My cat, Mowgli, is staring at me with a shoe string between his white teeth. The string is much worn, the plastic tips have been chewed off and the strands splay out like loose dreadlocks. It’s a distasteful looking thing, damp and bedraggled. I sigh and reach for it. Mowgli squeaks, kittenlike, in excitement. I drag the string along the floor, jerk it up in the air, and throw it across the room. Mowgli chases, gnaws, scratches, and tugs it until he flops down to the ground, exhausted. I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that playing with the string is one of the highlights of his indolent existence.
It is isn’t even like this is his only toy. He has a laser pointer, catnip stuffed mice, fuzzy things on sticks, and elaborate scratching posts. He plays with all of these things for a little while, but it is the string he brings to me daily. The string is what works for him.
When it comes to Pro Evolution Soccer, I can relate to him. FIFA has all the acclaim, the licenses, the sales, and the Sky Sports sheen. EA’s game is a polished package all round. The reviewers, and most of the buying public, agree that it’s the best football simulation out. Yet every year, after I’ve played the demos that both companies release in Autumn, I realise that I’m going to return to Pro Evo. It just feels right.
Feel is the most important aspect of any football game. This is a nebulous term: it envelops everything from how individual players move, to how the ball bounces, to how much pressure I have to put on the analogue stick to ease past that last defender. Technically, it’s a combination of animations, input, and physics. Everything else is window dressing. My preference goes beyond liking what’s familiar, it’s more about appreciating the philosophy Konami have when it comes to football: they understand what I like about it, and what I don’t. A lot of the time they make mistakes, yet the core experience reliably hooks me.
That doesn’t mean I can’t recognise that my beloved franchise has been in decline for the past five years. Every recent instalment of Pro Evo has been built on the same PS2 era scale and principles. Playing this edition I can see ghostly remnants of animations going back to Pro Evo 06, before they even added the 200- tag. The animations are smoother and retextured, but essentially the same movements. It could be that they just have a veteran motion capture actor that they’ve employed for the last decade, or that they’re simply reusing assets. Other problems like patchy online performance, ugly menus, slapstick goalkeeping AI, and cretinous commentary have become like bad running jokes that just won’t go away.
Every year, Konami issue a press release claiming to have revamped the animations, graphics, and tactical options.
This is the first year that they’ve come close to making good on their promises: Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 is a significantly different game from its predecessors, so much so that I worried that they’d inadvertently obliterated the flawed draw of my favourite timesink. 360 control for dribbling and passing, a new tactical screen, a new scheme for tricks. It all seemed like too much to take in at first.
The most obvious benefit this year is the greater control afforded by the new passing system. The ball no longer zips between my players like a magnetic ice hockey puck; it’ll bobble and bounce, go too short or roll too far with greater frequency than before. While the realism can make things slightly more difficult or unpredictable, it also allows me to play passes that I’ve seen in real life, but never attempted in games before because of the rigidity of where the ball could go. Through balls played with precision and speed from near the half way line by a player like Xavi are surprisingly lifelike and a real tactical possibility now. In the last game, a hard pass (even a manual one) would either be intercepted by the psychic AI or go straight to your striker’s feet with uncanny accuracy, rather than ahead of him. The new system helps you just enough to feel like you can do just about anything with the right players, albeit with the risk of tmoves not coming off. The accuracy of passing is reflected in a player’s relevant skills more than in any previous Pro Evo. This is exactly how things should be.
Dribbling and technique have been overhauled as well, though not quite to the same extent. There’s a been a trend in both Pro Evo and FIFA towards animating the ball and player as separate entities during dribbling, rather than the previous custom, which essentially had the ball tied to the player’s boots. The control style still isn’t like Sensible Soccer, where you’re at serious risk of leaving the ball behind if you try and cut the grass with fancy footwork. There’s a sense of weightiness and momentum to your player’s movements that wasn’t there in the 2010 edition. The solidity of player physics has carried over to tackles, blocks, and tussles, too. Last year it seemed like the players were surrounded by force fields of air, which really broke the immersion apart in what’s still a contact sport. Large players are more useful as a result, since they can knock a runner off his stride even if they don’t manage to win the ball cleanly or they can barrel through challenges when they have the ball. By comparison, small players control with deftness and agility, so it’s easier than before to leave defenders flat footed with a change of pace or a few tricks.
I’ve been playing as RSC Anderlecht in my Master League—a game mode that I’ve written about before—and I’ve found that the limitations and strengths of my team have shaped my tactics to a great extent. Anderlecht lack real pace and only have a few players with skills to dictate play by passing or to beat defenders with tricks. It’s a game of two halves, though, so my team has literal strengths in the form of burly players who can press the opposition and win the ball back in manly physical confrontations. I find myself playing classic route-one football a lot of the time: whacking the ball up to my big striker who can hold it up, or divert it to my more skilful players on the wing.
All this must seem really obvious to anyone who hasn’t been following the series, but the difference in the importance of tactics between this game and its predecessors is striking to me. In Pro Evo 2010 I was able to coast through most matches, dominating possession and scoring great goals; all this with Aberdeen FC. I don’t think I’d be able to do that now, and not just because my dandy Dons aren’t included in the team list anymore since they aren’t in the UEFA cup (damn it!).
So, now we come to the lack of licenses in the game, which is a major turn off for many players and reviewers. The game ships with far fewer licensed teams and leagues than FIFA. It’s always been this way. Konami have bought as many as they can, but the gap remains immense. Most of the player names are real, yet there are significant omissions and inaccuracies in terms of kits, stadium names, and team names.
I honestly don’t give a shit about this. Maybe it’s because I grew up on a diet of faux-player names like Roberto Larcos, Facu, and Butatista, so any kind of license is a bonus, rather than a necessity. The most important things are the stats that govern how they play, in my opinion, and I’d play a league comprised entirely of imaginary teams and players if there was a good balance and they were entertainingly named.
Konami have indirectly acknowledged license shortcomings by making the Pro Evo extremely customisable. Just about everything can and will be edited to a high degree by the diligent masses at places like pesedit. Comprehensive fan patches are usually released shortly after the game is. These not only fix every name, but also add things like balls, music, stadiums, turf, billboards, boots, updated player stats, and even new menu graphics. In the past, I’ve looked forward to the next big fan made patch as though it were a new game.