PES 2009 is undoubtedly better than last year's disappointing effort. And yet it's got a lower review score. But how can that be? It plays at a more considered pace and, finally, online play actually works with no teleporting, hardly any lag and an impressively speedy quick match option (with two versus two support, no less).
Have we lost our minds? No. Of course we haven't. The reason why PES 2009 is being given a harsher time of it this year is because these things aren't big changes. FIFA 09 is the better game, not only from a graphical point of view, but from a basic gameplay point of view, and EA has tried to tailor the PC version to the hardware. Playing PES 2009 after a FIFA 09 session makes you realise that, actually, there's not much about Konami's game that couldn't be achieved on the PS2 and almost no effort has been made to build a game suited to the PC.
Player animation is rotten. Players run about with their arms pumping back and forth as if they're robot men. The eight way movement is as wooden as ever. The passing and shooting animations are archaic. The commentary is delivered with as much quality as an episode of Hollyoaks. The soundtrack has been cribbed from a wedding DJ's vinyl collection. The player faces look silly. A magical barrier surrounds the throw-in taker. Keepers take forever to distribute the ball. Having speedy wingers cross the ball in for headed or volleyed goals is an overpowered strategy. Month old transfers have been ignored. Half the teams have made up names and games often descend into hilarious pinball battles as the ball whizzes about as if a cat's plaything (one goal we scored against a friend - where a shot slowly rebounded off the post, onto the keeper's shoulder and into the net, had us crying tears of laughter).
None of these criticisms will surprise PES fans. This is the way PES has played for a good few years now, and this is the way it plays once again. We've forgiven PES these deficiencies in the past because, well, FIFA was no alternative. But now it is. In fact it's better. It's impossible to ignore. PES doesn't play a real game of football any more, as it once proudly proclaimed from the terraces. It plays something else, something different.
Admittedly there are some areas where Konami is clearly trying. The Be A Legend mode is at first glance a complete rip off of FIFA's Be A Pro mode, but those in the know will be aware that it's actually the Western implementation of Winning Eleven's Fantasista mode, a feature that's been running for longer than FIFA's alternative. Here, you create a 17-year-old player (you can scan in your face via Web Cam if you fancy it) and bid to become captain of your country. You start out, however, playing for the wonderfully named Babilayna CF versus Athletic Club Salsabie, but you're being watched by a number of scouts from top clubs. After the game you're offered a contract at a top club (no matter how bad your performance you're picked up). We were offered terms with three clubs, but Man City (sans Robinho of course, this is PES after all) seemed like the best bet. From there, you need to impress during training matches to make the bench, and then make an impression when brought on as a substitute. It's an interesting mode to mess about with, and we have to admit that it's something that we can see a lot of players pumping many hours into, especially if they're bored of the now tired Master League, which once again makes an appearance without any significant changes. That you can take your created Legend online is an added bonus. But, ultimately, we can't see the mode replacing the traditional one on one PES match.
The addition of the Champions League license sounds a lot better than it actually is. You'd think that Konami's securing of the best club competition in world football would mean PES 2009 would have the official license for all of this year's participating teams, but it doesn't. Only a select number of clubs are officially licensed, once again. Disappointingly Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC are the only officially licensed Premier League teams on offer. The illusion that you're playing a real Champions League game is shattered somewhat when Manchester United are going up against London FC. Yes there's now a full edit mode, which means that those of you with the time and inclination can right all those transfer wrongs (of which there are many - Shevchenko is still at Chelsea and Berbatov is still at Spurs, for example), and correct all the club names, but really it's a pain in the arse we shouldn't have to suffer. The saving grace for the PC version is the ease at which players will be able to download unofficial team and player conversion mods transforming non-licensed teams into something closely resembling the real thing.
And yet, despite all of the problems, there's still fun to be had from PES 2009. It's incredibly hard to nail down exactly why this is, but it's there nonetheless. Perhaps it's due to the fact that the pace of the game has been slowed ever so slightly, and that keepers are actually a lot better than in previous versions. Whatever the reason, a screamer from 25 yards is as magic as it always was. It'll still get you up off your seat and screaming your heart out. This just about saves the game from filling our hearts with bitter disappointment. That and the fact that online play actually works, which is absolutely great. PES might be feature light in comparison to FIFA's packed offering, but it still offers a fun game of virtual football. And, inevitably, some people will always prefer PES' gameplay, which is fair enough.
Still, we can't help but feel that there's going to be thousands of PES fans who embrace the power of the dark side this year, on account of the fact that it simply doesn't feel like Konami is putting much effort into the so-called 'next-gen' versions of PES these days - and that includes PC. You might even say the PS2 is the lead platform, when you compare the strides forward between Konami and EA's efforts. PES 2009 is a good game, but the times they are changin', and we're afraid that Konami is being left behind. Time for a reboot, Seabass.