Pro Evolution Soccer 2010
Once the first choice of football purists everywhere for its unrivalled gameplay and strategic complexity, the Pro Evolution Soccer series has recently fallen into decline since home-based gaming hardware made the generational leap to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Moreover, Konami's longstanding series has become increasingly saddled with criticism and complaints for feeling old, looking older, and drifting inexorably away from being a true representation of 'the beautiful' game.
Yet, as the fraying patience of PES fans prompts them to seek their footballing thrills elsewhere, it would appear series producer Shingo 'Seabass' Takatsuka has paid a visit to the local otologist and had his bunged ears syringed, because Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 (PES 2010) actually does show concrete signs of processed feedback, implemented change, and welcome improvement. That's right, strap on your boots, tighten your studs, slide in your shin pads, adjust your cup, and pull on your jersey of choice - Pro Evolution is back.
So let's deal with the aforementioned criticisms and their subsequent improvements, most of which are subtly rooted in gameplay, presentation and game modes, and make a marked difference without much in the way of fanfare or gusto.
Accusatory fingers have been pointed at more recent Pro Evolution releases with regard to whistle-happy referees, which are missing from PES 2010 thanks to officials that encourage flowing play by waving away heavy but clean tackles and only punishing the most cynical or crunching challenges. Similarly, patchy goal-scoring opportunities from crosses and corners have been tweaked so that towering headers and shock volleys are now a hard-earned possibility as opposed to a fluked rarity. Also, super-stingy goalkeepers - while still incredibly agile and difficult to beat - are now prone to spilling the odd rasping drive, which means following shots into the penalty area can often result in a fortuitous goal scored on the rebound.
In terms of A.I. opposition, teams equipped with sickeningly skilful superstars will retain possession with ominous intent, engage in mesmerising spells of one-touch passing, and scythe almost effortlessly through supposedly impenetrable defensive lines. Conversely, teams without such talented resources will often park 11 men behind the ball, attempt to bully the match, chase tirelessly, and assert physical pressure across the pitch. In short, it's not just Real Madrid and Barcelona that pose a threat in PES 2010, even smaller teams can spring a well-oiled counter attack or score from a set piece in a split second without ever seeming to pose a threat. The player is never truly safe, even with a healthy lead, which makes for some extremely tense but fulfilling moments as the on-screen clock ticks around to 90 minutes and the crowd whistles relentlessly for the referee to end the game.
Perhaps one of the biggest alterations to this year's PES is the introduction of a semi-automated squad evolution system in the Master League, which improves individual training stats without the player having to choose between manually or automatically divvying out accrued experience points. While the end result is the same as other series offerings when it comes to speeding up the improvement of youngsters, realising the full potential of established stars, and prolonging the threat of aging squad players, the hassle-free adjustment of sliding scales means virtual managers can concentrate on taking care of the action on the pitch rather than in the office. A new Skill Card system also allows team members to avoid regular training and instead spend a period of eight weeks learning a fundamental or flair attribute, or even honing tactical awareness so they can play out of their default positions.
The concept of simply sliding scales also bleeds over into the realm of preset strategies and on-the-fly tactics, with the player able to place precise assignment ahead of individual games based on the known strengths and weaknesses of an opposing team. Again implemented for the benefit of those players more intent on the thrill of the game as opposed to studying and analysing it, PES 2010 is willing to shoulder the burden of adjusting in-game tactics to suit varying situations if the player would rather just play. However, full manual input is always an option and can be sought out at any time by those looking to lose themselves in the minutiae of tactical application.
The Pro Evolution Soccer series has often been criticised for its disappointingly lacklustre aesthetics, but clear improvements made across the board in PES 2010 suggest Konami is finally attempting to better tap the power and performance offered by the current generation of home consoles. Specifically, player models are noticeably more detailed (from spots on Tomas Rosicky's chin through to pock scars on Ji-Sung Park's cheeks), while animations and cut-scene celebrations carry an impressive weight of fluidity that further intensifies the overall flow of gameplay.
