PES used to be like a member of the family. It'd be there in times of need. No matter what was going on in your life, it would be sat inside your PS2's disk tray, waiting to be spun into action. Many of us saw more PES than we did sunlight, and it even had a convenient pause during set-pieces that allowed everyone to quickly sip a cold beverage. Then things got nasty. FIFA muscled in as PES got lazy. Years of being BFFs caused PES to get complacent, and with every passing year FIFA upped its game until PES was banished to the game shelf. Konami promised changes, but with each new game came further disappointment. Times have changed. FIFA rules and PES is essentially a generation late to the party. Now it's the turn of PES 2011, which true to form comes packed with the lure of all manner of improvements that hope to wake the sleeping giant. But we've been let down before.
While it's still a bit early to say for sure if things have changed for the better (some might argue things couldn't get much worse), things have changed, and in some cases quite dramatically. What's apparent from my initial exhibition matches is how tricky it is to score. This is down to significant modifications to both defending and attacking.
The age-old 'hold X to pressure and tackle' system is still here, but it's been tweaked to offer more options. Hold X (we're talking the PS3 version here, but there'll be an equivalent on other platforms) and point the left analogue stick at your own goal and your defender will fairly unspectacularly just try to stop the attacker advancing on goal. He won't be able to easily run past you, but you're not going to win the ball unless the ball happens to hit you. The second option is to let go of the stick completely while holding X. Your player will stop, but attempt to win the ball. Finally there's the more risky, lunge-like tackle, performed by holding X and pointing the stick at the man in possession.
It's not a revolution by any means, but certainly makes attacking an altogether more difficult task. Combine this with a strong emphasis on individual player characteristics and stats and you have a game that's already more in-depth and realistic than any PES I've played before. In a friendly game here in the office, in which both players picked England, at one point nippy but small winger Aaron Lennon burst free only to come face to face with man-giant Ledley King. Despite Lennon's pace, King was able to use his brute force to push the pint-sized dynamo away from the penalty area.
Your options when on the ball needed to be enhanced to match the improved defending, and that's exactly what Konami has done. Most notable is more precise control over your player, with supposed full 360-degree movement. I can't say if it actually is that precise, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we got last year. The feint system has also been reworked, with L1 and the right analogue stick working in tandem to give your player a bit of space to get off a shot or nip past a defender. Of course, tight control is a must, with only the best players (like cover star Lionel Messi) able to exploit these moves fully.
So you now have more control of your player, but what about the ball? After all, the round thing you kick about is core to football and how you distribute it will determine your success. Passes and shots now use a power system, with a visible bar displayed under your player. You can also manually aim every kick by holding down L2. I won't lie; it takes a lot of getting used to. Even after I'd put in a day messing about with the game, nailing passes hadn't quite clicked. I'm sure it will though, as the improvement from my first attempt to my last was quite apparent.
Keeping the ball down when shooting is also something to be aware of. Player position in relation to the ball, your stronger foot, timing and power all need to be taken into account or else you'll find yourself sitting through plenty of tedious goalless games. Currently AI players don't make the runs I'd like them to, which makes breaking down opposition defences extremely hard, but hopefully this can be rectified in the coming months.
PES has fallen some way behind FIFA in terms of presentation, and while this year's iteration isn't going to suddenly propel it into the lead, it's a damn sight better looking than the previous efforts we've seen on this generation of consoles. Player faces look excellent, the lighting inside the stadiums has been vastly improved, animations are smoother and more varied and there's minimal slowdown. One area that could be looked at is the camera, which at times struggles to keep up with the ball - hopefully nothing that can't be fixed. I'm not so hopeful when it comes to in-game commentary, which barring a miracle will be just as bad as it's always been.
Every new version of a sports title requires hours and hours of practice before it starts to click, and with PES 2011 it's going to take even longer to work out if Konami has finally upped its game. What's for sure is that things are changing, which, considering the stagnant state PES found itself in, can only be a good thing. At the moment I'm left with the feeling that things are moving in the right direction, even if early impressions indicate we're going to get a considerably tougher experience than what's come before.
PES 2011 is due for release later this year on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. It'll also be released on PS2, Wii and PSP.