PES 2011 feels like the biggest effort Konami has made with the series for many years, but the cold hard truth is that it's still in mid-table compared to FIFA's Champions League dominance. This year's PES is easily the best iteration we've seen on this generation of consoles, with a solid new passing system, a more considered pace and smart - if not breathtaking - visuals. But after years of FIFA refining a true next-gen experience, PES still feels a little archaic.
Positives first, then. The 360-degree passing works very well, allowing you to spread the ball about as you wish. With every kick nowhaving a power bar attached to it, the weighting of passes is one of PES 2011's triumphs. Shooting is as solid as it's ever been, once again allowing you to pull off some thumping strikes from outside the box. Thanks to the new passing system it's possible to set up some incredible moves, culminating in your striker running onto a lofted 50-yard pass and then hitting it on the half-volley, the ball screaming past the flailing goalie and into the top corner.
It's moments like this that show Konami still has the magic dust it sprinkled over the series during the first half of the last decade. When it all comes together it's easy to slip back into that comfortable zone long-time fans experienced all those years ago, when PES ruled the roost and dominated our disc trays. This year's game feels a touch more realistic, too, which is excellent since previous games occasionally became fleshy games of pinball.
Konami has created a hard game, not only in terms of the nuanced controls, but because of the AI, too - computer controlled teams put up a real fight. Initial games will likely see a string or 0-0 or 1-0 score lines if you're playing on or above the regular difficulty setting. At one point I celebrated as if I'd won the FA Cup final at the fact that my Barcelona managed a last minute equaliser against Stoke - and I hadn't even scored it myself, with the defender deflecting the ball into his own goal.
While player physicality isn't handled as realistically as in FIFA 11 (the physics engine just doesn't feel as natural here), it's far better than it was last year, meaning big players can bully smaller ones. This, combined with players that are harder to tackle and enhanced defender AI, makes for a game that will take a long time to get into.
This would be fine if the attacking game was on par with defensive play, but it's simply not. The biggest offender is the AI of your team mates, who just refuse to make intelligent runs. It's incredibly frustrating to be in a great position, only for the rest of your team to linger on the half-way line, apparently blind to the clear opportunity. I thought this was due to my team tactics, but even after going into the menus and adopting as aggressive a strategy as possible, rarely did my strikers want to make a move into the box as my winger broke towards the byline.