America has never had much love for the world's game, and even for a red-blooded Yank I'm particularly soccer-ignorant. I never played organized soccer as a child, I've never seen the Timbers play, and outside of that whole "don't use your hands" bit, I'm not entirely sure I even know the rules of the game.
So the other day, when a box from Konami arrived on my doorstep containing a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 (aka World Soccer: Winning Eleven 2011), I was stumped as to what I was going to do with it. Would it be reasonable for me to critique a game whose fundamentals I admittedly know nothing about?
That's when a second thought struck me: I'm not exactly an anomaly here. Even with Portland's vast affection for our Timbers, the average person likely knows little about the world's most popular sport. I doubt a random man or woman stopped on the street could even name a pro soccer player who isn't also sleeping with a Spice Girl.
Thus, I think a review from my standpoint is almost more valid than if I were an expert on association football. I offer a look at the game through the lens of the average American. Perhaps that isn't a fair way to judge PES 2011, but unless someone can magically turn me French, it's all I've got.
Hit the jump.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011
Developed By Konami
Now Available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
First, let's cover the stuff I know: The game's sights and sounds. In a word, they're phenomenal.
A few hours after I first unboxed PES 2011, I was compiling notes for this review while the game was set to simulate a match between Manchester United and the "Wolves." The two sides were both computer-controlled, leaving the game to essentially "play itself" while I typed and Googled up useful facts. My non-gamer roommate walks in, looks at my HDTV, stands there for a few moments, staring and saying nothing. Wondering what he'd come in for, I hit "Pause" on the controller. Stunned, he turned to me and said, "That's a game? I thought you were watching ESPN."
I won't claim the aesthetics are enough to fool even regular gamers, but "good enough to convince the general public that it's broadcast TV" is a gold star for the development team behind the graphics engine.
Likewise, the game sounds spot on. English announcers Jon Champion and Jim Beglin are on par with the best simulated sports announcers I've heard in any game, neither repeating phrases excessively or leaving long pauses. I won't claim I understand everything they say — again, I'm soccer-retarded — so for all I know purists might want to crucify these two, but technically speaking, Konami does everything right here.
Though, straight up, I almost wish Konami had sent me a Spanish-language version of the game. There are ten different commentator teams depending on your region, and soccer just lacks something without a sweaty, middle-aged man screaming "GOAL!" for half an hour at a time.
Continuing my praise of the game's aural landscape, both the in-match sound effects and menu soundtrack are as technically excellent as you could hope. During matches, players shout back and forth in their native tongues, crowd sounds swell with excitement and disappointment, and the dull thud of a hard drop kick can be heard throughout the stadium. As a result, the atmosphere is exactly what you'd hope for. Close your eyes while playing and the sounds alone will maintain a great sense of ambience.
That menu soundtrack I mentioned — it's the least obvious addition to the game, and to be honest there really isn't any way Konami could have bungled it (as any judgment of the tunes is purely subjective). Personally, I feel that they achieved the world-music-by-way-of-alternative-pop concept they were seemingly hoping for with their eclectic mix of artists, but you may be less impressed. Regardless, you only hear the tunes in-between matches, so it isn't a huge issue either way.
Before I get into dissecting the actual gameplay, I wanted to mention one last bit: The game's customization options. They are immense. You can alter and edit everything from your players to the stadium you call home, and one of the gameplay modes (the Become A Legend mode, which I will discuss later) hinges entirely on the strength of the game's customization options. It's success is a testament to how vast, intuitive, and user-friendly the options in PES 2011 really are.
Now onto the actual gameplay.
For years the Pro Evolution Soccer was considered the best series in the genre. Up until this latest console generation Konami's game consistently beat EA's FIFA series owing to its more realistic gameplay. EA's game was flashier, but it just didn't have the gameplay to take down the king.
Then the modern console era came about and EA caught up in a big way. Ever since the '08 line, Pro Evolution Soccer has been playing second fiddle to EA's series. Konami never actually lost the quality gameplay their series was always known for, they just weren't able to improve their games as rapidly as EA was. So while EA kept its superior graphics and sound, and learned how to offer gamers a competent game of footie, Konami did next to nothing.
