Last year's Pro Evo was the game's most significant overhaul since the shift to Xbox 360, with a new slanted wide camera and a whole new trick system and feel.
This year's is a less dramatic change, more a refinement of the - largely - welcome strides made last year. The question is - can Konami evolve fast enough to nullify the obvious, and often unkind, comparisons to FIFA 12?
Here's two key observations from our brief hands-on with PES 2012: 1) We enjoyed it; 2) We were struggling so much to isolate the changes, bar the odd flicker of animation, that we had to put PES 2011 - a game we played for 60 hours - on again to reinforce the contrast.
Played back-to-back with its forbear, the improvements are more tangible: a slower pace, crisper player response and weightier, more realistic ball physics. The changes are myriad, yet generally quite delicate, creating a much more satisfying feel - just leaving Konami in a much more difficult position when pitching themselves against the 'holy trinity' of changes in FIFA 12, a series that more clearly communicates its benefits and mutations.
Oddly, both games are converging on the same destination, just from different starting points - and in most people's eyes, PES starts further behind. PES 2012 features subtle dribbling improvements, so 180˚ stop-turns are much sharper and skilled players are better equipped to 'hold up' the ball using subtle direction changes with the left stick - yes, not dissimilar to FIFA 12's precision dribbling.
The positional defending system from PES 2011 which, to be fair, has been largely copied by FIFA 12, feels a bit less stiff and robotic. There's a new collision system, too, which reacts specifically to the area of impact triggering unique animations. It's impressive, but less fluid than FIFA 12's new physics-generated Impact Engine.
Best of all, players no longer get 'locked' in collision animations, so you retain control and can still offload the ball, even as your player locks shoulders or stumbles.
Another key change is that the CPU AI applies a lot less mindless pressure, which is to say that the game plays more like a human than a robot, allowing you a bit more time to pick a pass. This works in tandem with the noticeably enhanced new off-the-ball AI, where teammates make dummy runs and overlaps to buy space.
It's a big improvement over the frustratingly stiff PES 2011, where you'd find yourself shouting at the AI to make runs, but the lack of a 'run prompt' button, like FIFA, is still frustrating.
STICK IT TO 'EM
Its omission - at least in current code - is odder yet, since you can now use the right stick to gain control of any player as you defend, without having to cycle to the 'right' option. You can even use the right stick to move players during set pieces and throw-ins, creating dummy runs and allowing for a faster flowing game.
What PES does well: player individuality, likenesses, punchy shooting and tight dribbling is as strong as ever. The frustration is, that while FIFA 12 very clearly addresses the fans' biggest complaints, PES 2012 cherry picks the niggles.
The tighter feel and response will delight hardcore fans, but the comparatively stiff animation - perhaps the biggest complaint - still lags clearly behind FIFA 12. Still, this is the earliest we've ever seen PES code, and the most solid it's ever looked so far from release.
Bar a complete overhaul, we doubt the animation will rival FIFA 12, but if they can take Master League to a new level, or the Champions League mode, this could yet prove a satisfying alternative; and for the truly hardcore willing to embrace Pro Evo's subtleties and peccadilloes, the former King of Footie Games and scourge of lunchtimes could well prove to be a crisper, more tactical game.
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