Gone is the cheap and tacky presentation that has haunted Pro Evolution in the past, with bright and fussy bubblegum menus dropped in favour of a funky, dynamic and direct layout that's as easy on the eye as it is to navigate. The most refreshing new addition to the game's outward aesthetic arrives via the gloriously grandiose Champions League, which is not only the lucrative tournament proper but also comes with all the bells and whistles you'd associate with the real-world televised presentation. The operatic Champions League soundtrack booms ahead of each group stage and knock-out match, the on-screen backdrop becomes the iconic football-shaped stadium, camera flashes dazzle as the player sweeps through packed stands, and even the respective emblems of the battling teams shift perspective to add a little extra punch. It's a simple alteration, but one that comes with serious impact and succeeds in ramping up nerves when faced with mounting a challenge against the likes of Arsenal, Inter Milan or Bayern Munich.
And just as an aside, because menu music in football games is fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, PES 2010 also improves upon its immediate predecessor through a wider selection of popular tunes from artists such as Keane, Guillemots, Paul Weller, The Klaxons, The Chemical Brothers, and more.
Sadly, while in-game and menu visuals have been successfully tweaked, stalwart commentary team Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson still fall short of achieving truly reactive football chatter (a la Messrs Tyler and Gray). That being said, sporadically ill-timed outbursts and observational stumbles can be forgiven insofar as 2010's commentary - while largely unchanged from 2009 - is more tightly delivered than ever before and does succeed in creating an extra degree of player immersion.
At this point it's also worth taking a moment to focus on PES 2010's glaring lack of licensed content and shoddy crowd noise... and how faithful series fans can effortlessly take advantage of community-created solutions in order to nullify some of the biggest series deficiencies critics are always so eager to target.
While each passing year sees Konami securing a few more authentic teams and stadiums here and there, there's no denying the furrowed brows of tolerant compromise that accompany having to select a rough geographic approximation of your favourite club team (i.e., North London White instead of Tottenham Hotspur). That gaping lack of authenticity is certainly apparent from the outset in PES 2010, and is unlikely to be completely solved any time soon by Konami when considering that full FIFA licensing continues to reside elsewhere. However, the foremost recurring annoyance attributed to the Pro Evolution Soccer series can be negated, for the most part, by any passionate player armed with a USB stick, an Internet connection, and an ounce of patience.
For example, the Pro Evolution Soccer online community has already worked to plug gaps by creating downloadable 'Team Strip' and 'Crowd Chant' option files that can be saved to a USB stick, copied to the PlayStation 3 hard drive, and dropped directly into the game. With the files in place, players can enjoy more authentic visuals through accurate home and away kits and team emblems, while the game's fairly sub-standard pitch-side atmospherics are given a considerable boost through genuine (and often hilarious) team-specific chants sourced from actual matches.
Not content with improving the overall strength of PES 2010's gameplay while enthusiastically buffing its in-game visuals, Konami has also moved to address existing complaints levelled at its online multiplayer platform. Specifically, an extensive session of ranked and unranked matches revealed that previous moments of potentially deal-breaking lag and control delay have been all-but eradicated in this year's edition. With gameplay wrinkles duly ironed out, Konami has also simplified the online interface so that joining servers, creating and controlling match rooms, finding friends, and issuing invites can be performed with minimal fuss.
In order to avoid causing abrupt bouts of nausea amongst our valued readership, it's time to stem this review's seemingly endless tide of unbridled adoration by highlighting PES 2010's crippling inadequacies. So, here it comes: The screen jumps inexplicably every time the referee blows his whistle for half time and full time. That's it. And, you know, if you install the game to the PS3 hard drive, the glitch goes away.
While a true sense of 'evolution' may be in short supply, Pro Evolution 2010 remains nothing short of a convincing return to form for Konami thanks to streamlined presentation, unpredictable gameplay, intuitive tactical planning, consistently variable challenge and a much-improved online service. Hold sway if you're considering a footballing defection based on recent series shortfalls, Pro Evolution 2010 is, kick for kick, Konami's best effort in years.