Pro Evolution 2012: Closing the gap
Review platform: PlayStation 3 (also available on PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Xbox 360, iOS, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Microsoft Windows)
There was a time, only recently in fact, when the Pro Evolution Soccer brand looked like it may sink without a trace. Outgunned by EA Sports' FIFA title, Pro Evo was facing an uphill struggle to reclaim its place at the forefront of gamers' minds. Thankfully, the latest edition transports you back to an era when they were on top, even if they still have some way to go to complete their transformation.
The first thing to say is that Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 feels better than any of Konami's recent attempts. The speed and detail of the matches is more realistic, with players' runs, passing, AI intelligence and defensive organisation all getting a thorough working over. Pace and through-balls are still the way to find success - a comforting return to the days of the 2004-05 edition before FIFA began to mount its challenge - and the overall gameplay is a significant upgrade.
The designers have also made efforts to improve the players' likenesses and animations, meaning there are a few nice touches, for example the manager waving from the bottom of the screen when you change tactic and 'drag-and-drop' substitutions on a team chalkboard. Physicality has been enhanced and referees are no longer blowing up for everything, with the previous 'advantage' rule ditched in favour of simply less fouls in the game. It is now a lot harder to get booked or sent off too, which is a blessing that allows you to even make the occasional tackle from behind without fear of reprisal.
In the controls, there have also been some changes. While the basic system does not fall far from last year, a rather complex set of button pushes will see your player 'dive' in order to win that all-important free-kick, which is something many gamers have been waiting to do for years. The key improvement in this area, however, has been the introduction of some 'off-the-ball' controls. Using the right analogue stick, you can now command a selected team-mate, directing his runs and drawing opposition defenders away - although note that you will need to be an excellent multi-tasker if you are to get anything like what you are hoping for out of this.
Unfortunately some of the old problems do remain. The licences, which EA holds a considerable advantage in, are not there for the English Premier League teams (except Man Utd and Tottenham for some reason) and, although Konami has seen fit to ensure all the players have the right names, it is still a pain to edit the info to make it realistic. Goalkeepers are still not up to the standard of the rest of the players and there is also the blow that, despite it being released after FIFA 12, the summer's transfers have not been included in the original game, although a five-minute long online update resolves this.
The excessive number of replays also remains (honestly, who wants to see a shot blazed way over the bar from three different angles?), while the menus and sounds are as 'arcade-like' as usual, even though ESPN's own Jon Champion does a great job with the in-game commentary. Online modes have some way to go if they are to match the variety and consistency of EA's, but they are still worth doing.
Pro Evo's vast number of loyal followers will be pleased that the managerial-minded Master League, Become A Legend and the new Club Boss mode are all available and there are tweaks to include the negotiation of contracts and an unlockable 'Superstar' level of difficulty. Meanwhile, the addition of the Copa Libertadores, alongside the traditional carrot of the UEFA Champions League (albeit minus some of the non-licensed teams), is a plus.
The game will always be compared to FIFA and, ultimately, it falls short again. However, this year it does come closer to matching the development of EA's title which, given recent years, is an impressive effort. Attack is still the name of the game and that may satisfy a number of football gamers who have found FIFA 12 to be too focused on defence.