Firmly rooted to the midfield line.
Like any great sports rivalry, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer and EA’s FIFA series have been duking it out ever since PES stepped onto the pitch in 2001—and even longer if you include Konami’s earlier Winning Eleven titles. In one corner you have FIFA, the squeaky-clean champ with the golden smile. In the other corner stands PES, the rough-and-tumble upstart from the other side of town.
[image1]Each year, these two series go toe-to-toe, and soccer fans wait to see which game will come out ahead. This year, the FIFA series decided to spice things up by introducing some impressive online modes and all-around improved gameplay. Pro Evolution Soccer 2009, on the other hand, shows that it’s content to bring a solid, if predictable, set of tried-and-true features to the contest.
Imagine a romantic comedy where we see two different young dudes competing for one woman’s love. The leading man is rough around the edges—farts in public, accidentally hits on the girl’s best friend, wears cargo shorts to a black-tie wedding, and so on. The villain is always well-dressed, well-coifed, and maddeningly suave. The slick villain says all the right things to the right people in the right way. But we root for the hero because we know he’s got a good heart. Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 is the uncouth-but-lovable hero to FIFA Soccer 09’s suspiciously over-polished villain.
The heart of the Pro Evo series is its consistent focus on solid gameplay, but this time around in PES 2009, a strict adherence to gameplay is its downfall. It feels old-fashioned and derivative when compared to prior entries in the series and to its major competitor. By concentrating so much on the core set of actions on the pitch, Konami’s given little attention to everything else in the game.
PES 2009 makes some half-hearted attempts to step outside of its comfort zone, but to no avail. The introduction of the Become a Legend mode might be new to the PES series, but its definitely not new to sports games at large. In it, you follow a single player moving his way up through the ranks to better and better clubs leading to greater fame and fortune. It feels like something cooked up in the PS2 generation and usually amounts to your player doing nothing while your team’s A.I. handles the real work.
[image2]All team sports games have to find a healthy balance between player and A.I. control. Too much emphasis on player control and a game can be difficult to manage. Too much focus on the A.I. and a game can feel too automatic. Throughout its single-player modes, PES mostly strikes a good balance, but there are a few basic moves—like through-balls and basic passes—that feel out of your direct control.
I’m also still waiting for a soccer game that finds a better way to deal with goalies. The typical approach has been to leave them almost wholly under A.I.-control. To even things out, the offense also has to rely on an element of chance. Whether on offense or defense, I often feel too much like some silent, invisible die is being cast behind the scenes whenever there’s a shot on goal. In PES 2009, the randomness of goal shots has been slightly increased in order to diminish the role of the goalie. It might make the game fairer, but it also takes away from the feeling of accomplishment you get from a well-executed play.
Online play is much the same as in any other sports game of the past five years. Play one-on-one or two-on-two. Additionally, in Legends mode you can take your player from the Become a Legend mode into online competition. Ultimately, none of these online modes brings anything new to the table, and they are perpetually hampered by non-intuitive menu screens, endless click-through warnings and updates, and an overall lack of polish.
Worse, once I did get into a game lobby, I found them all but deserted. Over the course of two weeks of play, I never found very many players online, and I often had to either wait for more players or play a different game mode in order to find an active game. Persistent lag issues didn’t help matters.
[image3]Graphically, PES 2009 doesn’t push any boundaries. It runs smoothly, but considering how few effects are going on, that’s a less-than-impressive accomplishment. As far as the stadium audiences go, we’ve apparently returned to the days of sparsely populated seats filled with cardboard cutouts. There are some basic weather effects, but again nothing that we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Where’s the mud? The rain-drenched uniforms? The cleat-indented foreheads?
The core play mechanics in PES 2009 are as solid as ever, but everything else is par for the course—or sub-par in the case of online play. I would like to say that the online modes need to be reimagined, except that there’s no one online to play what’s there as it is.
If i may digress back to my earlier metaphor: if the PES series were that same male lead in a romantic comedy, then Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 would be the part of the movie where he gives his girl a call while he’s out drinking with his friends. When he says, “Where are you at?” she instead hears, “Why are you so fat?” She hangs up angrily, and in a fit of depression he takes home some random girl he met at the bar.
Similarly, PES 2009 is a drunken misstep for the series, but because I’m a sucker for the underdog, I’m hopeful that Konami will get it right the next time around. In the meantime, we’re left with a game that looks, smells, and feels a lot like regret and a hangover.