Great sports rivalries are what keeps fans interested and keeps them paying out the nose to get through the gates. Rivalries define not only passion and emotion that drive the athletes, but create an undeniable atmosphere that incites people into a veritable frenzy. In this regard, the sports genre in gaming is no different. For the most part, each major sport has a couple of versions vying for the attention of their respective fanbases. While the Madden and NBA 2K franchises have pretty much trounced their competition into submission, soccer fans still have two great choices: FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer. And just like rivalries everywhere, each game has it's own camp who will swear up and down that their team is just better.
Historically, the FIFA series set the benchmark mostly because of a bigger budget and therefore licensing rights, while PES held the crown for better mechanics and actual gameplay. But in recent years FIFA, has improved in the area PES held the title, creating a surprisingly accurate on-pitch experience. Striving for realism, the inherent difference between a game and a simulation, has pushed FIFA over the edge and into the driver's seat. And while PES 2012 is still a good soccer game, it honestly feels like it's trying to catch up, swearing and panting behind like someone who just missed the bus.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is without making numerous direct comparisons to the competition, so let's get the obvious stuff out of the way early. FIFA essentially cornered the market by buying out the licensing rights to most of the major leagues and competitions. This means you play with real teams and real players. PES 2012, unfortunately, has to make do with a few big name clubs, and everything else is more or less made up. Instead of playing as Arsenal, you're North London. Instead of Liverpool or Everton, you're Merseyside Red or Merseyside Blue respectively (didn't we go through this with Halo?). While this isn't a complete deal breaker (and I'm well aware how petty it sounds), I always find it difficult to really get involved when I can't play as my team.
The argument can be made that, all things being equal, these games should be judged on the merits of the gameplay rather than who shelled out the cash to buy up the team/league/player licenses. However, there is something to be said for immersion. For those who are so inclined, the lack thereof can be noticeable at best and frustrating at worst, like something essential is missing.
For example, when playing the new all-encompassing Football Life Mode, you take control of the team of your choice and run the club from both the boardroom and on the pitch. I chose Merseyside Reds (aka Liverpool, my team) and was placed in Division 2 with a bunch of scrubs (who, interestingly, don't ever change no matter what team you choose to manage), the goal being to secure promotion to the top flight. I like the team building aspect, something that does force your involvement as you really need to pay attention to the stats of your players when you choose who will play and who will complement each other. But that's tempered by the fact that you get put into a league with "made up" teams from Europe, most of whom I couldn't even guess who their real life model was. Again, it can be difficult to disassociate yourself, to suspend disbelief as it were. After a while, the novelty wears off.
I recognize the licensing issue won't affect everyone equally. If you can look past it, there is a perfectly good soccer game to enjoy! PES has always hung it's laurels on the fact that the fun, fast, on-the-field action made up for those areas that came up lacking. The gameplay, despite a few noticeable additions, is pretty much the same as it has been. The game plays much faster than FIFA as a rule. On-the-ball control is where PES really shines. Juking, step-overs, and faking defenders out of their socks has never been so seemingly effortless. It's odd then that the biggest improvements to PES 2012 come off the ball.
By far the best addition to PES 2012 is the ability to control a player who doesn't have the ball at his feet. The controls are a bit complicated, but once you get the hang of it, the moments of sheer footballing brilliance that follow are special. If you have a bit of space, you can switch over to another player and initiate a run, splitting the defense, and call for the pass to run onto. Controlling a player in the box from a corner or free kick is one of those things that, once you've done it a few times, you'll wonder how you ever managed without it.
Sadly, I wouldn't go so far as to say I feel like Messi, simply because some other areas are starting to feel dated when compared to the competition. Passes don't feel as sharp, and don't always go to the obvious recipient. I lost track of the number of times I'd try to pass the ball to someone only to have them step over the ball and let it roll to a player further along, often resulting in the pass being intercepted. The same holds true for shooting, where I never really felt like I was in control. Shots lack punch most of the time, and then mysteriously a header will have enough force to decapitate someone in the third row. There were times when I found the back of the net that I was sure I'd been aiming for the other side of goal... not that I'm complaining. But it seems like for every moment where I was pumping my fist and nodding appreciatively after dissecting a defense, there were two where I'd be scratching my head, wondering what just happened.
