Having sunk some considerable time into PES 2012 I can say that this year's effort from Konami is the best the series has seen in many years. In truth the franchise has been stumbling ever since it came across from the PS2 to this generation, with even the most recent entries failing to live up to (or come anywhere close to) PES during its golden era. PES 2012, for better or worse, finally feels like PES again, which is a big step in the right direction.
Having said that, initially it's hard to put a finger on what exactly has changed - it's really a combination of small things that make the difference: the pace now seems marginally slower than PES 2011; players feel more responsive, making them easier to manoeuvre around defenders; passing feels more direct and punchy; collisions are no longer so frustrating; ball physics seem heavier; and shooting feels more accurate.
These changes are there, but they aren't exactly obvious - not unless you've been playing Konami's football game religiously for over a decade. That is PES 2012's problem. While this year's game is set to deliver a nice game of virtual football, complete with the thrilling second-to-second gameplay and incidents fans know and love, changes here still feels like baby steps compared to what EA is doing with FIFA this year, and in years previous.
Yes, I'm comparing PES 2012 to FIFA 12 already. While some PES fans (which I should point out I was card-carrying member throughout its life on the PS2) will likely want PES considered on its own merits, the reality of football video games is that most people will play one or the other each year. One game gets chosen and based on what I've played and seen of both titles this year, PES is once again going to come out second best.
Whereas PES 2012's new animation system allows for collisions to play out more realistically - a big improvement over previous iterations - FIFA 12's new Impact Engine looks and feels like a generational leap that has a far greater impact on gameplay. Players feel more like individuals than before, with player stats having a bigger impact on control and ability, but FIFA again goes further with its Vision Wheel, accurately modelling each and every player's ability to pick a pass.
Controls have been tightened up a lot, making dribbling more fun and skilful, but again FIFA appears to be going one better, offering even tighter precision control during cramped situations. It's not that what PES 2012 is doing isn't good but that FIFA once again feels a step ahead of the game.
One new feature not seen in FIFA is being able to control a second player by using the controller's right analogue stick. While FIFA lets you instigate player runs into space, in PES 2012 you can guide the off-the-ball man exactly where you want - assuming you've got the brain dexterity to manage two things at once. Numerous efforts from me more often than not resulted in failure, but there is a simpler command to get a team mate to make a run.
If there's one area in which PES 2012 does seem to have the edge it's in player faces. FIFA is still by some distance the better looking game in action (especially since the introduction of the brilliant Impact Engine), but when purely looking at how a player in PES 2012 looks in comparison to the same player in FIFA 12, I'd give PES the victory. Players in FIFA still have an unnerving waxwork look, whereas PES' are rougher and less obviously fake.
PES 2012 isn't due until October 14, but barring a miracle it'll end up playing second fiddle to FIFA once again. While Konami is making changes for the better, with this year's game feeling like the best seen on PS3 and Xbox 360, there's no getting away from the fact that FIFA is making even bigger strides and distancing itself even more.