E3 2010 gave us our first look at this year’s version of the venerable Pro Evolution Soccer football series. Catch-up seems to be the name of the game, and while the runaway success FIFA has experienced over the past few years has made it the market leader, PES clearly isn't prepared to give up the battle and go quietly into the night. During this year's Tokyo Game Show we braved the legions of football fans eager to strap in and boot around on the grass.
The work-in-progress Xbox 360 version we played included support for a chunk of the global national sides, and while limited time prevented us from exploring menus and scoping out all the club level options, there appeared to be a good amount of choice of teams available. Rather than kick us straight onto the grass to pass the ball around, once we had selected a matchup between England and Brazil, we were treated to a bit of preshow entertainment. Beginning our run in the tunnel, we took to the field as broadcast television camera angles captured players giving instructions to each other and warming up. Star players like Kaka got their share of the screen time as the two teams lined up for their anthems. As "God Save the Queen" echoed around the stadium, English players mimed along.
After being introduced in last year's game, full 360-degree ball dribbling makes its return in PES 2011. Without it, sports titles feel more like early '90s arcade titles than current-generation sports simulators. Longtime PES fans may face a short adjustment period, but FIFA fans either dipping their toes with the competitor product or returning to the PES fod should have no trouble making the transition between the two control systems. Dribbling felt smooth and responsive, and even if you're not one to perform ballhandling tricks like feints, simply shielding the ball with your player's body by facing away from the attacker, or drawing a defender to fire off a pass, is simple and rewarding. Ball control is king, and we noticed during our play session the ease with which we were able to pick a gap and lure our opposition to commit a man before threading the needle and stepping the ball around the corner. Passing to team members felt a little bit floaty, while fast-paced ping-pong passing (done away with in this year's FIFA game) frequently set up chances for strikers inside the box.
Physicality also plays a big part in this year's title. Players jostle on and off the ball, and while we played the CPU rather than another human player, the game certainly didn't take it easy. Free kicks were accompanied by slow-mo replays of slide tackles, while wronged players won't just stand there and take it, often held back from fighting by fellow squadmates after taking a tumble in the grass. Things get even more passionate when a player scores a yellow or red card, frequently appealing to the referee and flanked by visibly distressed AI buddies hoping to have the decision overturned.
Emotion appears to have been high on Konami's wish list this year and extends from anger to frustration. Players failing to score against open goals fall to the ground once the ball has gone dead, covering their face with their hands in horror at having squandered a chance to get on the board, equalise, or put their team's score beyond reach.
Will the new features in PES 2011 give FIFA 11 a run for its money? Only time will tell, but from what we've played of both games already, football fans are the real winners here with two titles to suit their tastes. Pro Evolution Soccer is due to toebash its way onto all major platforms later next month.