Until PES 2011.
It would be a lie to say Konami cleverly rebuilt their game to perfectly match everyone's expectations in the course of a single year. That just didn't happen. The truth is that Konami lifted the vast majority of FIFA 2010's gameplay tricks and added them to PES 2011. Sure, it's dirty pool (er, soccer) but it worked. PES 2011 is the best offering from the series in years, and it almost puts them head-to-head with FIFA 2011.
Almost? Yeah, sadly EA is winning this war the way they've always won fights over sporting genres: With huge bags of cash.
FIFA 2011 simply has more licensed teams, players and leagues than PES 2011 does, and while the gameplay purists couldn't care less about this, and will pick up PES 2011 for its demanding, difficult soccer gameplay, the average person wants to see their favorite players in all their digital glory. That's not to say PES 2011 is devoid of actual people and teams — generally speaking Konami managed to nab most of the big names — but there is only one company capable of matching EA's money, and they're too busy churning out Call of Duty sequels to care about the planet's favorite sport.
(As an aside, I should mention that the above section really only applies to everyone living outside of South America. Konami cleverly licensed the Copa Santander Libertadores —read: a ton of Latin and South American teams — out from under EA's nose, virtually locking down an entire continent for their franchise. It may not mean much to you, but this acquisition is huge news for soccer fans from Brazil to Chile. They're all playing PES 2011 and laughing at the lame-os whose well meaning abuelas bought them FIFA.)
Those are the broad strokes, but I also want to mention some of the smaller aspects of PES 2011's gameplay. This game is not friendly to new players. Even on default difficulty I lost 5 straight matches before I even managed to score a goal. Thinking maybe I just need a bit of a tutorial, I entered the game's "Practice" mode only to find it is essentially an open soccer field with a handful of teammates, no time limit, and an option set that may as well just tell you to get out there and figure it out yourself.
Once you learn how to control the flow of play and move the ball around reliably everything becomes gloriously intense, but it will take rookies hours to get to that point (here's hoping you can spare the patience, as it is worth it).
After you hone your skills against the computer though, you'll want to dig into the biggest new draw for PES 2011's online functionality, the Online Master League. Essentially, it offers you a chance to build your dream team of players from around the globe and pit them against other people's best squads. It seems like a small addition, but with the level of stat tracking and aesthetic player likenesses built into the virtual characters, it should prove a big draw for hardened fans of the game.
The final small aspect I wanted to spotlight is the game's "Become A Legend" mode. I mentioned it earlier when talking up the game's customization options and that's because it's the interactive story of a player you create and then guide through a professional soccer career.
This concept isn't new to sports titles — the earliest example I can remember is from over a decade ago — but rarely has it been done so well as in PES 2011.
You start by completely designing your player in a create-a-character system more in-depth than most MMORPGS. Everything from shoes to coif can be altered. You then sign a contract with a team, and a few days later you're playing your first match. Viewing PES 2011 through the eyes of a single team member is an entirely different experience than the standard match, and adds a ton of replay value to this game.
Getting back to the game, the better you perform in these matches, the more money you can demand during future contract negotiation, and the more money you make, the closer you get to living the life of Cristiano Ronaldo. Play well enough and you can populate Madrid with a legion of bastard children! Konami failed to include that inevitably in an in-game cinematic, but I've got my fingers crossed that they rectify that issue in PES 2012.
If you soon find yourself standing in the Electronics section at Fred Meyer, wondering whether to pick up PES 2011, I say do it. Despite my naivete about the sport, I gave it a few hours of effort and was rewarded with a really in-depth, strategically complex game of soccer. I won't claim I suddenly know the sport inside and out, or that I won't stab anyone who comes near me with a vuvuzela — someone still needs to explain that shit to me — but I can say I'm enjoy nightly matches against other English League clubs.
And that's more than I can say for any of the other sports games on my shelf.
(Propers to former Mercury soccer scribe, and current Portland Timbers Director of Digital Media Brian Costello for offering his soccer expertise in the creation of this review.
Also, for hilarious videos of Steve Nash. That man is comic gold.)