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As a long-time Pro Evo fan I've been feeling a bit twitchy leading up to PES 2009. Not only did I have some major reservations about PES 2008, but I've also been seriously impressed by FIFA 09. Despite these surprises, my hope remained that Konami had crafted a real beauty and were about to grab the next generation reins and disappear over the horizon.
However... I'm afraid it just hasn't happened that way.
There are some positives. For a start, the serious case of bloatedness with which last year's release suffered has cleared up, the majority of the frame rate glitches and slowdowns are gone and the inexcusable online lag has been rectified.
As well as having been honed in terms of performance, the graphics have been generally preened and polished, and the pitches, stadia, crowds and players are all more pleasingly (if not always precisely) rendered. PES 2009 also heralds the return of some long-lost friends, the most welcome of which being the impressively detailed editing mode (although it could be said that this only highlights the perennially disappointing crop of licenses).
In terms of gameplay, it is apparent that Konami have taken note of criticism from last year.
In terms of gameplay, it is apparent that Konami have taken note of criticism from last year, however the results are not altogether satisfying. While PES 2008's super-quick arcade style gameplay was incongruously coupled with sluggish graphics, this year, quirky ball physics creates a similar two-tempo feel. When you're moving the ball, it can fair fly around the pitch in a flurry of high-paced passing, however on the deck, it often drags across the ground like your player is dribbling a boulder.
The player physics have not been changed - however, they probably should have. With FIFA 09 owing much of its realism to a new, excellently implemented sense of physicality, the look and feel of player movement is one of a number of areas in which PES 2009 appears to be slightly off the pace.
It used to be easy to separate the two franchises in terms of their emphases: FIFA majored on presentation; Pro Evo was primarily about gameplay. Even if this distinction was originally based in truth, it is beginning to seem like an out-of-date and inaccurate cliché, considering the extent to which EA have recently improved the gameplay and general depth of the FIFA experience.
Konami, however, seem to be sitting on the laurels of their reputation for realism and investing most of their energies into broadening Pro Evo's appeal. The clearest example of this is PES 2009's graphical interface, which has been designed with a very heavy-handed emphasis on fashion appeal. An 80's-retro palette of bright blue, pink and yellow has been splashed over montages of highly stylised, 'cut-up' images, which owe more to flyer art than classical sport-related aesthetics and make the menus look like a giant advert for T4. The soundtrack similarly reflects the prioritisation of what is 'now' over what fits, but at least that can be turned off. Then there are the fonts. Not only is the text all capitals, but several labels have fixed widths, meaning that longer names result in smaller and narrower words - the result is thoroughly horrible.
It's not just that I happen to think the styling is ugly, there's also the matter of the message that it sends out. For years Pro Evo has been both the true fan's choice and the footballer's football game - the sort of game that makes the Sports Gamer concept meaningful, meshing with real-life experiences of playing football not just watching it. As such, it used a graphical interface that spoke to its demographic's desire for detail and realism. This new approach, however, reverses all that in way that may well feel to some fans like a betrayal of their loyalty.
So, what of the game's two big selling points? 'Become A Legend' (a reworked version of Winning Eleven's 'Fantasia' mode, brought across as a response to FIFA's 'Be a Pro') includes some nice touches and makes for an enjoyable one-player experience. Just as in EA's counterpart, however, progression is somewhat poorly paced and the overall concept is stretched slightly thin.
Many of the new features of PES 2009 represent a grab for mainstream popularity.
As for the much publicised Champions League mode, I simply found it rather hollow. Not only are there not enough actual Champions League regulars licensed to make the most of the mode (although some additional licenses will soon be made available via an update), the competing teams are assigned each time at random, which seriously weakens the entire concept. With more emphasis on the Champions League logo and music (which plays incessantly) than on the actual playing experience, it feels like a pretty pathetic attempt to compete with FIFA's licenses.
PES 2009 is by no means a bad game and fans who ignore 'all things FIFA' on principle will not be as disappointed this year as they probably were last. The problem is that many of the 'strengths' that Konami clearly think they can rely on have been seriously challenged or superseded by FIFA 09. More disappointingly, many of the new features of PES 2009 represent a grab for mainstream popularity that just seems slightly desperate.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: