There's one thing you can say with certainty about this year's instalment of Pro Evolution Soccer: it is among the most aptly titled games in the industry. If only other publishers had the same degree of candour as Konami, I'd have never been disappointed to discover I had bought, for example, Corridor Fantasy XIII, Recycled Dungeon Age II, or NCAA Patch Wait 12.
That's not to say evolution is a bad thing, mind you. In fact, it's refreshing after the last couple months' sports titles to find myself playing in a category where I can participate in the process of natural selection. And even though PES has been struggling in recent years to keep pace with the dominant series, it still has enough unique and attractive characteristics of its own to merit a closer look.
Player control is one such characteristic where PES 2012 differentiates itself. Dribbling the ball feels so direct, immediate and responsive that I find myself trying Ronaldo-level solo tactics when I should really be passing the ball. And there is a veritable laundry list of complex dribbling moves to learn and use. Thankfully, you can map a set of them to a simple LB + right stick combination to create your own individualised set of Link Feints, making them much easier to unleash in key moments. When it works, and you slice between a pair of defenders to free yourself in the box for an open shot, it's a pretty sensational feeling.
Another nice bit of player control comes in the form of the new set pieces. You can now use the right stick on free kicks, throw-ins, and corner kicks to select the player you want to receive the pass, then make the run yourself and call for the ball. I haven't had great success in beating the computer with these moves, but I anticipate terrorising many a friend with this nice, new twist.
Passing has been a bit more problematic and frustrating for me. PES uses a power gauge under your player to indicate the strength and height of a pass, shot, or throw -- the longer you hold the button, the higher/farther the ball travels. It makes sense on paper, but in practice, when attempting to move the ball to a player further up the pitch, oftentimes I wind up instead passing to a teammate standing only a few yards away, even if I've maxed out the meter (and sometimes the inverse happens as well).
It's all a little unpredictable and leads to far too many unexpected losses of possession. On the other end of the spectrum, I've found crossing passes to be nearly laser accurate, leading to an inordinate number of easy headers for goals (though this is partially due to some spotty A.I. defenders seemingly ignoring my striker as the ball sails in). Even professional players can't put the ball in exactly the right spot every time -- just ask Chelsea fans.
You'll notice quite early on that Pro Evolution Soccer is still pretty far down the food chain in terms of its overall presentation, unfortunately. While Konami has snared the exclusive UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League licenses, they still can't match the stable of licenses FIFA boasts. And the fit and finish of everything from the menus to the cinematic interactions with your agent in Be a Legend mode just don't come off as slick and professional as their contemporaries -- not just in football, but in sports games in general. The graphics are nice and the player likenesses are impressive, but in motion, they have something of a stuttering, jerky quality that can't match FIFA's fluidity (in my more generous moments, I assume that the reason I have such great control in PES is precisely because of this, since I'm not getting caught in long, scripted animations). FIFA definitely has the fancy plumage and the enticing mating dance to attract most football fans.
However, I find some of this apparent lack of polish to be among PES's strengths, oddly. Amid all my talk of evolution, there's something refreshing in PES about seeing its creator's hand. Some of the quirks I could easily write off as negatives imbue the game with a kind of personality and organic feel that's uncommon among sports games. No two matches -- even between the same teams -- ever feel quite the same, and it's that element of surprise that just might, at least offline, make Pro Evolution my go-to football game this season.