The same holds true on the other side of the ball. Defensive pressing can kind of be a bit hit or miss... or rather seemingly up to luck as to whether or not you'll actually make a tackle. It can also be a mystery with what qualifies as a foul and what doesn't. Just like real life I suppose, but the refs seem inconsistent, calling fouls if you so much as brush up against an opponent while a career-ending tackle might go unpunished.
You've got a plethora of game modes from which to choose, both online and off. Online you can play friendly matches (with the option to give your opponent a "Fair Play" rating after, something you should pay attention to when picking an opponent from the lobby) as well a Master League Online mode where you create your own "dream team" by using players from the transfer market and face off against other like minded opposition from around the world. Offline, apart from your standard exhibition matches, you can play in the fully licensed UEFA Champions League (the one thing FIFA doesn't have... although without the team licenses I struggle with it), the Copa Libertadores (the top South American club competition), and the aforementioned Football Life mode.
Football Life is where it's at, and there are two ways to play. As the new clubs manager you'll handle every facet of running the club, right down to hiring staff and having conversations with players who are unhappy with their playing time (or lack thereof). There are even mini cutscenes that play out, adding a sense of realism and elusive immersion to the experience. Sure, these brief snippets are wooden, repeat early, and there is no sound, but I appreciate the effort all the same. The other way is ‘Become a Legend’, where you play as your created player, starting off young and impressionable at a small club and eventually earning the right to move on and demand bigger salaries from the top tier teams.
Graphically, PES 2012 is a bit of a mixed bag. The top tier players you actually recognize look pretty good, but a lot of little things like the stadiums or the fans in the seats aren't terribly impressive. On the pitch, the animations aren't as smooth as FIFA; sometimes seeming to speed up at random moments, other times players will eerily glide across the grass like they're on ice skates. On occasion, the ball seems to ping-pong around at warp speed. Players will also do inexplicable things from time to time like spinning in a circle before taking a shot or standing perfectly still when fielding a ball and having it bounce off despite your shouts and button mashing (usually resulting in someone else making an inappropriate slide tackle and getting a card). I even had a player on the ball stop his run despite my protestations, like he didn't want to go up the wing. These moments are few, but noticeable. The same inconsistency holds true for the sound work. The commentary seems stilted at times, and will be repeated early and often. The sound effects, especially the fans, sound like so much white noise, and the menu soundtrack is a relatively annoying mix of electronica that had me wanting to mute it and put on Pandora.
There are a couple of other little things that irked me about PES 2012. The training mode is oddly put together. Some of the new mechanics aren't properly explained until you complete other tasks first. That's all well and good as it forces you to learn how to play the game properly, but I don't like how you have to jump through hoops to get there. I also think that the menu interface can be confusing; it's not presented well.
And that, in a nutshell, might be the best phrase to describe PES 2012: inconsistent. It's a nice effort, but it mostly still feels like so much window dressing. FIFA has made dramatic improvements to certain gameplay mechanics and realistic physics, taking leaps forward (some working, others not so much). PES, on the other hand, actually reminds me more of Madden - making baby steps so as not to disrupt the balance that made the game so popular in the first place. This makes sense from a certain perspective, but fans (and consumers) get tired of shelling out full price for a few, small and ultimately ineffectual, changes. Mind you, that doesn't seem to stop people...
I realize that I've come across as overly critical and it's not necessarily fair to compare a game so directly with its rival and competition. Having said that, PES feels less polished overall, and the differences that once made it stand out now feel outdated. Conversely, when it gets it right, there are true moments of brilliance that will have you pumping your fist in appreciation of a well-worked goal. In fact, there are things that both titles do well, and if only we could have an amalgamation of the two, the best of both worlds as it were, then we'd really be in for a treat. But as I stated initially, I feel like PES 2012, while still a pretty good soccer game in it's own right, has fallen significantly behind the FIFA series, like a player past his prime who has lost a step... and he knows it.