now.
Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about this year’s game. There is nothing that’s surprising about this first taste demo, and I say that not necessarily as a negative thing. Konami hasn’t promised us a revolution and the game certainly didn’t deliver one. But it’s good ol’ PES—gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. Whether there’s been enough improvements to the engine to compensate for the usual PES weaknesses (presentation elements, namely) remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a solid enough demo to make me look forward to playing full version.