If Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 was the reboot that put the series back in the running, then Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 is the game that pushes it straight to the finals. While it offers more in the way of refinement than something completely new, there are tweaks in PES 12 that change the way it plays, removing many of the frustrations that plagued previous games in the series. AI improvements ensure your teammates attack, defend, and pass in a more believable manner, while smoother animations mean you're treated to a better-looking experience. Not all the tweaks hit the mark; off-the-ball control is tricky to master, online modes feel sparse next to FIFA, and a renewed sense of speed actually makes PES 12 less realistic than its predecessor. But it's that very speed that also makes it a great game by offering up an exciting, fluid game of football that's a joy a play.
Last year's PES saw the introduction of a more accurate passing system that required you to place the ball precisely, controlling direction and power. Ultimately, this made PES a slower and more considered experience, pushing it firmly into the simulation space occupied by FIFA. While PES 12 retains this passing system, the overall flow of the game has changed. It's faster and more fluid, with the change being immediately apparent when you see players moving more gracefully than ever before. Performing fast-paced runs, passing long balls, or going for glory with an optimistic shot from outside the box is easier than in previous games, and a lot of fun to boot.
PES 12's fluidity doesn't mean that realism has taken a backseat, though. Numerous AI tweaks change the way your team members play, making them less of a hindrance to each match. Some of those tweaks are immediately apparent while others are subtler, but all have an impact on gameplay. For instance, improvements made to the AI mean that computer-controlled players offer more support. The AI is actually good at anticipating your next move, running to open areas of the pitch just as you receive the ball. This lets you make better use of open space for more inventive plays. Active AI also incorporates improvements to dummy and diagonal runs. If you run in wide, a supporting player will run with you, zigzagging around the opposition and placing himself in an open area so you can get a pass in and cross the ball into the box.
It's not just offensive play that has received an overhaul. In previous versions of PES, defenders would often move out of position and leave gaps for the opposition to exploit. In PES 12, a new zonal defence feature plugs those gaps. If you look at your defence, you'll see that players maintain defensive lines, making it much trickier for the opposition to attack. This also extends to the relationship between your defenders and midfielders; you can see them working together to charge down attacking players and win the ball.
If you'd rather take direct charge of your players, you can use off-the-ball control. There are two types to choose from: teammate assisted and teammate manual. In assisted mode, you select another player by pressing R3 and move the right analog stick before making a pass or cross. This directs any pass to the player, forgoing the use of the power bar to control the kick. It also instructs the selected player to move forward and make runs, using the Active AI improvements. Even more direct control is available using teammate manual controls, which lets you control an off-the-ball player completely. The left stick moves the player with the ball, while the right stick moves the player off the ball.
Getting to grips with the system is tricky; it's much like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. It takes some serious practice to nail it, but once you do, it's a powerful tool for creating chances on goal. You can perform spectacular-looking set plays, with multiple players running into the box to confuse the opposition's defence, letting you pick one key player to send the ball to the back of the net. However, if you're playing against a friend locally, he or she will be able to see whom you're selecting, which makes the feature more useful when playing against the AI or in online matches.
Other, smaller improvements have been made to the controls too. These include less complicated hold-up play, which now requires just two button presses; this lets you force attacking players back without going straight in for a tackle. One-on-one play has also been simplified. By pressing only R2, your player can perform a range of step overs, feints, and turns that can confuse even the most advanced PES players. The right analog stick allows you to control the direction of your tricks and lets you easily pull away from a confused defender. This coincides with noticeable improvements to PES 12's player animation. Numerous new moves have been added, with players leaping over tackles and performing swift turns on the ball to make the game look smoother and more fluid.
If you're having a hard time getting to grips with any of the controls, PES 12's Training Challenge teaches you such basics as penalties, free kicks, and dribbling, as well as attacking and defensive techniques. Each challenge is divided up in three sections of increasing difficulty, with bronze, silver, or gold trophies awarded, depending on your performance. For example, one challenge has you taking penalties, with the goal divided up into three sections that are worth a different number of points. The more points you score and the faster your completion time, the better the trophy you receive. You get an unlimited number of tries to complete each challenge, so even if you're having trouble, there's no penalty for failing.
While numerous improvements have been made to the gameplay in PES 12, little else has changed. You're still treated to the same modes as last year, consisting of a variety of tournaments, including the officially licensed UEFA Champions League and South American Copa Libertadores tournament, as well as unofficial tournaments, such as League Cup and Community. If you fancy more than just a simple tournament, Become a Legend and Master League make a return, letting you guide a player through his career or perform the duties of a manager. Both modes offer an interesting diversion from the main tournaments, but Master League offers the most depth, letting you take control of player transfers, training, tactics, and more.
Some changes have been made to the online modes, though, most noticeably with the MyPES beta. It allows you to upload your match data to Facebook using the corresponding app, as well as share match statistics and compare them with your friends. Further functionality is promised when MyPES comes out of beta, including the ability to create groups and private leagues, as well as earn badges. As it stands, though, there isn't a lot to entice you into using the service, unless you really want to show off you scores. PES 12's traditional online features are largely the same, including a range of unranked, ranked, and tournament matches on offer. The Online Master League also makes a return, letting you compete against others for prize money, which you can use to buy new players for your squad. Spending your money wisely by choosing tournaments to enter and players to buy is the key to success. And thanks to a well-implemented market, you can easily keep track of which players offer the best value for your team. Master League is addictive once you get going, and seeing your team rise to success against the masses of the Internet is immensely satisfying. One small tweak has been made to the mode, though, which ensures that you only play against others in the same region, which minimizes lag.
One thing that never changes about PES is the lack of official teams. This year, the game sports just Manchester United and Tottenham from the English Premiership, along with a handful of European teams and the England squad. The player likenesses are good, though, and it's easy to recognize such players as Wayne Rooney or John Terry as they line up before a match. Commentary comes courtesy of Jim Beglin and Jon Champion, but it isn't particularly good. Oddly timed phrases can often be heard, while generic terms are used all too often, giving the commentary an unnatural sound. The level of presentation in PES 12 doesn't come close to the likes of FIFA, but you can download the inevitable fan-made updates that add in all of the official teams.
It's disappointing to see that so little has changed with the modes in PES 12, meaning it still doesn't match FIFA on features. But if fast, fluid, and, above all, fun football is at the top of your agenda, then PES 12 is a great choice. Its substantial AI improvements make it much less of a struggle to play with computer-controlled teammates, while innovative ball control--despite being tricky to master--gives advanced players the chance to set up stunning plays that weren't possible before. It's not the revolution you might have been hoping for, but PES 12 is a good alternative to FIFA, particularly if you're in it for the fun, rather than the licences.