PES 2009 is under pressure, and Konami knows it. It knows that last year's effort was a disappointment, suffering from technical problems and complaints surrounding the more arcadey gameplay. PES fans want, indeed demand, better. And if they don't get what they want then it may, dare we say it, be time to switch over to the dark side. But fear not virtual football fans. In Konami's behind closed doors booth at Games Convention in Leipzig we got our grubby mits on an Xbox 360 pad and challenged the Japanese publisher's UK representative to a few games and discovered that lessons have clearly been learnt.
The first thing we were told by the Konami rep is that the frame rate issues that plagued the last game are completely gone. Well thank God for that. Fans will remember that the PS3 version in particular suffered from game breaking slowdown whenever the action approached the penalty area. The Xbox 360 version wasn't without its problems either, although it was a much smoother experience. But the fact is that it was a stuttering, annoying mess.
Well it's all gone. Completely gone. We played match after match on the Xbox 360 version and didn't spot a hint of slowdown. It all runs in what looks like gorgeous 60 frames per second graphical goodness, which delighted us, and we're sure will delight anyone who loves the series.
It's all down, we're told, to Pro Evolution Soccer creator Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka concentrating almost exclusively on the 'next-gen' versions of the game this time around. He himself admitted in the wake of the wave of criticism that followed the release of PES 2008 that the team wasn't well equipped to deal with multiplatform development. Well, instead of deciding to get better at it Konami has simply decided to negate the issue by focusing on the PS3 and 360 versions of the game, putting the other versions on the back seat or indeed farming them out to external developers. The best thing? The frame rate issues have been completely eradicated from both versions of the game, our Konami rep assures us. So PS3 owners will have just as good a game of football as their 360-owning gaming cousins.
Which is great, because PES 2009 plays a better game. We quite liked PES 2008's gameplay, in that it was a lot better than Pro Evo 6 - the one with the overpowered Adriano. But 2009 feels even better. It actually feels more akin to Pro Evo 5, in that the speed of the game has been reduced and players are no longer the dribbling machines they have been in recent years. It's much harder to keep hold of the ball now, and, therefore, much easier to take the ball away by pressing. This forces you to think creatively with passing, much more than in recent years. No longer will you be able to bomb it down the wing, twisting up the entire opposition team before rifling a shot into the top corner. Now, you'll need to build up intricate moves, select your passing carefully (accurate passing is a lot harder) before threading the killer through ball. Creating space is of vital importance, because you're quickly hounded by the opposition AI.
Once you get into a scoring position, you'll find the keepers vastly improved. In our play tests we noticed that the keepers didn't fumble quite as many shots as in the last game. This is down to a GK AI improvement, but also better shooting. You won't always hit the ball straight at the keeper now, so scoring cheap rebound goals won't be as frequent.
And for those of you who think that PES' gameplay is scripted, there's now a new fully manual control mode for hardcore players. In this mode you'll have to manually select your player and position him to receive the pass properly in order to build moves. Only try this if you're the best of the best.
We know what you're thinking. Ask about the bloody online play! Well of course we did. While our Konami rep hasn't actually played the game online, or seen it running online, we were assured that lessons were learned and promised a better experience. And it better be, because PES 2008 is almost unplayable online due to teleporting players and crippling lag. This is a massive game breaker for us. If the online play is solid, then we're almost certainly sold. If not, then we're going to be very sad indeed.
If the online play does turn out to be as smooth as a baby's bottom, then you'll be able to share the online love with up to three other players, either in a two versus two match, or with four players on the same team using the new Legends mode, the online version of the new Become a Legend mode. Here, players start as a 17-year-old attacking youth team player with awful stats. You play a few games and, if you do well, get the chance to sign pro forms with a professional club. At first you'll be stuck in the reserves, but eventually you'll get a spot on the bench in the first team. From then on it's up to you to take your chance when the manager throws you on as a sub. And that doesn't necessarily mean dribbling past five players then nutmegging the keeper. You'll have a dedicated position on the field, and the manager will expect you to stick to it. So no dodgy Joe Cole coming in off the wing. And you won't have any opportunity to influence the manager's decision, David Beckham style, and pick the team yourself. But that's the way it should be.
We quite like the idea of the Legend modes. While FIFA 09 dwarfs PES 2009's efforts with support for a mammoth 20 players online at once (10 versus 10), it's at the very least a step in the right direction towards properly implemented online play, something Konami hasn't got a particularly impressive track record with. And it's certainly a lot more interesting than the snore bore that is the Master League, which hasn't undergone many changes this time around. The ultimate goal is, of course, to get a call up to your national side. You'll have plenty of time to achieve that goal, too. The Become a Pro mode lasts 21 in-game years, taking you from a fresh faced 17-year-old to a Teddy Sheringham style veteran.
Graphically, PES 2009 looks very similar to PES 2008, especially in the normal game view. This is particularly disappointing, especially when you consider the amazing graphics EA has been able to achieve with FIFA's equivalent view. But in up close views, during goal celebrations and after fouls, for example, PES 2009 looks superb. We don't really care about this view though, since you don't actually play the game in it.
At the time of writing, the confirmed official Premier League teams are still under wraps, although we know what they are (sorry, guys, you know how the game works). We also know another juicy bit of info in the official licenses area that we're not allowed to reveal that's even better. But what we can tell you though is that PES 2009 has the official license for Wembley stadium, one of 24 grounds this time around. It's an unfortunate situation, of course. PES will never wrestle EA's vice-like grip on the official FA Premier League license, which, despite what some think, we reckon is a massive deal. But Konami does promise a pleasing announcement in the near future which should help dull the disappointment. And if you don't like it, you can always change it all with the return of a full edit mode.
We're delighted with how PES has improved over last year's game. In many ways it feels like a return to the series' roots, with slower gameplay, harder AI and more emphasis on build up play and killer through balls. It still feels very much like PES. This may well disappoint some fans who listened in earnest to 'Seabass's promise of a "complete overhaul". PES 2009 is not series reboot. It looks similar, feels similar (but better) and two games are still never the same - the best thing about the series. "We've stopped worrying about what FIFA's doing and started concentrating on what PES does best," said our smiling Konami representative. Good decision, Konami.
PES 2009 is due out for PS3, Xbox 360, PS2, PC, PSP and mobile phones this Autumn. A Wii version is due in spring 2009.